August 1, 2015

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

My First, Last & Only Blog Post About #NoEstimates

I've been keeping one eye on the whole #NoEstimates debate on Twitter, and folk have asked me my opinion quite a few times. So here it is.

I believe, very firmly, that the problem with estimation stems from us asking the wrong question.

In fact, this is where many big problems in software development arise; by asking the customer "What software would you like us to build?"

This naturally leads to a shopping list of features, and then a request to know "How much will all that cost and how long will it take?"

If we asked instead "What problem are we trying to solve, and how will we know when we've solved it?" - together with accompanying questions like "When do you need this solution?", "What is a solution worth to you?" and "How much money do you have to invest in solving it?" - we can set out on a different journey.

I believe software development needs to be firmly grounded in reality, and the reality is that it's R&D. At the start, the honest answer to questions like "What features are needed?", "How much will it cost?" and "How long will it take?" is I Don't Know.

Pretending to know the unknowable is what lands us in hot water in the first place. We don't know if we can solve the problem with the budget and the time available.

In the management quest for accounting certainties, though, nobody wants to hear that, and no developer with a mortgage to pay wants to admit it. So we go with the fairy tale instead.

Once we're in the fairy tale - where we know if we deliver this list of features, it will solve the customer's problem, and we can predict how long and how much it will take - it's almost impossible to get out of it. Budgets are committed. Deadlines are agreed. Necks are on chopping blocks.

So, what we do instead, is we wait for the reality to unfold, and then when it no longer matches the fairy tale, there's a major shitstorm of blame and recrimination. Typically, the finger is pointed at everyone and everything except that first mistake; the original sin of software projects: pretending to know the future.

After getting their fingers burned once, the customer's and manager's instinct is to "fix" the problem by "improving" estimates next time around. This is fixing the fairy tale by inventing an even more elaborate fairy tale, to try and disguise the fact that's it's fantasy. This is the management equivalent of sacrificing virgins to make it rain.

The only way out of the estimating nightmare is to call "bullshit" on it, and publicly accept - indeed, embrace - the uncertainty that's inherent in what we're doing.

Yes, you might lose the business if you start out saying "I don't know", but consider that the business you're losing is the same old Death March teams have been suffering for decades. That's not work. That's just passing the time for money.

By all means offer a guess, so the customer can budget realistically. But you must be absolutely 100% crystal clear with them that, at the end of the day, we don't know. We just don't know. It's a punt.

Sell yourself on what you do know. What's your track record as a team? What have you delivered in the past? How much did that cost? How long did that take? And - most importantly, but regrettably least asked - did it work?

When a movie studio hires a director, the director makes no guarantees that this new film will be a commercial success, or that it will cost no more than budgeted, or be completed dead on time. The history of cinema is littered with amazingly good, and often very successful, movies that cost more and took longer than planned. But somehow, James Cameron seems to have no trouble getting movies off the ground. That's because of his track record, not his ability to accurately predict production costs and schedules.

Studios gamble with huge sums of money, and - yes - they do ask for estimates, and things do get hairy when schedules slip and costs overrun, but fundamentally they know what game they're in.

It's time we did, too.





Posted 2 years, 6 months ago on August 1, 2015