Estimate Individually - Fail Globally?
After reading Derek Hatchard’s post, The Art and War of Estimating and Scheduling Software, I wanted to follow up on my previous post on the topic, Don’t Trust Developers with Project Management. The problem lies with individualistic thinking.
The Fallacy of Developer Productivity
Developers, and managers too for that matter, by and large are concerned with “productivity”. Developers want the latest tools and technologies so that they can churn out more code faster. Managers create schedules trying to get the maximum efficiency out of each one of their developers. They consider resource utilization and other terms that sound manager-ish.
Fact is, on medium to large sized projects, if you look at the studies you’ll find that developer productivity when measured as total lines of (non-blank) code of the system in production divided by the total number of developer days comes in roughly at 6. Maybe 7.
7 lines of code a day.
Let that sink in for a second.
I can hear the managers screaming already. OMFG, what were they doing all day long?! It takes, what, 10 minutes to put out 7 lines of code? An hour even, if it’s complicated recursive code and stuff. And they say they don’t like us micro-managing them?! Now we know why. It’s because they’re goofing off all day long.
Where Does the Time Go?
Well, managers, that’s not really the way it goes. You see, you have to take into account the time it took to learn the technology, tools, frameworks, etc. Add to that the time of understanding the requirements, which is really sitting through boring meetings that don’t explain much. Finally, our poor developer actually gets to implement the requirement. Maybe run the system a couple of times, trying out the feature they implemented, and checking the code in.
Well, that’s actually the easy part. Now comes the part which kills most of the time. After a bunch of features have been developed by the team, the testers start banging away at it and find a bunch of bugs. Now the developer has to reverse-engineer some bizarre system behavior and figure out which part of the system is to blame. That involves usually some educated guessing (unless they’ve just joined the team and have been put in the bug-fixer role to “learn the system”, in which case it is thoroughly UNeducated guessing). They change some code, run the system, which looks like its been fixed, check the new code in, and close the bug.
But the bugs keep coming. And as the project progresses towards production, more and more of the developers time is spent looking through code and changing existing code, that actually writing new code.
And the larger the system, the more bugs. And I don’t mean that the number of bugs linearly increases with lines of code, or number of features. It’s probably closer to exponential. If it’s a mission critical system, the performance bugs will be taking an order of magnitude more time to fix than other bugs.
There's No "I" in Team
So, as you can see, getting a system into production is a team effort. It includes the developers and testers, of course, but also management, and the customer, and how they manage scope. This is kind of a “duh” statement, but we’re getting to the punch-line.
If getting a system into production involves the entire team, isn’t that obviously true for each feature too?
In which case, why are we asking just the developers to estimate the time it takes to get a feature “done”? Why are we trying so hard to measure their productivity?
<sarcastic>I know why. It’s so we can get rid of the less productive ones and give bonuses to the more productive ones!</sarcastic>
Back to the main issue. I don’t “trust” developer estimates because I need to see the team’s capability to put features in production. The involves all aspects, and often many team members, in some cases multiple developers going through the same code. This involves all overhead and cross team communication, sick days, etc. It’s also why I try to get multiple data points over time to understand the team’s velocity.
So, When Will We Be Done?
While I care about the quality of my developers, and testers, and everybody on my team and would like them to be able to estimate their work as best they can, I’ve got a project to put into production. And the best way I’ll know when it’ll go into production is by having data that’ll enable me to state to my management:
“Our team is finishing 20 feature-units a month, we’ve got 200 feature-units to go, so we’ll be done in around 10 months.”
If I’m busy micro-measuring each developers estimates, I won’t have the time to see the forest. By first taking a harsh look at the reality of what the team can do, I can start looking for ways to make it better. Maybe the bottleneck is between analysts and developers, maybe we’re seeing the same bugs regressing many times, but until we know where we are, we can’t run controlled experiments to see what makes us better.
Focusing on the individual developer, getting them the latest and greatest tools may be great for their morale, but it probably won’t make a bit of difference to their actual productivity.
Next time - what to do when management asks you what it’ll take to be done sooner.