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Ron Jeffries and Steve McConnell have been discussing #NoEstimates.

Ron wants me to signup to a google group to comment, and who has time for that? Worse, Steve wants me to become a registered user of Construx. So, instead I’ll comment here. I’m still paying for this site, after all.

A you might imagine, world famous estimation guru McConnell isn’t so keen on #NoEstimates. Here’s Ron’s response to Steve’s response to Ron’s response to Steve’s video responding to the #NoEstimates thing.

One of the smartest things I ever read about estimation, and one that I quote freely is this: “The primary purpose of software estimation is not to predict a project’s outcome; it is to determine whether a project’s targets are realistic enough to allow the project to be controlled to meet them”—McConnell, 2006.

That was published about 10 years ago. In the context of the state of the art of software development ten years ago, this statement was quite radical—surprisingly many organisations today still don’t get it. In the ten years since then the state of the art has move on to the point that some (not all, but some) development shops are now so good at controlling a project to meet its targets that creating an up-front determination of whether or not that can be done is really not so useful an exercise. Of course, part of that process has been to teach “the business” that they are wasting their time in trying to fix their targets far ahead into the future, because they will want to change them.

Anther very smart thing, from only eight years ago: “strict control is something that matters a lot on relatively useless projects and much less on useful projects. It suggests that the more you focus on control, the more likely you’re working on a project that’s striving to deliver something of relatively minor value.”—DeMarco, 2009

Very true. And since then that same progression in the state of the art has so reduced the cost of building working, tested software that the balance has moved in further in the direction of not doing projects where the exact cost matters a lot. #NoEstimates is this pair of ideas carried to their natural conclusion.

It’s still not unusual to see IT departments tie themselves in knots over whether a project who’s goal is to protect billions in revenue should have a budget of one million or one point five million. And to spend hundreds of thousands on trying to figure that out. The #NoEstimates message is that they don’t need to put themselves into that position.

It’s not for free, of course, that state of the art in development has to be present. But if it is, on we go.

In the video, Steve tries some rhetorical jiu-jitsu and claims that if we follow the Agile Manifesto value judgement and prefer to collaborate with our customers than to negotiate contracts with them, and they ask for estimates why then we should, in a collaborative mood, produce estimates. That’s a bit like suggesting that if an alcoholic asks me for a drink, I should, in a cooperative and generous spirit, buy them one.

I’d like to suggest a root cause of the disagreement between Ron and Steve. I’m going to speculate about the sorts of people and projects that Ron world with and that Steve works with.  Personally, I’ve worked in start-ups and in gigantic consultancies and I’ve done projects for blue-chip multinationals selling a service and for one-man-band products shops. My speculation is that in Steve’s world, IT is a always and only a cost centre. It’s viewed by the rest of the business as a dark hole into which, for unclear reasons, a gigantic pile of money disappears every year. The organisation is of course very well motived to both understand how big that hole is, and to try to make it smaller. Hence: estimation! in addition, Steve likes to present estimation as this cooly rational process of producing the best information we can from the merge scraps of fact available, suitably and responsibly hedged with caveats and presented in a well-disciplined body of statistical  inferences. And then the ugly political  horse-trading of the corporation gets going. I think that believing this is a reasonable defence mechanism for a smart and thoughtful person caught in the essentially medieval from of life that exists inside large corporations (and, whisper it, all the more so enlarge American corporations). But it isn’t realistic. In those environments, estimation is political, always.

My speculation is that Ron, and many #NoEstimates advocates, work more in a world where the effort (and treasure) that goes into building some software is very clearly, and very closely in time and space, connected with the creation of value. And that this understanding of IT work as part of the value creation of the organisation and the quickness of the return leads to estimation being really not such a big deal. An overhead of limited utility. So why do that?

You organization, I’ll bet, falls somewhere between these two models, so you probably are going to have to do #AsMuchEstimationAsYouNeedWhenYouNeedItAndThatsLessThatYouThinkAndNotSoOftenAsAllThatReallyButjustGetOverIT


Written by keithb

August 2, 2015 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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