Estimations spin the wheel

Great dishes. Great timing. Every single day. This is one amazing place to eat at!

In many ways, running a great team of developers is just like running top-quality kitchen.
You’re measured by your ability to serve great quality(CI? well tested?), super tasty(nice UI?) dishes (features?), to hungry people (clients?) in reasonable time (before they’ll leave to another site).

Without solid understanding of ETA, there is no way to predict quality and release in time.

Most of us are driven by what life has to throw on us, may it be some personal event, a new book you read that makes you want to refactor everything or simply a lot of context-switches between projects and bugs.
Add this to our constant urge to excel at what we do, and you get a “miraculous” skill of losing control over our time. We’re built this way. Life is pushing us around!

How does this effect us or the “wheel” I’m talking about? I want to introduce you to Joe. 
Joe is a nice guy in my imaginary world, working as a superstar developer for “TheBestOutThere” company. Joe was assigned to complete a feature and asked to estimate when it will be done. “This feature is quite simple”, he shoots fast, “a few changes here, a few there and then the UI to nail the all thing. Hmmm… I guess that no more than 2 days of work”. So our story begins…

The first day goes pretty well as Joe adding the needed fields to the database and even manage to complete some tasks regarding the logic needed. On the second day (reminder: the last day according to the ETA) things starting to bite Joe’s ass. The feature turns to be a bit more difficult than he anticipated, and he feels that it will take 2 extra hours to complete the work. Keeping it in mind, he already notifies the wife he’s going to be late today. “Damn, late again?”, he ponders, “oh well, at least I know what is left to do now”. Knowing that he needs to leave late today, he continues to work and suddenly he detects a really ugly piece of code in his path. “Refactoring time baby!”, he smiles to himself. “Well, I already have a few spare hours, why not?”, he convince himself once more. It works. The refactoring takes additional 4 hours. Joe, in a panic attack understands that it took more than he planned, hurries up missing a few critical tests and canceling the “code review” meeting claiming “this feature is simple enough!”. The code-review still takes place as this is simply a must for top-quality kitchens. Fixing the code review comments, including adding the missing tests (as needed to begin with) cost a few more hours and so days starting to fly by. After 5 days, Joe moving the feature to “code-ready”, now waiting for QA to test the feature. QA opens about 7 bugs, which take 6 more hours to fix (with solid unit tests to reproduce these bugs). On top of it, some more fixes were needed for easy deployment later on in production. The feature took total of about 7 days. Where is the missing 5 days went to? is Joe simply a poor estimator? Not quite, he just suffer from bad “context” we all do. He suffers from the constant battle between deliver fast and deliver with high quality. The problem is that it’s really hard to understand how estimation and quality work together.

If ETA is Jesus, Quality is God. Which is more tangible?

People are wasting time trying to convince themselves they can outperform on a daily basis. We can’t. Our best is probably not as great as we imagine. Instead, let’s not try to improve our ability to code faster, think faster or drink more coffee. Even if you manage to get better at it (or consume more coffee and urinate to a cup), it won’t last for long (urine tends to stink in the room).

Instead, think carefully about “where the hack my 5 more days went to? Could I see it coming?”
Here is the “context” Joe needed to have in order to produce a complete feature, with great quality, in time:

  1. Did I spare enough time reading the spec and talking with the Product Manager about it? (yes, this is part of the feature!)
  2. Did I make sure there are no open issues left?
  3. Did I spare time thinking about how this feature will be tested? how we can automate these tests easily?
  4. Did I spare time to design the solution and do the required review with other people? what about the hours needed to fix your solution based on the reviews?
  5. Did I spare time to read QA test cases and give feedback on it?
  6. Do I have everything you need to make the feature a huge success?
    1. What about people helping you out where needed?
  7. Did I spare enough time to write the code itself? are you sure?
  8. Did I spare time for testing? I talk about really great testing (unit tests, integration tests, automated UI tests, manual UI tests)
    1. Again, the goal here is great confidence in quality, not 100% test coverage.
  9. Did I spare time for code reviews? for code reviews fixes?
  10. Did I spare time thinking about how this feature will be deployed?
  11. Did I spare time sitting with the Product Manager again on your final result before merging your work back to “trunk”? (do it now as it’s “hot”)
  12. Did I spare time for “bug fixing buffer” (saving ~10% of the feature time for bug fixing is a good start, try to reduce later)?

Estimating each one of these steps (use “buffers” if certainty is low) and you’re a bit closer to understand where the missing 5 days vanished. 
Joe was thinking only about the coding effort, not the entire picture! This, by nature, means inability to consistently predict when something will end. He was pricing the wrong thing!

What does it take to make your team great unit of brilliant minds producing great dishes, every time:

  1. Hire the best. They simply worth it. (oh well, that was easy, right? :))
  2. Trust them doing the best work one can do! Help them get them but don’t think they can’t get there by themselves with the right set of tools and context.
  3. Start with explaining the meaning of great ETA – without it, prediction is impossible. Consistency is a lost cause. This is one bad kitchen.
  4. Ask people to stand behind there ETA. They are responsible for it!
  5. In the same breath, remind them that quality work is the right path to get a correct ETA. Quality work will lead to shorter cycle eventually!
  6. But (here comes to tricky part!), they should also remember that over-refactoring leads to high quality of nothing important (as nothing really reach production).
  7. So, define together what is “quality work”. Set it as “team context”.
  8. Constantly hear what your guys has to say about “I wish we could fix it!”. Eliminate the big things (lack of tools, too many context-switches, not enough testing etc).
  9. Try to inject a lot of honesty, communication and great motivation to the team. This is the basic engine oil no one can live without.
  10. Measure delivery cycle length: spec –> design –> getting ETA –> feature is code-ready –> solving all bugs –> deployed in production.
  11. Talk with your guys to understand waste again. Eliminate the big things now! seriously!
  12. Keep hiring more people, only the best, you’ll need them soon enough.

Over time, the cycle of delivery should get much better while the quality will get even higher. The trick here is that people will feel more confident in the flow, “saving’” time to write quality piece of code, making features amazingly stable in the 1st attempt. This is the consistent rhythm you should dream of. The wheel spins…


Oren Ellenbogen