Monday, September 15, 2014

No Estimates: Development by Subscription

Last week, I spent a couple of days at Agile Open SoCal. It was a great time to talk about various issues and successes and get some great advice from other people who are in similar situations. There's a lot for me to process, and a couple of topics really stuck out.

One of these was No Estimates. I'll have to admit that I've been following this discussion from the sidelines. If you want to catch up on what No Estimates is, check out what Neil Killick and Woody Zuill have to say. I will not do the description justice, so you'll want to go to these guys who have been thinking about it for a long time.

I know Woody from the SoCal developer community, and I had a chance to sit down and talk to him a bit last week. (He's also known for showing the success his team has had with Mob Programming).

We Suck at Estimation
One of the basic truths is that we (as developers) suck at estimation. But that's not really a surprise. We are constantly being asked to do things that we've never done before.

An experienced cook will be able to tell you how long it will take a bake a cake. After all, he's done it a dozen times and knows what to expect. But for someone who's never baked a cake (like me), I would end up "padding the estimate" on how long it will take me. Is it because I don't know how to follow a recipe? No. It's because I'm working with unfamiliar tools -- I don't know exactly how to use the mixer or if I'm going to mess up a batch by over-mixing or under-mixing.

And this is true in software. Whenever I'm looking at a new project, it usually contains 4 things I've done before and 1 thing that's new to me. Now, I'm not completely ignorant of the technology (I've seen someone use the mixer), but I don't know what problems to expect (if you don't grease the bowl before you start, you won't get an even mixture).

I do not like to not deliver on my commitments -- meaning, I would rather over-estimate and deliver early than under-estimate and deliver late. The same is true in the rest of my life: I'd rather arrive at an event an hour early than 5 minutes late.

This means that I have a tendency to over-estimate:

I don't do this so that people will think of me as a miracle worker. I do this because I want to make sure I deliver on my commitments.

But this doesn't make my estimates any better than someone who under-estimates. In both cases, our estimates are wrong.

Eliminating Estimates
So, the idea of No Estimates is that we get rid of the estimation process. Instead of coming up with a huge project plan with lots of incorrect estimates (that end up compounding the problem), we focus on continually delivering small pieces of value.

I like the idea of this. And as a responsible developer, I think that it would work well for me and my development style -- I like to make my users happy, and I can best do that by constantly giving them features that make their jobs easier.

But I have been skeptical for a number of reasons. First, not all developers can work this way. There are some developers who would take advantage of the situation and slow down their delivery. There's no longer things like "story points" and "velocity" that measure productivity. And even though those measurements are probably wrong, people like to have something tangible to look at. The solution to this is to have managers who can keep track of productivity (in other ways) and know the capabilities and output of their teams.

Second, many companies cannot work this way due to their budgeting process. The financial systems are built around large projects and schedules. Marketing wants this and Sales wants that and Operations needs this other thing. So let's figure out how long each thing will take, how much our development team can handle at one time, and then prioritize everything. On top of that, money for the projects comes out of different buckets depending on whether it is a capital or expense project. I have no idea how to resolve this issue.

No Estimates is more of a subscription model for development. Instead of the business areas putting aside money for Project X that will cost $50,000 (maybe), the development team is funded on an on-going basis -- just like the other teams (finance, sales, operations, maintenance) that add value to the company.

The Business Areas Already Do This
I had a realization about this based on my experience: even though the company does not work this way, the business areas do.

I worked at a large company (20,000 people on site, 100,000 people in the division), and I built software for the various business areas based on what came down from project planning. And this was a hassle for many of the business areas. Sometimes a department just needed a small piece of functionality. It wasn't large enough to justify an entire project -- maybe just a report to collate data. And even if it were big enough, it probably would not be prioritized near the top of the list. So it may take a year or more to get it on the schedule.

The solution: Shadow IT. I don't know if there's an industry name for this phenomenon, but this is what we called it in our company. A department would have someone on staff who was more technical than most and probably good at something like Microsoft Access. This person would then build all of these small pieces of functionality that the department wanted to make their job easier.

So the business areas have already bought into the idea of development by subscription. They have decided that it was worthwhile to pay someone in their department to handle these types of things. And this Shadow IT person was paid out of the same budget as all of the other employees in the department.

(And this arrangement isn't all puppies and rainbows. Since the majority of the Shadow IT people did not have any formal technical training or experience, some of the projects would run into scaling issues or simply stop working when the data got too large. At this point, the systems were critical to the department, so they would often turn to the development team to fix the issues or rewrite the system.)

So the business areas have recognized this as a way to add value to the company. Now we just need to get the company itself to realize it.

This would give the opportunity for the business areas to have access to actual developers who can deliver functionality quickly in a supportable way.

Wrap Up
I really like the idea of No Estimates, and I hope that it gains traction. There is a lot of trust required between the company and the development teams (but I've wanted to have better integration between the company and the development teams for a long time -- that trust is needed anyway).

It was an eye-opener when I realized that the business areas had already implemented their own version of No Estimates by having a Shadow IT person on staff. Next, we need to figure out how to formalize this so that the right people (developers) are doing the right work.

Happy Coding!

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