Effective Programming

where agility meets computer science

May 11, 2020 - LB

NoEstimates, No Problem

Are we answering the real question?

What does it mean when a client asks for an estimate? I don’t think they’re always asking the obvious question. Specifically, I imagine some businesses are not, in fact, asking for a fixed bid. Instead, I think it is possible some folks are just looking to see if you’ve got the commitment, support and depth, if necessary, to “get it done” within the estimated time. Managing risk and forecasting are certainly methods to research the problem but if this underlying question is:

How will you convince me that I should choose your team for the contract?

then I’d likely start discussing the inevitable fallback plan that will likely be required to hit the proposed date. More specifically:

  • How might we be able to get this done if things take a turn for the worse?
  • Are we partners in this or are you asking for a fixed bid estimate?
  • How beholden are we to the original budget numbers?
  • In a pinch, how can we scale this up?
  • How best can we support emergencies?
  • Talk about scope, time, featureset, quality and let the client weigh in on their preferences. Have the client help fashion your estimate into a form that works for both of you.
  • Instead of focussing on how you can’t guarantee a date or final cost, focus on how you can adjust in real time to best spend the client’s money.

My underlying point is to immediately lead with the assumption the estimate will be wrong - but instead of talking them out of their date, dig in and find out how far down the rabbit hole the client is willing to go. There are no guarantees, never will be, and everyone knows that (this isn’t something one typically needs to reason out of). What the client likely needs/wants are boundary conditions, probabilities, and risks. Estimate (or forecast) level of effort in a way that let’s you quickly being a discussion around these other partner-centric forms of reason.

What do you think? Give me some feedback if you have a chance!