Why managers can't estimate programming projects

By , ITworld |  Software, programming, project management

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College sophomore Dan Shipper explains why non-technical managers fail so often estimating programming projects.

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With a title taken from real programming requests, "I'm Sure It Will Only Take You A Few Days To Code" explains why estimating complexity works reliably with music and architecture, but not programming. "Mary Had a Little Lamb" obviously takes less skill to play than Pachelbel's "Canon in D," and everyone has the mental tools to make that distinction. Same when comparing erecting a tent to erecting a mansion.

But trying to estimate programming, when what you see on the screen is only a tiny part of the process, leaves non-technical people lacking. They have neither the appreciation for the tasks involved nor the experience needed to make the estimate. Programmers have plenty to say on this subject, including on a post from Rants and Apps titled "12 Problems with Software Estimation."

I'm insulted

It's offensive because it's assuming that your effort can be bought for a small budget.
beyroutey on danshipper.com

What you have here, and unfortunately, it has become a norm, is a major failure of program/project management.
roger on tuomaspelkonen.com

I once interviewed a project manager.. asked how he came up with deadlines. He said "ask the programmers and subtract 20%"
dustin on news.ycombinator.com

More details

It's the thing you're estimating. Is it really fully specified? Have they really spent the time thinking about how people are going to use this thing?
robert carter on danshipper.com

We want it in 3 weeks therefore it will take 3 weeks….
JoeBlog on tuomaspelkonen.com

Whatever your idea is, chances are _very_ high that if you think it could be coded "in a few days", you don't actually understand the problem (and it's solution) yourself.
bigiain on news.ycombinator.com

Good answers

So to me, the right answer when someone says "I'm sure it'll only take you a few days to code" is "sure, if you're willing to pay X".
beyroutey on danshipper.com

That's a good way of explaining the old addage: Timely, complete, low-defects. Pick two.
benmathes on news.ycombinator.com

You are in a closet, looking at a closed door. How big is the house?
noonespecial on news.ycombinator.com

Or you can smile and say, "I can deliver your software program fast, cheap, or good. Pick two."

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