PM#5 – Whose schedule is it anyway?

There was an interesting discussion entitled “is it just me?” over here at Scottish Developers. My reply is here. Anyway, it preempted this posting in some respects, but I’m going to carry on with this post regardless!

Customers and management never seem to believe the estimates developers give them…time and time again, developers provide an estimate of how long a project (or task) might take, e.g. 12 weeks, only to be told (by the customer/management) that it will take 6 weeks. There are many reasons for this sudden shortening of the schedule…many of which revolve around the fact that the customer/management have promised their upstream customer/management something (a software solution) by a given date. An unrealistic date at that.

Who is more qualified to make schedule decisions that relate to software development? Is it the person whose job it is to actually “cut the code” (the most important part of any software project, no code, no project), is it the person who actually does the job or is it the person who has promised a piece of software to their upper management by a certain date?

Despite any potential previous bad experiences, customers and management should learn to trust developers more, they are the most experienced resource management tool a software project will ever see. They have excellent gut reactions, they know when something is “do-able” or not. They can reliably tell you whether something requires 4 hours or 4 weeks to complete. They know their business, inside out.

So why is there such disrespect for developers and the work they do? Why do I hear lots of sob stories revolving around late delivery, “he said it would take 4 days, it took 12 days, his estimates are rubbish”?

The simple answer is this: unless the part of the schedule that a developer is working toward actually belongs to him, realistically speaking, the developer knows he’ll not be able to meet the schedule but will carry on regardless. He has nothing vested in an arbitrary schedule that does not give him enough time to to his job properly. True, the developers will probably bust-a-gut trying to bring the project in on time, however as we know, invariably they’ll fail. But it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the person who gave them the wildly inaccurate schedule in the first place.

Even if the schedule was remotely accurate and did have input from the developers, other folks exhibit a disturbing lack of respect for the developer and the schedule. A schedule can often be agreed provided that all or some tasks are distraction-free: this is easy to agree at the outset, but rarely happens during the project execution. Similarly, a fully-committed developer has no “resource gap” or free-time, there is no “contingency” in most projects. Therefore, you cannot duly expect to either e-mail or walk up to a developer and ask them to take on other tasks (for other projects) that aren’t part of the schedule…and since developers (and a lot of other good folks) find saying “no” difficult, they can often be [bullied] into saying “yes” to more work that will invariably knock the previously agreed schedule out. The trick here is not to offer developers other work – no matter how important it is to you (your top priority work isn’t going to be the developers top priority, he’s busy focusing on the project.)

Getting schedule buy-in from the developers is key – give developers the chance to form and shape their own schedule, let them break tasks up into smaller more manageable chunks that can be delivered over shorter periods of time, e.g. every 30 days or less. Don’t force them to buy-in to a [rolling] project plan that spans 6+ months – the speed at which the software business moves at, 6 months is far to far away: focus on what can be achieved now rather than later. Developers also need an endorphin hit every so often (cited as being every 2 weeks) – they get endorphin hits by starting and finishing a task, by seeing a piece of their code [go into production] in front of a user/customer or by visibly moving the project forward in some respect.

Analogy
When you last had you car serviced, you probably gave it to the garage for a whole day. I don’t hear about folks telling the folks who work in garages: “You need my car all day? No, you can have it for 3 hours. Can you get everything that needs doing done in 3 hours?” I’d like to see the state of your car once you get it back…may be not today, but in a few weeks time when you thought all that work had been done…

Example
I have a standalone application – a single .exe that runs on a per-machine basis. A client has requested that we “get it to work over the network”. For us, this is a big job, it requires changes to the backend database to allow the introduction of a user column (at least), transaction support, improved backup/restore, etc. To the client, networking an application is the simple matter of adding a login box at the start of the application. Since that’s all the client ultimately gets to see…”how can that possibly take N weeks to write?!” Perception and explanation are key. As developers we must learn to stand up for ourselves and learn to say “no” to unrealistic schedules: whoever is asking you to commit to such a schedule doesn’t understand how their car works, yet you won’t find them telling the garage to cut their schedule in half…unless they are themselves a mechanical engineer (versus a fitter), in which case they would need to be experienced software engineers in order to discuss schedules with you!

Need to cut the schedule? Well, why not cut the feature set?
If you have a pressing need to cut the schedule, at least negotiate with the developers over the feature-set that your hoping they’ll implement in the shorter time-frame. We know that “80% of a product’s value comes from 20% of its features” (originally from here), surely you can afford to cut the number of features in order to cut the schedule? Of course, now we’re in the realms of controlling the four success variables (cost, time, scope, and quality).

four variables

In the first instance the customer is allowed to select values for any three of these variables. The development team will then choose the value for the remaining forth variable. Ultimately, between the customer and development team there will be a series of compromises and trade-offs resulting in an adjusted set of values, or even trading of variables!

There are interactions between the variables. For example, increasing the time can allow for an increase in quality and/or an increase in scope. Another example might be a reduction in scope: it is possible to deliver earlier (less time) or cheaper (less cost) or possibly with more quality.

It is worth noting that the relationship between the four variables is a complicated one – it is not possible to reduce the time variable simply by increasing the cost variable. Nor is it possible to increase the cost expecting an increase in quality.

Crazy Schedules
Schedule pressure often sees shortcuts (or what are perceived as shortcuts) being taken. Instead of well-structured, reliable object-oriented code, being cut produced, prototypes are built as proof of concept…a little cut’n’paste then follows, prototype code suddenly becomes production code but only after crazy amounts of testing and re-work. It’s a spiral that requires a step back and a re-write to get out of, and may be more than one re-write at that. Crazy schedules will cost you considerable amounts of time and money downstream, they’ll also cost you the respect of your developers too.

Scott Berkun wrote an excellent book, The Art of Project Management, reviewed here, where he cites an example: your client in on the operating theatre table, the brain surgeon tells him that the operation he requires will take 12 hours…you won’t find your client turning to the surgeon and saying “no, you have 6 hours”…This just wouldn’t happen, I rest my case: if programmers or developers tell you something will take 12 hours, give them 12 hours (or more if you’re generous), it’ll protect your reputation, they’ll respect you for it and it’ll give your project more chance of success.

In this series:
PM#11 – Management By Shouting Loudest (MSBL)
PM#10 – The truth is best…admit it…
PM#9 – Avoid duplication of effort
PM#8 – Multi-tasking is evil
PM#7 – High workload means lower productivity…
PM#6 – You were right and I was wrong
PM#5 – Whose schedule is it anyway?
PM#4 – Start it…finish it
PM#3 – Use e-mail properly
PM#2 – Focus on the project
PM#1 – decision making