Thursday, November 17, 2005

Nine women can't produce a baby in a month

The software industry is not good at learning from previous lessons and mistakes. We seem to re-invent the wheel at fairly regular intervals, perhaps because a lot of people working in the technology industry are quite young and perhaps because we assume that anything done ten or more years ago is inherently outdated. One area I regularly observe this collective blind spot is in estimating and project management. Software projects have a poor track record of coming in on time and budget, and this has a number of causes. One is unrealistic expectations. A wise aeronautical engineer once said: "better, cheaper, faster: pick any two, but never all three" yet we all still encounter projects where the end date seems to be set by some surreal remit ("the CEO wants it in time for Christmas" syndrome) without regard to the feasibility or effect on the project deliverable. Moreover, when a project does hit problems, as all too many do, there still seems to be the impression that throwing more resources at it will claw back the time lost. Sadly this is rarely the case.

There is some useful theory on this subject. A number of writers in the 1980s published algorithms to help estimate project duration and team size, based on the observation of many software projects. You can read more about this subject in books such as "Controlling Software Projects"by Tom deMarco, Software Engineering Economics by Barry Boehm and Measures for Excellence by Putnam and Myers. However these sources agree that the evidence is that in order to bring a project end-date forward you need to deploy exponentially more resources to do that. The theory actually shows an equation relating the elapsed time to effort as:

effort = constant/time to the power four

which for the less mathematically inclined means that the end date (project time) has a BIG effect on the effort needed. For example a project that was estimated at 18 months elapsed (a nice round number selected by IT management) could, if it was extended to 19 months, be done with 20% less effort. That's right: by extending your elapsed time by 5% you need 20% less effort. When I first saw this it seemed almost absurd, until I got involved briefly in project estimating when I worked at Shell and observed two projects in the upstream. They were that rare thing: the same project, but being done in different Shell subsidiaries. They were independent, and were the same size and scope. One project was estimated to 13 months, the other was to take the same, but in one project a decision was taken to bring forward the elapsed time to 12 months in order to fit in with another project. Money was not a major factor on this particular project, and more resource was piled in to bring the date forward. Remarkably, the compressed project took 50% more effort to bring in than the one which ran its "natural" course, something that caused general bewilderment at the time but one which actually fits in tolerably well with the software equation above.

Why is the effect so dramatic? By adding new people to a project, people that were working on the project have to stop what they were doing an on-board the new people. Now there is a bigger team, the communication becomes trickier, as more people need to be involved and the project specification is open to interpretation by more people. As you add more and more people the problem worsens: now people don't fit into one room any more, so they have to have a meeting in order to solve a problem rather than just turning to their neighbor etc.

The message is that if you have a project that is having problems with its schedule, it is much easier to reduce the scope of the project slightly, and deliver the rest of the functionality in a later phase, than it is to try and pile on more resources to cram it into the original schedule. If you can't reduce the scope of the project then you can only make the people on project more productive (good luck with that) or add a LOT of resources. At least there is a formula you can look up to tell you many more resources you need, even if management won't like the answer.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Darrel said...

I think an additional significant factor that needs to be considered when estimating is the competency of your resources. Unless your two teams at Shell were human clones, then I suspect talent had as much to do with the effort discrepancy as did the time allowed.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Andy Hayler said...

Fair point. Of course as you say you can never really get a scientifically controlled situation where you are comparing two identical project teams, as this is not a lab situation. However it was interesting that the numbers behaved roughly as predicted. Although this was a specific data point, the project estimation formulae developed by Boehm etc did look at a large number of real projects.

10:26 AM  

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