Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How to estimate without psychic powers

An interesting question on the process of churning out an esimtate was recently posed by a Creative Director in my LinkedIn group who is "looking to add measurability" while lamenting that "finding the time to follow up on jobs is difficult."

This is a common problem, so I'll summarize my thoughts on a potential alternative here, out in the open. I'll take the stance of advocate for the duration of this essay. Here's the elevator pitch:

We should stop considering our time entirely, unless there is a real danger that it would be worth less than the client's value. Billing for value rather than time is nothing new; you trade in this manner every time you head to the grocery store. Due to the power of modern programming languages and development tools, and the productivity of a true web developer with years of experience, it should never be a problem to provide more value than time invested.

There's more to it than being a less complicated way to approach an estimate. Make no mistake, we're talking cost estimate alone. The laborious task of filtering project goals down into to-do lists with associated time estimates is, of course, essential for planning your days. No way around that, if you manage your projects in a way that allows clients to know exactly what to expect, by when, incrementally.

Personally, I continue to approach estimates whichever way the client wants. The simplest case is when they tell us what they want, with a reasonable level of detail, and propose their own budget. It's easy to tell if the project will be worthwhile, and it wouldn't be unusual to start on such a project the same day it were first mentioned. These, I can now say in hindsight, tend to go even more smoothly than the ones we try to predict, down to which module we'll be tinkering with next Tuesday at 3:45pm.

More time to journey down the roads which open up to a developer as he builds a system an interconnects the modules. More time to work on bug fixes, class abstraction and IE6 compatibility. Less time spent gazing into crystal balls and explaining every failed prediction to a worried client who's expecting only what he or she has been told to expect.

A web site is grown rather than built. Builders charge for labour by the day. Gardeners sell their produce either based on how much profit the store can derive from it, or if they sell directly, how juicy the end user experience is. Don't we do the same?


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