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'No estimates' in action: 5 ways to rethink software projects

Matthew Heusser | Nov. 6, 2013
The idea behind the #NoEstimates approach to software development isn't to eliminate estimates but, rather, to explore other ways to solve problems without specifically asking, 'How long will it take?' Here are five real-world examples of teams that are doing just that.

Most planning work is eliminated here in favor of developing high-level goals in collaboration with the customer. The team promises to deliver something on week 30, and the two groups meet every week or two to show progress and design the next step.

If that sounds a bit like a fairy tale, I understand. At the same time, that's essentially the business model of Menlo Innovations. Based in Ann Arbor, Mich. and founded by Richard Sheridan, former VP of product development at Interface Systems, the Menlo team may establish scope at the outset of a project, but it lets the customer adjust and plan specifics each week.

By the end of a budget period, the customer could steer to a place very different that the original goal. The customer gets what it needs in the moment - not what it thought it needed six months ago.

In May 2003, Sheridan made the cover of Forbes for his successful gamble to found Menlo. In the 10 years since, the company has continued to grow. Sheridan's current project is a new book, Joy Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love. Menlo is doing something right.

4. Employ Stop-and-Start Heuristics
A great deal of portfolio management efforts consist of trying to figure out what projects will be done in what time, how many contractors or new hires are needed to make the timelines line up and that sort of work. Matt Barcomb, vice president of product development at Taxware, suggests that might be overthinking it.

According to Barcomb, most IT organizations can usually figure out what they should be working on right now. If the team can develop rules of thumb, or heuristics, around when to stop and when to adjust, it doesn't need that kind of heavyweight scheduling. Just work on projects until they don't make sense, then change gears. This might make long-term predictions challenging - but if you look back over your team's last five-year plan, how accurate was it, anyway?

5. Drop Estimation From Your Development Process Entirely
If your organization makes enough money to run itself, and if you view time spent estimating as time not developing, then you might abandon estimates and just write code. This approach is extremely tempting for products that charge a per-user, per-month fee that are already cash-flow positive. (We used this method for some time when I belonged to the technical staff at Socialtext.)

The approach isn't limited to profitable Web startups. John Carmack, CEO of Id Software, is famous for the expression " it's done when it's done," so much so that the phrase appears under Carmack's name on WikiQuote. Id created the wildly popular games Quake, Doom, and Duke Nukem.


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