Sunday, July 10, 2011

Can software be estimated?

As a software developer, I am always asked by project managers:How long do you think you need to finish project X or fix  issue Y? Most of the time I feel annoyed and guilty, because usually I don't really know the answer but I have to give them  a number - which is far from accurate.

I believe how to get a good estimation is one of the major issue for all the developer and managers. An accurate estimation help manager control and plan the project, which make sense. But it is based on an assumption: the software can be estimated. Is this assumption really true? Let's investigate it.
First, if we assume software is estimatable, => then we can see software is predictable, => then we can plan ahead, => waterfall model. We all know that waterfall and CMM is not workable, try to harden the software project is myth.
Next, let's check the software development model. From Lean/Agile software development we know that software is a discovery process, an explorative process, a theory building process, an process of reducing ignorance level. In summary, it is a learning process, the problem solving process itself is also a learning process.  That is why agile uses iterative, feedback process. Which means at the beginning you know very little, you only understand the problem when you solve the problem at the end. So how could you estimate or predict at the beginning? How could you give an accurate estimation at the beginning? You can predict only if you know all the variables, but in software development, there are so many unknown variables: third party library issues, platform compatible issues, IDE, target constraints, etc and other issues you might not aware(you don't know you don't know). So based on analysis the above , we can say estimation in software is impossible.

Let's look at another question: can we estimate bug fix? Bug fix is also a learning process, especially when you are assigned a bug which code base is not written by you. You need to take time to understand the bug, reproduce the issue, understand the code base, familiar with the context, all this stuff are learning process and takes time. How can we estimate this time, because this is really case by case. And we all know that bug fix is actually we spend 90% of time on finding the bug, another 10% time on fixing the bug. Once we found the bug, we know how to fix it. So we can only see we can estimate the bug only after we found the bug, but at this moment it is pointless to give an estimation since we already solve the 90% of the problem.

I would like to share my own experience:In an iterative development process,  there is no need to estimate, just do it. Before I start fixing a bug, I knew nothing; the time I know the estimation answer is when I solve the issue, so the process of finding the answer of estimation is the same process of solving the problem. So at this case why we need the estimation?

 So we know that software nature is impossible to estimate and needless to estimate. But why project managers need it? Maybe they don't have technical background and still trying to use the concept of waterfall methodology; or maybe the psychological reason: human usually not comfortable with uncertainty and needs for closure .

Forcing estimation cause some worse consequences:
  • Force developer to plan up front, which will fallback to waterfall;
  • Developer faces the pressure to lie, and give the wrong number, which cause,
  • Wrong measurement is worse than no measurement. Like weather forecast.
What can we do when the project manager ask you estimation next time:
  •  Live with the uncertainty, that is the nature of the software development;
  • To be honest, tell them you don't know yet, you only estimate what you can deliver after the current iteration;
  • Timebox the estimation, spend 30 minutes to investigate the problem, you should know if you can finish it by the end of the day or not. Avoid yak-shaving.


  1. Nice post! I completely agree and even in the agile community it is hard to get people to accept that estimation is simply a waste of time and effort.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I today I read my article one more time and I found it is actually not bad, if you keep digging your thoughts, you will find some useful insights in your mind.