Transparency in Work Estimates

Estimating a project’s effort in software development is a complex, yet critical process that can greatly impact the success of a project. Let’s explore the various aspects of this process, including techniques, benefits, challenges, and best practices. 

Techniques for Software Development Estimation

Below are three of the most common techniques I’ve seen for estimating software development work. Each has its own distinct benefits and drawbacks. 

  • ROM: Involves consulting with experienced individuals, such as solution architects and tech leads, who provide estimates based on their knowledge and experience. At Emory, we create a ROM (Rough Order of Magnitude) to quickly provide a “ballpark” budget for you to work from and decide if the scale of the project fits your expectations and needs. The downside is that there are a lot of assumptions in this technique so the it may vary (high or low) from a more thorough estimate.
  • Bottom-up Estimation: Breaks the project into smaller components, estimating the effort for each part and summing them up for a final estimate. A classic technique for estimation, it allows for a methodical method for dissecting a project. An added benefit of using this method is that if you are working in project management software, you already have your epics and user stories created. However, it is also the most time intensive and if you don’t move forward with the project, will leave a lot of “burnt” work and effort. 
  • Three-point Estimation: Uses a weighted average of three estimates – optimistic, pessimistic, and most likely – to calculate expected effort. I rank this method as the most efficient and accurate. Not only does it allow for a mathematical approach to reducing uncertainty but always visually illustrates it. 

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Advantages of Accurate Software Estimation

  • Impact on Budget and Schedule: Accurate estimation is a foundational step in setting realistic expectations in creating accurate timelines, and making necessary budget plans…all of which help prevent project failure.
  • Risk Management: Accurate estimation aids in identifying potential risks, allowing for effective planning and resource allocation.
  • Communication and Collaboration: Facilitates better communication between developers and project managers, leading to improved decision-making by the development team and client.
  • Resource Allocation: Ensures equitable workload distribution and adequate resource availability among all stakeholders.
  • Team Morale: Involving the development team in the estimation process promotes a sense of ownership and accountability, boosting morale and performance​​​​.

Best Practices

  • Be Transparent: Identify and communicate project assumptions and unknowns. It is this transparency that is a defining quality of Emory Solutions. 
  • Upskill Your Team: As development begins the cadence of a great team can move mountains and put you well ahead of schedule while the opposite is true of an inexperienced team. We make it a point to continuously improve and have implemented a strategy of a tech lead on every project to ensure that resources skill levels do not swing the estimation and we are constantly improving. 
  • Knowing Common Pitfalls: Over-optimism, unclear scope definition, and relying solely on expert judgment can lead to estimates that are widely inaccurate. Using historical data, defining clear project requirements, and employing objective estimation techniques can mitigate these issues.

Practical Approaches

  • Breaking Down the Work: No matter which technique you use, breaking down bigger pieces into smaller tasks makes them easier to estimate, providing a clearer picture of all requirements. A skilled project leader can do this quickly and knows how small and what level of detail is needed for each piece. Work breakdown structure is a good place to start for learning more about this art.
  • Asking Questions: Avoid assumptions by clarifying task descriptions and requirements and then documenting the results. Things will often change but it is imperative that early assumptions are documented and understood by all. At Emory, we ask a lot of questions during Discovery, Strategy Sessions, and the Design Sprint phases to hone in estimates. 
  • Proposing Adjustments to Requirements: Suggesting adjustments can lead to better and more efficient solutions. Another Emory pillar, we are not only thinking about your current project, but your business and your team to ensure this is the right solution for you! 
  • Considering Confidence Levels: Reflect on your familiarity and experience with the task before estimating.

The Emory Way 

  • We start with an initial discovery call and free strategy session to understand your business, your team, and ultimately where you are headed. This sets the foundation because it lets us begin to ask questions from the start. You can read more here
  • If the project is a fit and we can truly add value to the process, we offer three ways to work together. The first is time and materials (T&M), which lets us define the work, provide an estimate and begin working right away. You are charged for time and materials used on a monthly basis. The second is Firm Fixed Price (FFP) where you know exactly how much the project will cost and any changes will be handled through change requests. While a FFP approach is more rigid and can take longer to get started, it offers a defined budget.  The third is a retainer, you share how much you want to spend each month and we manage to that number providing guidance on which features will deliver the most value. A retainer offers discounted pricing and maximum flexibility with changing priorities and shifting deadlines.

No matter how you choose to work with us, you can trust that you will have the maximum transparency into how we arrived at our estimates and the assumptions we made along the way. When combined with a discovery and design sprint, we are confident we can forge a successful development/integration project with you and partnership for years to come. 

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