Time Estimation

How do you come up with a good time estimate?

If you are a typical employee, there is a good chance that your job revolves not around day to day mundane tasks. There may be some of that, but there is a good chance that it revolves around completing projects. Yes, project oriented work is challenging and rewarding, but often done very poorly.

Not that your work is bad, its the management of the project that we suck at. And more to the point, its the time estimation that we’re the worst at doing.

This is one of the hardest thing a person has to do in their day to day jobs. If you are a contractor, you may have gotten pretty good at it.

Engineers, we suck at it.

I’ve been out of college now for 12 years. I’ve worked on a bunch of projects of all sizes. Even in college we did some time estimation practices and I can say with 100% certainty…we suck at time estimation.

If at first you don’t succeed, flying helicopters isn’t for you

So why do we keep going down the path of guessing what we think a project will take? Surely our ego is no longer getting in the way. We are very well aware that no matter what I tell you, it will probably take longer than that. Even when I’m bullshitting to myself that I think a project will take 1 week, I tell my manager it will take 2 and it ends up taking 3 or 4. Wow…I suck at this.

I don’t really have a good answer of why we keep doing this. The best that I can tell is, we need something on paper. Whether it has anything to do with reality, it helps the business move forward so they know what can get done in a reasonable amount of time, even if we miss it but a few weeks.

But what happens when those few weeks turn into a few months?

Solutions to the problem!

I don’t have all the answers, not by a long shot. But based on my experience, my work environment and knowing what my skills are, I can typically get a pretty good estimation of what my gut is tell me that a project will take. I think take that number and multiply by 3.

Yes, you heard that correctly, multiply by 3.

I have no idea why this works, but for some reason, it always seems to work out in my favor. Now I have a bit more luxury of if something derails what I thought would happen, I have some time to make up ground. If things go smoothly and I finish in the week that I thought it would take, now I look like a stellar employee. And we all want to look good at the office right?

Calling bullshit

I know that many of you are thinking, this is bullshit. It has no basis in reality and your manager knows you are making up numbers so why wouldn’t they just divide by 3 and bust your nuts. Well, they could. But I would say 75% of the time, my multiplication of 3 is actually what is the REAL time to take to get something done.

If someone wanted to bust me on it, I’d simply call out the bullshit of their business plan / sales forecast. After all, no one has a crystal ball.

So that’s my little tip to you on time estimation. Its far from perfect but has served me well over the years. Best of luck to you.

Matt Patterson avatar
About Matt Patterson
Husband, Father of 3, Programmer at heart, spends his days running ridiculously large data centers in the midwest.