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Why Engineers Can't Estimate Time: Software Development Estimation The Right Way

12 April 2021 • 7 min read
Why Engineers Can't Estimate Time: Software Development Estimation The Right Way
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Slava Vaniukov
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As software systems become more complex, their development life cycles become more complicated. In addition, they often increase in size, making it difficult to estimate effort for software development.

The ability to accurately predict the time and delivery of a task is proportional to its size. In other words, the larger the job, the more unreliable the calculation. After all, smaller tasks within larger tasks often necessitate estimates and subsequent progress monitoring.

As a result, engineers are finding it increasingly difficult to provide reliable software project estimations on deadlines and completions. This is unfortunate because 60% of a project’s success depends on the developmental team meeting its cost and time estimates. However, all hope is not lost because calculation methods can be used to provide more precise deadlines.

In this article, we will look at why getting accurate estimates is so difficult, why engineers struggle with estimating, what techniques are available, and how to do software development estimations correctly.

Why Are Accurate Software Estimates So Difficult?

Estimations in software engineering are so difficult because estimates have so many flaws in the first place.

For starters, once an estimate and target delivery date are given, they are usually set in stone. They are treated as commitments when they should not be considered as commitments in the first place. Furthermore, it is difficult to understand all of the complexities of a project before you begin working on it.

Other considerations include:

Force Majeure

The external and uncontrollable cause of a delay is referred to as force majeure. As with the previous factor, the failure to account for unknowns, often results in outside factors that will impede the developmental process.

An example of force majeure can include random bugs in software with no apparent reasons.

Failure To Account For The Unknowns

Projects, like life, can be full of surprises. Team members may take time off, become ill, leave companies, or join new teams. There may also be unanticipated flaws and problems that were not evident until coding began.

There is also more to software development than just engineering. Administrative and non-engineering work is often overlooked in the overall time assessment. For example, engineers may be required to conduct research or study new fields. A team may also not include engineers with the same degree of experience.

Requirements Are Subject To Adjustments At Any Time

They can alter not only during the developmental process, but also after the software is finished. There will almost always be reworks and revisions after the customer sees and uses it.

These changes, however, are rarely reflected in the initial calculation. As a consequence, the project will appear to be behind schedule when it is not.

Estimates Are Rarely Modified

When a team falls behind schedule, the original software development estimate is rarely revised to account for this. Instead, engineers would aim to stick to the original timetable and complete their work as quickly as possible. They may also work longer shifts and on weekends.

This, however, does not imply that their efficiency is growing. All they’re doing is incentivizing speed and pace, which can lead to a major decrease in quality and a rise in specifications that aren’t met. It can also contribute to burnout and decreased productivity.

As a result, there will be more reworks, technological debt, repairs, and dissatisfied customers.

Estimates Cannot Be Averaged

Simply put, averages are statistically unpredictable. They are vulnerable to outliers, and the more distorted and varied the distribution, the less robust and stable the average.

For example, five programs may have taken six to eight months to complete. Two projects, however, may have taken up to eighteen months to complete. Despite being two distinct and unique cases, these two projects would have a major impact on the average.

Why Is Estimating So Difficult For Engineers?

Creating Software Is A Process

Creating Software Is A Process Engineers often overlook the fact that development entails more than just writing code. It also includes research, collaboration, and the time required to think. The last point is particularly important as software development needs a lot of brainpower, and coding does not spontaneously happen.

Much like there is more to writing a novel than just typing words, there is more to software development than writing code.

Debugging Is Difficult To Quantify And Is Often Overlooked

There is a distinction between finish a solution and finish a problem-free solution.

Software development necessitates multiple tests and bug fixes, which are often ignored during the initial estimation phase. After all, it’s difficult to predict how many bugs will appear and how long it’ll take to resolve them.

They Do Not Have All Of The Information

For the average person, software development is often a foreign sector. Details that may seem minor and insignificant to a client may constitute a significant portion of a development team’s work.

As a result, if the engineer does not know all of the aspects of a project, they cannot provide an accurate SW estimation.

Context Switching

Engineers often work on several tasks at the same time. In addition, it is impractical to expect an engineer to sit down and work for an entire workday without distractions and interruptions. They will need breaks, visits to the restroom, attend meetings, and so on - and when this occurs, they will lose their train of thinking.

This is known as context switching, and it occurs when a person loses momentum due to switching to a new task. They will have to become acquainted with their new priority, which will reduce their productivity.

Last-minute adjustments and demands, in particular, can fully derail an engineer’s momentum.

Everyone Is Different

This is especially common in development teams, which would have engineers with varying levels of experience. Just because one person can predict how long it will take them to complete their work, it does not mean that another will be able to do the same.

Time estimates are non-transferable, and everyone must estimate their own time in order for the overall prediction to be reliable.

What Software Development Time Estimation Techniques Are There?

Historical Data For Future Estimates

Using past and present data and comparing the two is a reliable and efficient way of tracking time. You can calculate your personal time estimating accuracy by taking the initial estimate and dividing it by the actual amount of time it took to complete the task.

You will then use this data to generate a graph that will show your trend lines.


Using this graph and data, you will then be able to make a more accurate estimation of how long it will take you to complete a specific task. You will also be able to identify any anomalies, which will enable you to investigate and determine what went wrong.

The trick to making your personal time estimate data more useful is to keep your graph updated on a regular basis. You will be able to forecast potential project deadlines even more accurately once you have complied with hundreds of data points.


Work Breakdown Structure

A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) divides a project into observable and manageable deliverables. It will demonstrate to the client that progress is being made while not being pressured to deliver the whole project at once. It also allows for more precise predictions since it is easier to predict how long a single task would take than a project with several small tasks.

A WBS can divide a ten-month project into ten one-month projects, making it much more manageable and easy for analysis. Furthermore, it encourages development teams to be more incentivized to discard or rework a portion of a project than the whole project.

When working on a project as a whole, teams may stick to their results, even if they are unusable. This will only waste time because it will take too long to halt and restart their development.

Poker Planning

When working in a development team, there will often be many competing thoughts and ideas, especially when it comes to estimating software projects. Poker planning allows everyone to provide an estimate at the same time in order to get a more reliable prediction that takes into account all participants.

An anchoring bias will also be avoided by team members telling their predictions all at once. Furthermore, it may uncover misunderstandings, overlooked nuances, or new perspectives.

How To Do Software Development Estimation The Right Way

Deliver Sprint Promises

Instead of giving an estimate for the whole project, give estimates for individual tasks. When comparing one task to another, it is much easier to predict how long it will take. Furthermore, it enables development teams to change potential deadlines based on their current progress.

Sprint promises not only give developers more leeway and more reliable forecasts, but also keep clients happy by providing deliverables on a regular basis.

Take Into Account All Aspects Of Software Development

A team should look at the following to make reasonable and precise estimates:

  • Detailed Requirements: the more detail the team has on the scope and results of a project, the more they will be able to predict a time estimate.
  • Graphic Designs: complex user interfaces also necessitate more technical work and can take longer to implement.
  • Technology Stack: depending on the complexity of the project, a team could need to use a wide range of complex technologies, third-party APIs, and custom solutions.
  • Experience: since a senior engineer can have different time estimates than a junior engineer, predictions should be made based on individuals rather than the team as a whole.

Control Uncertainties

Probability is not a method for creating predictions. Instead, it is a tool for calculating the unpredictable. As a result, a team should always prepare for unknown factors and provide additional time to deal with them.

It is a standard strategy to double an estimation in order to plan for the unexpected without running out of time.

Members Must Be Truthful With Their Colleagues

Coworkers should share their ideas and concerns with one another to get a more realistic picture of time estimates. After all, everyone is unique and will need a different amount of time to complete their tasks.

To engage in a problem-solving mode rather than an integration mode, members of a developmental team should be transparent, truthful, and interact regularly with one another.

Examine Estimation As You Would Any Other Method

Estimating software development, like processes, necessitate multiple revisits and reworkings. When a project runs beyond its allotted time, development teams should revise their forecasts and notify their clients.

The team should also reduce the scope and complexity of whatever task they are working on so they can adapt what they can do to fit the time frame. While this is not exactly an estimating technique, it will provide the team with the predictability of stating to the client that certain deliverables will be accessible by certain dates.

Softermii’s CEO Takeaway

Learning how to estimate software development time can be difficult for inexperienced and disorganized development teams. It is difficult to provide reliable estimates without strict and clear data comparison, software development estimation techniques, and a project is more likely to fail without proper time predictions.

As a result, in order to have a satisfied client base, software development teams must employ smart estimation techniques. Accounting for delays and uncertainties is a part of this. Engineers risk failing if they do not, and according to studies, seven out of twelve of the most infamous failed software projects cited delays as a reason for failure.

Precise deadlines by the team of professionals

That is why, at Softermii, we have refined our estimation techniques in software development in order to provide clients with more precise deadlines and deliverables.

In order to ensure that the development is going well, our dedicated team highly values project management and we keep our customers informed by interacting with them on a regular basis. Furthermore, before we take on and begin any project, we have a comprehensive and detailed discussion with our clients and conduct thorough research. We can then provide more reliable and practical estimates as we will then be able to completely understand the project and its scope.

Schedule a call with one of our development experts and obtain estimates that are both realistic and accurate.

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