Estimates and ‘The Reality Factor’

Estimates aren’t very easy.  In fact, I’d say that it’s the hardest part of being a consultant because of the time and effort that goes into making a decent estimate.  It’s really just an educated guess.

Think about it for a second.  You’re being asked to figure out how much time and money it will take do something without actually doing the work.  And in most cases a client has given you a vague, rough idea of what they want.  If you’re lucky.

If you’re unlucky, the client has an OPC (Other Peoples Code) project that they’re bringing to you to fix.  What’s even worse, they give you a paragraph of what the application does, with no specifics, and expect it to be done quickly and cheaply and correctly.

The other thing that sucks about estimates is knowing that we humans are notoriously bad at determining how much time something will take.  We’re good at estimating a lot of things but time estimates are ephemeral at best.  I started my career as an electrical engineering doing project engineering work.  It only took a few small projects (and getting chewed out when my estimates were horrible) to realize that my ‘it only takes a day to do that’ estimate turned into three days (or more).

So I have my multiply by three rule.  Take your estimate, which is really the ‘if everything works perfectly the first time and I can devote 100% of my day to it’ estimate and then multiply by your reality factor.

The real trick is learning from your past successes and mistakes.  Now that I have a standard tool set of classes, controls and modules that I’ve used on a dozens of projects it’s easy to say that adding ‘X’ is 15 minutes worth of work and the reality factor is 1.5.  Creating new controls, since it has a high degree of initial failure, might have a reality factor of 2 to 3.  If you have a feeling that a client is going to be really picky, maybe that reality factor goes up a little.  If the project requirement details are scarce the factor goes up again.

Trust your gut on this one folks.  The figure at the bottom of the spreadsheet seems high sometimes.  You’ll be tempted to lower some estimates to make it more palatable to the client.  Sometimes you might have to do that to get the job, but try to resist the temptation.  As a consultant your pricing is based on what your time and experience are worth along with all the other things that go into being a business.  You have overhead, marketing, taxes, insurance, and you have a retirement plan, right?

So what’s your Reality Factor?

2 thoughts on “Estimates and ‘The Reality Factor’

  1. My usual is to see what my “gut feel” is and then triple it

    And we all know the truism is “You can have it fast, cheap or correct. Pick two.”

    My favorite used to be to take my best stab and then just move the time unit up.
    Things you estimated were an hour moved up to one day. Things you thought were 3 days turned into 3 weeks. Anything that might take 1 month would be 1 year !
    And in the bureaucratic place I first learned that technique it was stunningly accurate. More often than not it was more close to right than not.

  2. It is extremely touch no doubt, then on top of that things don’t go as planned. It flat out sucks. I hate doing them, really. I lose more jobs than anything because it’s probably pricey.

    I’m really looking into the residual income you get from publishing your own app.
    I have a coworker doing this already for over 18 years and he still averages over 5k(US$) a month on top of his “normal” job! Pretty decent by me.

    The only thing I have been apart of as far as getting jobs is the rb developer list and that has panned out well most of the time, even if it is $1000, you make it back. But these rentacoder, getafreelancer and the rest suck real bad. Yeah I need this program done for $30-$250 tops. Yeah gimme a break you idiot!

    It seems to me that unless you get ‘lucky’ and get in with the right company your screwed. Bottom line, that’s it fella.

    My .02, and it aint much!


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