Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Making yourself easy to be scheduled: Part 3 - Teaching yourself better estimation

A great high school math teacher once told his class, “I have the secret to doing word problems!” Like most people, the students in the class had long experienced frustration with this type of math problem that attempts to relate real life circumstances to specific concepts through words instead of more straightforward equations. After a pause, several of the students eagerly asked, in unison, “How?” The teacher grinned slyly and answered, “Do a million of them!” He was understandably greeted with a collective groan.

Word problems are like any other tasks - if you do them enough times you become pretty good at them. With repetition comes familiarity. You are, no doubt, a master at tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, and eating food, because these are tasks you perform regularly. If you were handed a sandwich, you could probably estimate pretty accurately how long it would take you to eat it at a comfortable speed. The same is true of work tasks. The problem, though, is that there are so many different kinds of tasks that it can sometimes be difficult to remember past similar tasks on which to base an estimate. The solution: Keep a log of what you spend your time on.

Even if you are not required to fill out a time card at regular intervals, reserve the final 15 minutes of your day to record everything you did and how much time you spent on each task. It might look something like this:

1.50 hr - Design meeting with Henry Jones, Jr.
0.25 hr - Coffee break
1.50 hr - Prepared slides for review meeting on Thursday
2.00 hrs – Requirements discussion with marketing
0.50 hrs – Responded to email
0.75 hrs – Cleaned out voicemail
1.25 hrs – Attended Webinar on new technology
0.25 hrs – Time recording

Be complete, but do not get stuck on minutiae. Using hours as the base unit, record your information in 15 minute intervals. Increments of less than 15 minutes tends to make things difficult to compute at the end because you have several leftover minutes to deal with and you will drive yourself crazy trying to get them to add up to the amount of time you spent in the office. More than a quarter hour leaves too large a window for smaller tasks to fit into, and you will accidentally allocate too much time to items that did not fill up the whole block. The “Coffee Break” item above probably did not take that full 15 minutes, but its estimate would be even worse if the data were recorded in 30 minute intervals instead.

For tasks that take less time than 15 minutes, just make your best guess and either throw them in with tasks relating to something similar or create an “other” bin. This is yet another reason to keep the intervals reasonably small - so that you do not accidentally allocate too much time to a throw away category. Recording in terms of hours is preferable since we tend to think of our work week in terms of hours instead of minutes.

Stick with this for at least a month, even though it may seem like a waste of time at first. After that, you will start to notice a few benefits of this simple recording system. Patterns in your day will emerge that reveal how much “productive” time you have (meaning time you are actually contributing to deliverables) versus “non-productive” time (like responding to small emails and voicemails). While it can vary based on the culture of your organization and other factors, a typical ratio is 6 productive hours to 8 hours at work. For example, in an effort to build camaraderie, your department might host a short cake and punch ceremony for any birthday, anniversary, or other occasion that everyone is expected to attend. While important, these ceremonies eat into your productive time relating to schedules, and you need to take them into account.

Similarly, you will start to notice how long it takes you to complete certain kinds of tasks. What is important as you notice this is that you do not compare your speed to that of anybody else. You are you. Some things will take you more time than they will take other people and other things will take you less time. If you get caught up comparing yourself to others, you will only end up getting competitive with people you are supposed to build synergy with and that is no good for a team. Remember that the point of this exercise is to achieve consistency so that you can set expectations correctly with the people who manage the schedule. Be interested in your consistency, not anybody else’s.

Once you put these ideas into practice, patterns of task categories will emerge. There might be several types of documentation tasks, a design task, and learning tasks, for example. Whatever those groupings of tasks are, they are probably unique to your engineering discipline, likely influenced by your department, and possibly special to you. Make note of these things and as new tasks come in, try to affinity group them with tasks you have already completed.

After some more time, you should begin to see tasks come in that are similar to ones you have already created. This is the first of two big payoffs of spending these 15 minutes per day logging your task times. When a new task comes across your desk, look through your archive of completed tasks for one that is similar. Gauge how much more difficult or simple, and how vague or concrete the new task is compared to the old one. When you are hypothesizing about how long the new task will take, the historical data begins to help remove ambiguity as a major influence. As time goes on and you begin to recognize a finite number of task types you are asked to perform, you will find that your estimation accuracy will improve.

The other big payoff comes when it is time to prepare for your performance evaluation. When six, nine, or twelve months go by, it is easy to forget things you have worked on. With this task logging, you have a detailed record of the tasks you have completed. That is not to say that every single task you perform should be enumerated to your boss when the time comes to evaluate you, but the log can serve as a reminder to you for what you have done. It is up to you to highlight the important facts, but this method makes it easier for you to discover the facts to begin with.

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 9:43 AM   0 comments links to this post

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