Promises Promises

I have three step-children and I rarely promise them anything. It’s not because I’m a horrible father, but because a promise is a fundamentally special thing. I promised my wife I’d stay with her until the end of time, now that’s a promise.

“Under Promise, Over Deliver.” —Unknown Origin

“How are you going to get a reputation as a miracle worker if you tell the Captain the actual amount of time it will take?!” —Scotty, Star Trek

I used to think the first statement was a just a more cynical restatement of the second, which is just a con job. Tell the boss you can’t have it done until Tuesday, finish on Friday, play golf Monday morning and deliver Monday afternoon.

Everybody wins right? Except it’s fundamentally dishonest. Lately I’ve come to realize I do the first one every day. I hope never do the second.

If I promise I know damn well I will do what I said, and I can’t have excuses. Now I’m naturally a very busy and easily distracted person so I know that if I promise too much, I’ll deliver a lot of disappointment. Instead I say “maybe” because it’s the honest answer.

There is a huge difference between “I promise” and “I’ll try”, and I doubt “I’ll do my best” would have been an acceptable answer on my wedding day.

So what the heck does this have to do with development? I was thinking about iterations, and how the stories taken on are really a promise to the customer, but we don’t always treat them that way.

A lot of teams, including at times our own unfortunately, instead over promise and under deliver. It’s usually done with the best of intentions because the customer wants more stuff done.

You know what? My kids want to go to Dunkin Donuts tomorrow, but I don’t know if I can take them so I won’t make a promise. We should look at our iterations the same way.

I’m not talking about padding estimates like Scotty does, but what I’m talking about is avoid the traps of wishful-thinking when estimating stories. Specifically three things I see all the time.

The Talk Down

The talk down usually happens when one or two team-members are out of sync with the rest of the group on the high side, but can also happen when the team’s points cover a range from small to large. Higher estimates mean higher risk and yet the lower estimates usually win this “battle.”

There are two kinds of ways team members (and sometimes customers) encourage other developers down from their estimates, one good and one bad. I’ll illustrate with two stories where I was out of step with the group.

Right after I joined 8th Light we had a store that involved converting text to base64. I was inexperienced with Ruby and hadn’t done this before, so my estimate was higher than the others.

At some point somebody said, “Eric that’s a method that’s built into ruby, it’s one method” and I sheepishly shrank my estimate. Hey I used to be a C++ programmer, cut me some slack!

The point is this time being talked down made perfect sense. I didn’t know something, somebody told me the answer, and we fixed it.

Much more recently we had a story that involved showing the difference between two objects in the database. In this case I was again much higher than the group.

I explained I had no idea how we would do this in a way that would satisfy the customer, but the team thought using the Unix diff tool on the already existing XML Output would be fine. With something feeling wrong in my gut I reluctantly brought down my estimate.

A few minutes later Micah and I started on development, and discovered the problem. A few small changes to a product resulted in four pages of indecipherable XML differences. The story was scrapped, fortunately quickly before any time was invested in it.

Now what was different between the two times? In the first there was a concrete and clear way that my estimate was wrong. Yea! In the second there was still an icky feeling in my gut, yet I budged.

Why? Because I don’t want to hold up my team, I don’t want to look stupid, and most importantly I failed to articulate my concerns with the approach given.

You see for years I worked with InstallShield Developer, and for a while they’ve saved their file format for projects as XML. But when two people attempted to work on the same file, then merge, it was almost always a nightmare, and this was with tools that just did diffing like Araxis Merge.

Our quickly done tool to solve an immediate business need had little chance of success, but I was uncomfortable saying so. The moral: Don’t let yourself be talked down unless you really feel talked down.

The team wasn’t wrong for stating how they felt, I was wrong for failing to articulate the issues I had.

The Extra Points

Occasionally as a team you really want to impress the customer, and they’re in a hurry. So maybe you take on a few extra points. I don’t feel this needs much explanation, don’t “hope” you can get it all done. Use your velocity, trust your estimates, and know you’ll get it all done.

The “Ambitious” Iteration

Sometimes your iteration feels just…off. You’ve taken on the same number of points as the previous iteration, but it feels in your gut like it’s too much. Now this is where the promise kicks in.

Would you promise your loved ones something that in your gut you just didn’t feel like you could deliver? Than don’t do it to your customer. When the iteration feels ambitious try to put it in concrete terms, maybe you’ve been the victim of the “talk down.”

Remember a promise is a very important, even sacred, thing. It should not be taken on unless you are absolutely sure you can do it. Try saying to yourself before an iteration, “We promise to get all this done.”

If that causes a shiver to go down your spine there’s a good chance you really hope you’ll get it all done, and maybe should take a bit off the board rather than be proven right later.

Eric Smith, Director of Training Services

Eric Smith has a Master's Degree in Video Game Development from DePaul University.