Estimation, Part 4: Are We Nearly There Yet ?

We have now got past the first three stops on the Bus Journey of Estimation:

  1. First, we valiantly struggled to avoid making a forecast at all, and failed at that endeavour. But having carried out a lengthy, dogged rearguard action with skill, vigour and finesse, we have bought valuable time, squeezed concessions and information out of our enemies(*), and put ourselves into a far better position to make the guesses which will shortly be demanded of us. Sometimes, even when you’re doomed, it’s better to fight and lose than to give up without throwing a punch.
  2. Second, we tallied up how many mythical man days it ought to take until It Works On My Machine, and we took bloody good note that It Working On My Machine is a long way away from the Fat Lady singing.
  3. Third, we produced a much larger but even more mythical number of man days that probably will cover the whole thing right through to going live and mopping up bugs afterwards. We are by no means certain that it is the right number, but having been careful to allow for difficulties both expected and otherwise, it does have a fighting chance of being sufficient, for once.

A Fat Lady, Singing. Wagner, apparently. Not my cup of tea as it goes, but illustrative.

At this point you have a putative figure for days which you can multiply by a speculative average rate per person in order to come up with a theoretical amount of notional money which you can advance to your senior stakeholders as a supposed budget for the undertaking as a whole. Well done. This is an achievement not to be sniffed at. But immediately on producing this imaginary number, two disturbing things will happen. Firstly, it will be heavily published, circulated and discussed in business cases, cashflow projections, cost-benefit analyses and the like. Through this process, it will change state; though it may have begun as a heavily caveated and pretty fluid range of financial possibilities, it will rapidly be crystallized for you into a single integer – a solid, immutable, unquestionable, rigid block of hard cash. Simultaneously your weeks of conjecture and educated guesswork will be transmogrified retrospectively into mathematically rigorous and provable formulae, and this leads us to the second disturbing event. Now that your wholly scientific prediction has been officially chewed up, digested, regurgitated and thereby allegedly validated, risk-mitigated and baselined, some dirty rotten swine is going to ask you when they can have the damn thing. Or rather more probably, they will explain to you in forceful terms the date by which it will be ready, based upon their deep understanding of software development, technical delivery, man management, time and maths.

Imaginary, irrational and indeed wholly fictitious numbers feature heavily in the delusional world of Software Project Estimation.

Imaginary, irrational and indeed wholly fictitious numbers feature heavily in the delusional world of Software Project Estimation.

The highly sophisticated algorithm they will employ to produce and justify that date will run broadly like this:

  • Take proposal as presented by techie grunts and regard sceptically over top of spectacles whilst sucking air through teeth.
  • Despite presentation as a range of options each with different conditions attached, ignore conditions and pick smallest.
  • Discard any and all contingency.
  • Divide days in suitably improved estimate by five to derive ideal developer-weeks
  • Divide ideal developer-weeks by ridiculously large assumption on team size to produce duration
  • Increment today by duration to determine end date. Obviously, coding will start right this very minute.
  • Round up to end of week to cover any overruns.
  • Job done. All that remains is to book the caterers, the backroom at the pub and the DJ for the post-launch shindig.

Black Lace there, with “Agadoo”. Marvellous. An essential record at any celebratory-type knees-up occasion, particularly if said festivities were to be occurring in West Yorkshire during the mid 1980s.

Making use of this marvellous logic, which can be easily replicated on either a discarded bus ticket or in a dozen cells in a spreadsheet, one can kick off with a sensible guesstimate of effort and end with a completion date of stratospheric lunacy. Let us drill down through a specific example of this brand of bullying stupidity using the It-Works-On-My-Machine-equals-100-days-so-500-days-all-told example from our last lesson. This eminently reasonable punt will quickly be forged by your business chums into an unachievable but ironclad deadline as follows:

  1. Let’s be frank, it’s not 500 days. The calculations baldly admit there is a 15-20% uplift for risk. Right away we can snip off that fatty 70 day contingency which is plainly there solely for padding or some other species of technical timewasting.
What could possibly go wrong, with the engagement of such capable and seasoned professionals ?

What could possibly go wrong, with the engagement of such capable and seasoned professionals ?

  1. Even the 430 days we are left with in the proper estimate is transparently a development bargaining position, and thus not meant to be taken too seriously. Ergo, nip, tuck and shave corners off at various points. Testing can’t take that long. If our developers spend that long bug fixing they must be half-wits. What is this code review poppycock? Does it generate a value-added organisational uplift ? Why must the Business pay for this nonsense ? Our procedures are slick and streamlined, there is no way so much resource is allocated purely for dealing with governance. Fiddlesticks, pish, tish and fooey. With ruthless, hard-headed pruning, the core is revealed: 350 days actual work.
  1. 350 divided by 5 makes 70 full-time mythical person-weeks. That mythical person in this instance being a modern-day Bob Cratchit, a terrified Victorian-style drone who never dares to take holiday or call in sick, and sweats away at maximum efficiency at all times with absolutely no distractions whatsoever. We should perhaps be grateful your customer doesn’t want to repeal the Factory Acts and so base his reckonings on a good old-fashioned early 19th Century working week of 14-Hour days including Saturday and Sunday.
Leisure time for the lower orders ? Fie Sir, a Bolshevik notion – it would only be spent in drink, licentiousness and criminality !

Leisure time for the lower orders ? Fie Sir, a Bolshevik notion – it would only be spent in drink, licentiousness and criminality !

  1. We can without doubt put a team of 10 onto the task, all toiling at full whack for the whole duration.
  1. Seven weeks then. It’ll be done before the end of next month.

There may be a tiny morsel of mockery and misrepresentation in my burlesque on the thought processes of your classical senior business stakeholder thug here, but really very little. I’ve been in the meetings, I’ve read the emails and I’ve wept over the Gantt charts. In fact, it can often be a lot worse. I have ignored the commonest response of all which is flat-out sneering rejection in place of the first two steps: “Surely you cannot expect to retain respect within the wider organization with an estimate of almost two man years for what is no more than a straightforward change. It is completely unacceptable. I am convinced that a two smart guys can easily do what needs to be done well before the end of October. You need to go back round whatever loops you boys go round and come up with a proposition that has the sort of credibility that allows me to present it to the Programme Board, and you can start that exercise by dividing everything by two.” So seven weeks is by no means the worst case scenario, but nonetheless the sheer volume of reality denial, false assumption and sheer boneheaded stupidity rammed into that five step recipe is breathtaking. Let us try the same exercise again but with a degree of honesty. One could get all fancy with Gantt charts and dependencies and resource levelling and the like, but that merely serves to create the illusion of science, confidence and certainty from a nebulous cloud of suppositions, rules of thumb and half-truths. Quickest, best, and less self-deluding to stick to the back-of-an-envelope approach but to do so with grim, clear-eyed objectivity.

  1. If we think 500 days now right at the off, then the rational thing to do is to plan for at least 600. Can anyone recall a single blasted undertaking within living memory that crept in even within spitting distance of its budget, never mind within it ?
  1. Only macho cretins make plans without contingency. Things will always, but always, go wrong. Terrible appalling events will occur which no-one would have even dreamed of in their worst nightmares. We will need time to deal with those horrors. Alright, so we’ve bunged in several different chunks of just-in-case time already but no harm in adding on another 50 days for good (or rather, bad) luck.
Alas, the omission of crash barriers on Italian mountain roads had never been formally logged as a risk. With proper governance, all of this needless drama would have so easily been avoided.

Alas, the omission of crash barriers on Italian mountain roads had never been formally logged as a risk. With proper governance, all of this needless drama would have so easily been avoided.

 

 

  1. Your common or garden white collar IT spod during a standard sort of year somewhere in the developed world
  • takes around 25 days annual leave. Scandinavians, Germans and other enlightened Northern Europeans get about 30 (hooray). Americans get 12 (boo) and the poor old Japanese get 18 but take almost none (double boo with knobs on)
  • has a couple of weeks of public holidays. Religiously observant Mediterraneans (the Cypriots, Maltese and Spanish) get around three weeks while we oppressed Britishers get eight wretched measly days. And it always flaming rains, especially in May.
  • is ill for about a week
  • spends a week in training
  • and loses another week or two to parental leave, team-building events, HR survey feedback sessions, heavy snow, inspirational management initiatives, the Christmas piss-up or any of a dozen other extraneous non-work or not-really-proper-work-type interruptions.

All combined, that comes to 10 or 11 weeks, or roughly 20% of the available time. So there are in practice just four days for your actual doings in a regular week.

Time away from the dismal daily grind: Clacton-on-Sea at the height of a glorious English summer. A bit of drizzle, but we still had a good time and the whelks were outstanding.

Time away from the dismal daily grind: Clacton-on-Sea at the height of a glorious English summer. A bit of drizzle, but we still had a good time and the whelks were outstanding.

 

 

  1. But that’s not all. We then need to factor in how much time gets spent on unfortunate diversions. Typically this will manifest as folk being roped in to sort out live problems and / or drafted into activities even more terminally shagged than the one they’re officially engaged upon, in order to dig them out of their latest hole. How large this effect is varies from place to place but I’d say it uses up at least another half day per person per week. And this burden falls disproportionately on the razor sharp problem solving geeks you need to get your project finished – they’ll be the first ones who get kidnapped to sort out some other mess. You’ll be allowed to hang on to the thickos, the idlers and the terminally bewildered. As ever, best to assume the worst and say it’s going to amount to another full day a week.

So, in practical terms, you’re looking at a Three Day Week. These Icons of the ’70s are your Poster Boys:

Racism, power cuts, industrial collapse, decay. Weren't the 70s great ?

Racism, power cuts, industrial collapse, decay. Weren’t the 70s great ?

650 days divided by 3 makes a slightly-less-mythical 217 person-weeks.

  1. How many people can you usefully put on a job ? Depends on the job. Nine blokes might dig a ditch nine times quicker than one, but to flog a clichéd old nag once more over the hurdles, nine pregnant women can’t make a baby in a month. Software is somewhere between hole-digging and baby-making in the fungibility stakes – more people make it quicker up to a point but it’s decidedly non-linear. Say in your case four engineers and a couple of testers can be kept busy most (but not all) of the time, with a few other part-time and cameo appearances from managers, analysts, architects, DBAs and so on. When you tot up who does what and with which and to whom and precisely when, say it’s equivalent to a team of between six and seven overall.

217 idealised person-weeks divided by six and a half hypothetical people is 33 notional weeks. Note that despite starting from precisely the same point, the application of reason in place of insanity has the thing taking nearly five times as long. And we haven’t even finished yet.

  1. Up to this point we have been applying caution, good sense and realism to planning, in counterpoint to the more usual cocktail of machismo, stupidity and optimism. Conceivably the assignment in question could be done in seven or eight months if we were simply allowed to get on with it. But though we may have planned carefully and prudently for once, that doesn’t mean our workplace will suddenly start to operate in a pragmatic and judicious fashion. Nope. It’ll still be the same bumbling officious farce it always has been. So now we must apply caution, good sense and realism to figuring out just how daft it will be in this particular instance, and in how many different ways and to what extent that daftness will slow us down. Bureaucratic drag normally manifests itself in the shape of approvals; every step you take, some fool has to tick a box before you’re allowed to lift one foot in front of the other. To move from stage A to stage B, to pass through gate C, to promote to environment D, or to be allowed to draw on resource pool E or cost centre F, some tea party of nitwits have to convene and agree that all your papers are in order first.
Approved, at least by one idiot. Only another 97 to go.

Approved, at least by one idiot. Only another 97 to go.

Idiocies and red tape will vary from locale to locale but something along these lines would be about par:

  • Financial approval. Outline and final, obviously.
  • Design approval. Again, outline and final – this is the big league blue-chip Enterprise Space, not some tin-pot garage operation.
  • General bumph approval: some git will want to see that your Initiation Document, Terms of Reference, Mandate, Brief, High Level Design and Architectural Principles are all in order. Papers Please !
  • Stage Transitions. The same git will turn up with his flashlight, mirror and rubber gloves to inspect the inner cavities of your project every time it crosses the boundary from one phase to another. Naturally there are many borders to be crossed as you move from Conception to Initiation to Build to Test to Accept to Deploy to Adopt to Support. Prepare to spread them, cough and answer questions each time. Christ, why can’t these people just apply for a proper bottom-inspecting position in Customs and have done with it.
  • Change Control. Every sodding time you have to deploy one sodding miserable one-line bug fix.

This will take months if you obey the last letter of every rule, regulation and guideline. Even with ducking, diving, bribery, and a dollop of Jedi mind control, it will take an age. As wearily noted elsewhere, under max-strength corporate governance getting a Hello World program from inception to wholesale ratification as a strategic system of record can take over a year.

These aren't the droids you're looking for, and in any case they both come with outline _and_ final design approval from the Strategic Enterprise Architecture Forum as well as business case sign-off to boot. You can go about your business. Move along.

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, and in any case they both come with outline _and_ final design approval from the Strategic Enterprise Architecture Forum as well as business case sign-off to boot. You can go about your business. Move along.

Let’s not be too defeatist, though. With a bit of wangling and applied dodginess you’ll be able to keep going most of time and either nip round or under the various bureaucratic obstacles. You will lose the most time at the beginning, as you labour to get funds released, people assigned, designs authorised, and a dozen different forms countersigned in triplicate by 57 different apparatchiks. Let us say three weeks, with another three weeks for miscellaneous pratting about later on in the game. These later hold-ups will chiefly be due to waiting hours and days for clueless Change Management blockheads to deign to open your three-line email, read it, and click a button. The massive twats.

And so we end up with 39 weeks. A deal more than the 7 weeks your Business Gangmaster would have liked to thrash you into swallowing, but far more likely to be genuinely enough time to do the necessary. Planets sometimes align, biorhythms can synchronise and your office may be sitting on a conjunction of ley lines; in such karmically favourable circumstances, it could come together a bit swifter. Or you might squeak in the door with minutes to spare, or the cock ups and calamities may line up so catastrophically that you overshoot even this conservative conjecture. But with this brand of wary, circumspect planning, those gut-knotting outcomes will become rare and exceptional. You may even come to relish them, as an exciting but thankfully occasional diversion from your normal run of serene, calm, ordered and even early delivery of software.

Early delivery. Should not be limited exclusively to milkmen and moonlighting priests.

Early delivery. Should not be limited exclusively to milkmen and moonlighting priests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- – - – E n d – - – -

(*) By “Enemies” I am naturally referring to

(a) Customers, and;

(b) Senior Management

These will always be the twin poles of your workplace’s local Axis of Evil. But clearly the term can and should be extended out to include assorted affiliated Minor Belligerent Powers: the Programme Office, Change Management, Human Resources, Systems & Infrastructure, End Users, Architects, Marketing, Sales, Product Managers … well, pretty much everyone except the cleaners and the folk in the canteen.

The custard may be lumpy, the chips a little soggy and the customer focus a shade under par, but they rarely impede progress in any significant way.

The custard may be lumpy, the chips a little soggy and the customer focus a shade under par, but they rarely impede progress in any significant way.

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Estimation, Part 3: The Art and Science of Predicting The Future With 100% Accuracy Using Only Guesswork and Microsoft Excel.

So. After several pages of whinge and a few more pages of groan on the subject of Software Project Estimation, the case has been vehemently made for adopting the following basic axioms and rules of conduct:

  1. If nobody is forcing you at knifepoint to make an estimate, don’t bother.
  2. An estimate is a guess, not a quotation.
  3. Guesses are mostly wrong …
  4. … and generally wrong in the direction of being wildly optimistic and nowhere near enough.
  5. If you have to take a punt, start by figuring out how long you think it will take until It Works On My Machine, hereinafter to be abridged to I.W.O.M.M.
  6. But don’t get cocky. I.W.O.M.M. is not anywhere near finished.
  7. And don’t try to be clever. Double I.W.O.M.M. is not anywhere near finished either.
  8. From I.W.O.M.M. to categorically done and dusted will be a long wearisome uphill slog. Wiser heads than us reckon it at nine times as much effort, at least for commercial shrinkwrapped software.
  9. Nine times is about right (and may not even be quite enough) for gear which ships with tip-top documentation, has no obvious bugs, will install neatly on any machine, is straightforward for idiot consumers to figure out and will then run smoothly and reliably for years.
  10. However, as most of are not writing the Amazon site or Excel, probably the bar is a bit lower.
If you’re setting down a short list of basic guidelines, maxims, commandments or whatever, ten’s a nice round number. Best not go the whole engraving-tablets-of-stone hog though – you don’t want to have to hire a monumental mason every time you need to shift your philosophical position a couple of degrees.

If you’re setting down a short list of basic guidelines, maxims, commandments or whatever, ten’s a nice round number. Best not go the whole engraving-tablets-of-stone hog though – you don’t want to have to hire a monumental mason every time you need to shift your philosophical position a couple of degrees.

So to get from an I.W.O.M.M. estimate to a reasonable guess at finished, you need to apply a factor definitely bigger than two, but maybe not so big as nine. But if it’s worse than double, but not nine times as much, how much should it be in the typical case ? Typical is a dangerous word, but let’s take a hypothetical I.W.O.M.M. estimate of 100 days and see how much might end up having to be done overall to get the whole shebang live, assuming a typical kind of set up where:

(a) it’s a typically on-target I.W.O.M.M estimate i.e. an honourable punt, not far off given favourable conditions, but certain to have overlooked a few choice points.

(b) you are struggling with typical levels of pointless / essential governance and bureaucracy

(c) the end product has to operate at typical levels of reliability, security and load i.e. it has to be pretty well bombproof but not at the level required for air traffic control.

(d) the Gods visit upon you a typical string of cock-ups, surprises and emergencies.

What else must be done before you can safely release your concoction out into the wild ? Well …

  • Before you can even kick off, non-trivial time must be spent on:
  1. the estimation you already did @ 3 days
  2. knocking requirements into shape so that it was clear what you were being asked to estimate @ 5 days
  3. roughing out some excuse for a design, either because you genuinely need to, or simply to keep the architects happy @ 3 days
  4. expanding that design when pressed by said ruddy architects to include Inter-Op Schema, Entity-Relationship Diagram, Data Model (Logical), Data Model (Physical) etc et-bloody-cetera @ 10 days
  5. manufacturing all the blasted forms, risk logs, mandates, generalised bumph and documentation which your Programme Office deems to be indispensable, and then jumping through all the wretched hoops they require for them to be approved so that you are allowed to get cracking for real @ 8 days

totting up to about 30 days pre-preparatory pratting about and you have not even declared a single integer variable yet.

Like Michael, you may very well Wanna Be Starting Something, but you sure as shite won’t be until you have submitted all the necessary and pre-authorised pre-requisites for Project Tollgate One. You may think that is Bad, but the twats in the PMO will tell you in Black and White to Beat It. Ahem.

  • Once you are actually coding, there is much toil to be toiled which as it isn’t coding per se, your I.W.O.M.M number will not have accounted for. For example:
  1. kit and tools to be set up, beginning with servers and databases and continuing with version control, build automation et al, and all of this gubbins to be continuously trimmed and fettled as you go along @ 10 days
  2. more testing during development than you ever expected, be it unit, manual or automated, which will throw up gaffes which then have to be sorted @ 25 days
  3. peer reviews and associated rework @ 5 days
  4. wrangling with random interventions from customers, architects, PMO, senior management and any other old git that wants to stick their oar in @ 5 days
  5. meetings, timesheets, multifarious general admin @ 5 days
  6. documentation, governance, form-filling, reports, risk logging, 3+9 budget look-aheads, Gantt charts and any other project management chicanery required on pain of death by Programme Office trolls @ God Knows, could be trans-finite, but let us posit 30 days.

With the 100 days you had at the off, and the 30 days beforehand, this 80 day sized lump brings your running total up to 210 days. So we’re on double, and counting, and we haven’t even given the testers a sniff of it yet.

  • Testing beyond the bare minimum obviously never gets taken into account in an I.W.O.M.M. estimate. Generally the I.W.O.M.M figure will stretch to basic checking of the order of I-ran-it-some-guff-appeared-on-the-screen-right-sort-of-colour-no-immediately-apparent-gotchas-nothing-exploded. Sometimes we dip even below this and the estimate doesn’t extend even to compilation let alone trying to use the program. “I will create it; it will work; I am perfection” seems to be the mantra. But let us not be unkind and let us take it as read that when the code hits test it has been thrashed by its originators to a respectable standard. Even so, proper system testing will span far more use cases in greater depth and so take an awful lot longer but thereby unearth subtler problems and less conspicuous omissions. So it will be a sizable endeavour, even when the labours that preceded it were solid. Maybe:
  1. Test prep. Establishing what to test, and how @ 5 days
  2. Environment set up. As for development, but harder. You need the test kit to match live as closely as possible, and that means the boxes themselves, their configuration, data and databases, and connectivity. Not simple @ 15 days
  3. Testing. The nuts and bolts: functional, system, integration, whatever you call it @ 30 days
  4. Regression testing, to make sure that in producing new gubbins you haven’t bust any of the old gubbins @ 10 days
  5. Load testing, performance testing, penetration(*) testing. Some of these might not be necessary in your particular milieu but then again all might and they can take frigging eons but let us be hopeful @ 10 days
  6. Bug fixing, including fixing bugs introduced when other bugs are being fixed, is always chunky @ 40 days
  7. Re-testing and seventeenth-pass-cross-fingers-all-fine-now regression @ 10 days
  8. User Acceptance Testing. Obviously the users will do this themselves, but they will need their tiny little business hands holding @ 10 days
  9. More bug fixing, from howlers that emerge during UAT @ 20 days
  10. Non-bug fixing. You can’t pick your users. They’re not always the brightest stars in the firmament. Many of the “concerns” they bring to you will not in truth be errors at all. For example you may receive incident reports which read “banner has a horrible lilac background” or “when I push the button the letters go funny” or even “screen is black”. It doesn’t generally pay to ask customers if they are f**king kidding, so one must instead be diplomatic, sincere and helpful and look into even the most spurious non-issues with painstaking thoroughness. Often well over half of UAT “concerns” will be misunderstandings of how the thing is meant to operate (both legitimate and silly), requests for extra changes, random opinions, unreproducible glitches, and plain unadulterated unvarnished idiocy. All of which make work for the working man to do @ 20 days
  11. General admin, meetings, governance and documentation. Everything you had to do during build, and much, much more. Test Progress Summaries, Outline Test Plans, Test Completion Reports, Requirement Test Coverage Matrices and so on, how much and how far depending on your employer’s specific level of organisational psychosis @ 30 days

Giving an overall Score on the Door for testing in all its shapes and sizes of 200 days. We are up to 410 days now, and we haven’t put so much as a batch file live.

“So Isla, what are the Scores on the Doors ?” “Well Larry, the names in the frames are Bob and Cheryl with a 68% overspend, and Graham and Tina with a 23 week delay against baseline.”

“So Isla, what are the Scores on the Doors ?” “Well Larry, the names in the frames are Bob and Cheryl with a 68% overspend, and Graham and Tina with a 23 week delay against baseline.”

  • It’s committed, it’s tested, it’s bundled, it’s been accepted by the users, it’s been signed off by the Steering Group, and the PMO have even inked all the pages in your project passport with a big blue FIT FOR PRODUCTION stamp. Which means you’re all done, right ? Just give the big red launch button a hefty thump and Bob’s your uncle. Would that it were so but as ever for reasons both sound and ridiculous, there is a little more footslogging to be done:
  1. Change Management, Application Support and Infrastructure will compel you to participate in their traditional religious ceremonies, typically referred to in their primitive native dialects as “go-live meetings”, “deployment workshops” and “production change boards”. During these hallowed rites, sacred scrolls known as “requests for change”, “release notes”, “schedules of events” and “deployment instructions” will be penned, ruminated upon, redrafted, illuminated, annotated and, after many moons have passed, finally blessed as being fit for reverent submission to the Gods of ITIL @ 6 days
  2. Rolling a new release out is rarely a one-click operation. There’s umpteen servers, nobody has rights to update the stored procedures, somebody forgot to copy a config file somewhere. It can take a few blokes a few hours so @ 2 days.
  3. Even after assiduous testing of well-structured software, there will still be faults that slip through the net. These have to be found, mended, patched live, and their regrettable consequences tidied up. As we have conscientiously tempered the code through several rounds of QA, these should be small, of limited impact, and fairly easy to resolve. Still @ 7 days
  4. Yet more governance, admin and bureaucracy. The closing instalments of reports and paper-pushing and meetings that you had before, plus an Overall Budget Statement, a Post Implementation Review, a Post Project Review, a Lessons Learned Log and a Project Closure Report @ 5 days if you’re lucky.

And then you are at last utterly finished and done with, at a grand total of 430 days or 4.3 times your initial guess at how long it would take to get I.W.O.M.M.

Finished and done with. Over. Completely finished. Period. No more. Full stop. The end. Full period.

Or almost. A multiplier of 4.3 is by my reckoning completely sensible, believable, justifiable, and even a touch on the sunny side. Many different factors could push it up or down, though I would be very wary of making it much lower. The scenario above assumes no major disasters on the one hand, but a medium-to-high level of tedious fussy red tape on the other – in essence it proposes capable people putting in a good show with the main drag on their time being the bureaucracy. The circumstances that can throw it out wildly are:

  • Rubbish people. Or to be precise, rubbish people picking up the ticket after clever (and perhaps slightly cavalier) people have estimated how long it would take for them to do it themselves, rather than their idiot colleagues.
  • Wildly deranged estimation. If your I.W.O.M.M figure was way out on day one, you’re bolloxed.
  • Omissions. Minor tweaks can probably be mopped up along the way. But if the customer forgets to tell you something they need, or worse, they tell you and you forget to quote for it, ¡Ay, caramba!
  • Technical sinkholes. Some 3rd party library you rely on doesn’t behave and has to be replaced, some class you did write limps like a beaten dog and it takes ages to puzzle out why, a bit of keyhole surgery on some venerable old module turns into a quintuple bypass combined with a liver transplant, God knows what else. There are a thousand ways that the ground can open up beneath your feet and you would be very fortunate indeed if you got through an engagement without having to fill at least a couple of large potholes.
  • Fussy and/or stupid customers. Good users are rare and valuable. Bad ones are common, and will consume time and money like a fat kid gets through sausage rolls. It will take forever to establish what their requirements are, they will be revised whimsically and erratically, and UAT will take forever. They will insist that extras they’ve dreamed up minutes ago were in the original scope, even though there is substantially less physical evidence for that than for the Lost City of Atlantis. You can pour out your oily charm to flannel them into compliance, you can cuff them hard round the ears with the specification they signed off, or you can fold and deliver a truck load of extra features free, gratis and for nothing. Without doubt you will judiciously employ a combination of all three tactics (i.e. soft soap, stonewalling and presents), all of which soak up time and energy. As you want repeat business and to minimise moaning complaints to your superiors, you will almost certainly end up giving stuff away buckshee one way or another for the sake of a quiet life.
  • Supernumerary people and superfluous nonsense. You may have to carry and account for a few idiots doing pointless jobs badly. Perhaps you are required to support a Business Content Subject Matter Expert, or a couple of Enterprise Architects, or a Programme Administration Officer. Alternatively, there are vital ancillary duties to be done, but the morons assigned to doing them aren’t, can’t or won’t. You are landed with a technical author who is borderline illiterate, or are forced to provide a home to an analyst who would flounder putting together the user stories for Pong. The engineers plug the holes the gormless oafs ought to be filling with little fuss, but the parasitic cretins still send in timesheets and submit invoices and inevitably waste dollops of other, more useful people’s time as well.
Pong. Three moving parts, two dimensions, one colour, and yet still way beyond the ken of many Senior Vice Presidents of Product Management.

Pong. Three moving parts, two dimensions, one colour, and yet still way beyond the ken of many Senior Vice Presidents of Product Management.

One or more of these demons will manifest itself in your case, and will chew up days, weeks and months. Therefore you need another 15-20% on top to allow for what we in the trade call “random crap”. So, using maths, the alpha-to-omega-that’s-it-no-more-all-in-soup-to-nuts-breakfast-dinner-and-tea quote is:

100 days                                I.W.O.M.M

x          4.3                               Testing, bug-fixing, design, cutover, admin, form-filling etc

+          15-20% (or so)         Unforeseen disasters

=          500 days                  Near as dammit.

So five times as much as your opening I.W.O.M.M. gambit.

The Number Five, cultural, mystical and scientific significance thereof. Clockwise from top left: The Famous Five; Pentagram; Take Five; Five Fingers Has The Hand; Starfish; The MC5.

The Number Five, cultural, mystical and scientific significance thereof. Clockwise from top left: The Famous Five; Pentagram; Take Five; Five Fingers Has The Hand; Starfish; The MC5.

 

This is no more than a guideline and I cannot claim the number 5 as a new universal constant. But I have had a look back through a few old projects a few times with a semi-forensic eye and it seems to tally with the actuality, close enough for jazz anyway.

Whatever multiplier you come up with, your estimate will provoke an orgy of whinging and griping. Be firm when challenged, remember how badly things have turned out with earlier projects, and stick to your guns. Remind the sponsors of the many many overruns they have beaten you up about in the past, show them your calculations, or, if feeling bold, ask them if they fancy having a crack at hacking the bleeding code together themselves. Lastly, remind them of the many concrete physical icons of the modern age, outside of the dreary and intangible world of software, which began with wildly gung-ho and over-optimistic vision statements, and ended in recrimination and monumental budget increases. The Panama Canal. The Channel Tunnel. The Sydney Opera House. Soften them up with all this historical collateral, cuz when they ask how long it’s going to take, they’re going to be even more pissed off.

Budget at outset in 1957: A$7m, with a very definitive completion date of 26th January 1963. Australia Day, see. Ultimately spent A$102m , or a tad over 14 times as much, when eventually completed in 1973. Yes, iconic, yes global landmark, but, even compared with the dismal standards of software project forecasting, a bit late and a bit pricey.

Budget at outset in 1957: A$7m, with a very definitive completion date of 26th January 1963. Australia Day, see. Ultimately spent A$102m , or a tad over 14 times as much, when eventually completed in 1973. Yes, iconic, yes global landmark, but, even compared with the dismal standards of software project forecasting, a bit late and a bit pricey.

 

(*) Fnarr fnarr.

Kyuk kyuk.

Kyuk kyuk.

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Estimation, Part 2: How Bloody Much, or If You Think It’s So Easy, Why Don’t You Have A Bash At Writing The Bleeding Code Yourself ?

The very worst technology cock-ups kill people. These dreadful mistakes are thankfully rare, but they do happen(*). Half a notch down, and a Premier League technology disaster can cause injury, large-scale physical damage (to objects rather than humans), or buggeration, chaos and tumultuous upset on a massive scale. Putting aside the awful cases where people are hurt, and so long as you are not directly affected, these are the very best types of IT Shambles. Space probes explode, telephone networks implode, banks and ATMs grind to a halt, and airport departure lounges fill up with weary and irate travellers as booking or baggage handling systems go haywire. Usually the blame lies with some grandiose, pompous and terribly self-regarding bunch of twerps: a government department, a tax-avoiding, worker-exploiting multi-national or, best of all, a bumper-bonus-for-the-big-bosses bank. The aftermath is all over the telly and the papers, and those of us on the outside can relish a nice self-righteous gloat with oodles of delicious Schadenfreude.

Travellers stranded at Brisbane airport in 2010 when Virgin’s check-in and boarding systems collapsed. An excellent catastrophe as (a) nobody died (b) it happened a long way away to Australians and (c) smuggo Beardy Branson gets the rap for it.

Travellers stranded at Brisbane airport in 2010 when Virgin’s check-in and boarding systems collapsed. An excellent catastrophe as (a) nobody died (b) it happened a long way away to Australians and (c) smuggo Beardy Branson gets the rap for it.

But the IT Shambles that attains widespread notoriety by causing palpable newsworthy distress to Joe Public is still relatively exceptional. The bog standard debacle stays behind the closed doors of the corporation that spawned it and the one solitary thing it blows a big hole in is the balance sheet. Typically the rickety boneshaker being hacked together works eventually, or mostly works, or is abandoned and put down before anyone is daft enough to try and use it. It’s impact is thus limited to

  • Costing far more than anyone expected
  • Taking vastly longer than anyone expected.

The failure therefore boils down to planning, or in other words, a sharp difference between the theoretical cost and duration as hypothesised before the whole juggernaut set off, and the actual cost and duration after it had landed. If said differences were modest or negative nobody would give a toss, but frequently they are colossal and positive. One could argue that this points to a shortfall in execution: the Requirements Logs, Gantt Charts, Work Breakdown Structures, High Level Designs, Baseline Budgets and what not were all unquestionably first class, but the useless clowns we got in to build it couldn’t stop falling down on their arses and tripping over their enormous comedy shoes. This is exactly like claiming categorically that the weather is wrong because it is tipping it down when the lady on Look East said yesterday it was going to be bright sunshine. Whatever will be, will be, to quote Doris Day. If, when attempting to foretell the future you ignored key initial considerations such as the Atlantic Low coming up from the Bay of Biscay on the one hand, or the bunch of incompetent nutters you’d hired for the gig on the other, your attempt at reading the tea leaves was seriously knackered from the off.

Que Sera Sera. Whatever Will Be, Will Be. The Future’s Not Ours To See. Que Sera, Sera. Wise words ever-pertinent to the topic of Software Project Estimation, from the erstwhile Ms. Van Kappelhoff.

So, to make planning disaster merely quite likely rather than unconditionally predestined, what must one do ? The diligent reader will recall the IT Shambles advice for those about to give any species of estimate related to the production of any amount of software. It is the same advice one would give to a friend who was about to take up Morris dancing, or to transfer 500 quid to a Nigerian bank account in order to enable the release of frozen funds totalling many thousands of pounds, or to sniff glue. Don’t. Stand firm, don’t give in, Just Say No. Any other course of action is weak, foolish, grossly naïve and will only ever bring misery raining down upon your head in the very near future. Instead of making a firm commitment to sponsors, bosses and customers that you will positively definitely finish everything outright on date X having spent no more than £Y, why not instead hand them the free end of a noose tied round your neck, and invite them to give it a good hard yank any time they want, simply for the joy of hearing you choke.

Sniffing Glue. Not a good idea. Daft lads, The Ramones. Not surprisingly all dead now, apart from Tommy, and snuffed it in all three cases well before earning their bus pass.

But sometimes the level of threat, cajolement and chicanery is such that all of your prevarication cards have been trumped, all your wily dodges countered, and all your misdirection and sleight of hand seen through. You have finally been outwitted by senior stakeholders even more devious, ruthless and underhand than you are and have no way out other than to fold and give the bastards an estimate. Or rather a quote. Everybody says estimate, but discards its old-fashioned meaning in plain English of “rough calculation or guess” in favour of the new corporate business definition of “100% accurate prediction of what will happen.” This fervent belief that projects can be scientifically forecast in advance is one of the many absolute truths of the modern workplace which we are required to accept as Iron Laws of Nature in public while simultaneously being fully aware are utter steaming nonsense in private. Similar anti-axioms which must continually be swallowed include:

  • the huge efficiencies obtainable via outsourcing and off-shoring
  • the necessity of matrix management
  • the vitality of a robust performance management framework as imposed by a dynamic Human Resources function
  • and so on and so on and so on

Nonetheless, you’re stuck with the appalling responsibility now. You have to take the farrago as it has been described in acres of UML diagrams, thousands of rows of Excel, or a banker’s box full of bits of paper covered in magic marker scribble, and make a plausible stab at how much effort will be required to lash the damned crate together, tighten up all its bolts and get the engine ticking over.

Your business analyst awaits delivery of the penultimate container load of requirements, yesterday.

Your business analyst awaits delivery of the penultimate container load of requirements, yesterday.

But one must not lose hope. Before being manoeuvred into a position where you had to come up with an infallible clairvoyant prognostication of what is to come, you would surely have fired off a whole battery of cunning and devious delaying tactics. These have all failed, but as a side-effect of their use you will now have:

  • Some requirements, which are ostensibly complete, fairly detailed, and more or less comprehensible.
  • A full list of the technology standards, rules, regulations, by-laws, decrees, edicts, directives and commandments that the architects and any other floating techno-autocrats demand you adhere to.
  • Half an idea of the boxes and wires on which you will be graciously allowed to install your marvellous creation.
  • The names of the guys and gals that will be constructing it with you.

So you know what you’ve got to do, most of the constraints and handicaps you’ll be burdened with, and who’s on the squad. The next few steps are obvious, if not easy: assemble your crack team, tell them what you know, plough through the massive spreadsheet containing the 7,846 MUST-HAVE use cases, and put figures on each one. There are lots of ways to do this. Some like Planning Poker, are moderately entertaining. Others like Function Point Analysis, not so much. None are perfect, and all are slanted to some degree towards over-confidence: that story shouldn’t take more than a week, should it ? Same way you reckon you’ll only have a couple of pints and then head home, and are pretty convinced that it won’t rain.

Assuming the Optimism Bias is not too marked, what you will end up with once you have totted up the 7,846 entries in column W is a partly (but not very) educated conjecture at how many idealised person days it will take until It Works On My Machine, or I.W.O.M.M. as we shall henceforth be abbreviating this to. To transform an ethereal vaporous notion into something which is written and runs, albeit solely on the desktop of a bloke who knows every subroutine inside out, is a minor triumph and should be celebrated with cake and maybe even a small sweet sherry. But it is a long way from the end, and there is much else to be done before you can safely allow unsupervised and primitive end users to get their mitts on your kit. The question of how much more is where opinion sharply divides.

The fact that it I.W.O.M.M. is a milestone worth recognising, but modestly. Don’t be getting caterers in or anything fancy, not yet anyway.

The fact that it I.W.O.M.M. is a milestone worth recognising, but modestly. Don’t be getting caterers in or anything fancy, not yet anyway.

There’s no single straight answer to this, but there are a lot of theories. Many people still strongly maintain that if I.W.O.M.M, then it is effectively done. Bung it live, reboot the server, job’s a good ‘un. I would strongly maintain that anyone who thinks that is mental and / or whacked off his mash on hash, pills and booze. You will find this brand of wildly cocky self-assurance coming from both blue-suited expensively-shod Programme Management Consultants as well as sandal-wearing nylon-trousered oddly hirsute Unix freaks. The suits use it cynically as yet another lever to squeeze time out of plans, labour out of proles, and blood out of stones. The beardy weirdys on the other hand are in deadly earnest, as they genuinely believe they always get everything right first time. They think they really are Jesus, rather than just resembling his pastier, fatter brother.

The sainted Fred Brooks, who is the opposite of a nutter, contends that getting the first draft up on its hind legs is about 1/9th of the whole shebang. That’s a ninth. 1 part in 9. 11.111%. From that point to tying the whole package up with a bow will require eight times as much manpower as you’ve already expended so far. His reasoning is that to get from a program running in one place to a programming product which has been generalised, tested, documented, holds up in a variety of environments with all manner of data, and can be maintained by others, you need to expend triple the effort. Similarly, to move from a program to a programming system component that uses and obeys defined interfaces and which cleanly integrates with other components, once again you need to triple the effort. In all likelihood you want to travel along both axes and start with a program but end with the sturdier, handier and more effective utensil that Brooks terms a programming systems product component. That then is going to take you nine times as long overall.

Most people are sane enough to realise (or at least can be persuaded to realise) that development-complete is a long way from actually-complete or even mostly-complete. The question is specifically how far away ? There is no straight answer to that. It varies, depending upon the neighbourhood you are operating in. When cobbling together a semi-disposable utility to be used by yourself and couple of other blokes, there might genuinely be little more to do once you’ve got your first draft going. But if you’re writing an engine management unit, a mass-market video game or a shrink-wrapped office application, then Uncle Fred’s 9x rule will be bang on if not a little rose-tinted. Most of us, most of the time, are somewhere between those two poles, but as we are typically being paid by a third party to write software for civilians, usually a lot nearer to the turnkey, off-the-shelf, heavier-weight end of the spectrum.

A powerful and virulent strain of myth persists that if you take the I.W.O.M.M number and double it, that should be ample time to do all that is required including buying the packet of celebratory custard creams. Folks that take that line generally feel that because they have added the same amount again in terms of budget / time / effort / people / man months / “resource”(**) to the I.W.O.M.M. figure, they have thereby been pretty darn conservative and careful. They will maintain that a 100% uplift should be more than enough to cover all ancillary work, any reasonably conceivable calamity and sundry other unexpected eventualities up to and including miscellaneous umbrella repairs. If you put it to them that the estimate should be twice or three or four times as much again, they are liable to feel that you are featherbedding to a ludicrous degree, or possibly even swindling them for personal gain. Much wailing, gnashing of teeth and grinding of spreadsheets will ensue before they will even grudgingly accept that you have not padded an estimate purely so as you can put in a gentle three day week with plenty of nice lie-ins and long tea breaks over the next six months.

Well-padded estimates in order to facilitate tea-breaks, lie-ins and pissing-off-earlys on Fridays are fundamental as a basis for decent civilised living. Take South Korea. A hive of industrial efficiency and hard graft where everyone gets up at the crack of dawn, stays late at the office, sings the company song with ardently faked gusto and never ever sneaks out for 20 minutes to read the Racing Post behind the bike sheds with a cup of tea and a fag. They put us decadent Europeans to shame. But as a consequence, the poor overstressed underleisured sods have the highest level of suicide and the lowest birth rate amongst the major industrial nations. Seriously, they could learn a lot about slacking off from us.

Well-padded estimates in order to facilitate tea-breaks, lie-ins and pissing-off-earlys on Fridays are fundamental as a basis for decent civilised living. Take South Korea. A hive of industrial efficiency and hard graft where everyone gets up at the crack of dawn, stays late at the office, sings the company song with ardently faked gusto and never ever sneaks out for 20 minutes to read the Racing Post behind the bike sheds with a cup of tea and a fag. They put us decadent Europeans to shame. But as a consequence, the poor overstressed underleisured sods have the highest level of suicide and the lowest birth rate amongst the major industrial nations. Seriously, they could learn a lot about slacking off from us.

End Note: this was intended to be the second and last diatribe on the topic of Software Project Estimation. But, despite having droned on for thousands of words on the topic already over two long screeds, all I have really succeeded in establishing is that:

(a)    It’s a mug’s game

(b)   You’ll get it wrong

(c)    It’s going to cost tons

(d)   It’s going to take ages

(e)    People are idiots and / or scum (see also: well, any previous post)

I have not got anywhere near quantifying how much it could cost or how many ages it might take. It is apparent now that reaching that goal is going to take me a few more thousand words of droning recrimination. In a move which is both neatly illustrative and ironically self-referential, I have profoundly under-estimated the amount to be said about project estimation.

- – -  E n d . . . M o r e  F o l l o w s . . . M u c h  M o r e . . .  – - -

(*) Computers bugs have killed people. The Therac-25 was a software-controlled medical instrument used to deliver measured bursts of radiation to cancer patients. A race condition resulted in at least six occasions where patients received massive overdoses, and three died from radiation sickness as a result. Less categorically, an RAF Chinook crashed in Scotland in 1994 and though not certain the most credible explanation is faulty engine control software. There are another couple of handfuls of fully attested fatal incidents, and then there is this one when a Soviet missile defence satellite misinterpreted the sun reflecting from clouds as a pre-emptive first strike by the Yanks. Fortunately, the Russian duty officer’s mercifully sound gut instinct told him it was a mistake and a false alarm, and he reported it up the line as such. Were it not for that, we could have had retaliation, escalation and the whole Mutually Assured Destruction finale straight out of Dr Strangelove in 1983. Milk Chocolate Hobnobs, the Internet, Father Ted and many other good things would never have been invented, but then again neither would Piers Morgan or Vanilla Ice.

(**) Anyone who uses the word “resource” to mean “person” outside of “ironic quotation marks” should be shot. But then, anyone using “ironic quotation marks” should be shot too.

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Estimation, Part 1: I Have Seen The Future, But It Was All Wrong

As a young chap, I used to have Faith. In many different things, but specifically for my purposes here, Faith in the determinism and predictability of Software Development. So long as one was completely cognisant of the architectural paradigms, governance and processes to be followed, and providing that one diligently itemised the requirements, acceptance criteria and technical tasks in their entirety, and on the strict understanding that all interested parties had contributed thoroughgoing analysis of effort, risks and issues, with all appropriate weightings applied and interactions considered, I was confident that one could forecast with pinpoint precision the end date of a project. I was a Believer.

The marvellous and strange Robert Wyatt covers The Monkees. First wheelchair on Top of the Pops, music trivia fans note.

But I was an idiot when I was young. I am not a Believer any more. Nowadays I refrain from giving all but the vaguest estimates, and will finally, grudgingly proffer a delivery date only when I know for sure that the job in question is already 99.99% done. Even then, I will pad furiously. Estimating, planning, scheduling, forecasting, however you name it, is an attempt to predict the future and as such an undertaking drenched in fraudulence, self-delusion, misery and failure. As noted in earlier symposia, it is, without a hint of doubt in every instance doomed, doomed and thrice doomed. Every time you give the customers a plan and a date, within weeks it will turn out to be patently unachievable nonsense, and then you will be beaten viciously with that original date by your sponsor until the bleeding thing finally limps over the finish line months and months later.

Predicting the future. Never a wise thing to try. Old Mother Shipton reckoned the world would end in 1981. It didn’t. Burt Reynolds was in The Cannonball Run. Charles and Lady Di got married. Bucks Fizz won Eurovision.

Predicting the future. Never a wise thing to try. Old Mother Shipton reckoned the world would end in 1981. It didn’t. Burt Reynolds was in The Cannonball Run. Charles and Lady Di got married. Bucks Fizz won Eurovision.

This grim and endlessly replayed scenario is in fact avoidable. With age and experience, and to some extent in response to a long series of savage kickings, come guile and a species of low cunning that it would be over-generous to call wisdom but which nonetheless can save you from ever being so daft as to give your enemies a weapon in the form of a “guaranteed” deadline date. The trick is never to refuse outright to produce a date, but always to have one more condition that those demanding it, or some other handy third party, have to fulfil before you are able to do so. Now. As clients hate exerting themselves in any way, shape or form, and will employ all manner of countermeasures to avoid doing so, and as every other clique involved in the IT racket is equally dodgy, workshy, incompetent and slopey-shouldered, this will almost certainly provide a series of pre-requisites which will never be altogether met. Requirements are obviously the first line of defence. They pretty much always are a pile of crap, so it’s a good start. One clearly cannot even commence design, let alone planning, without superlative requirements signed off by those who commissioned the job. It will take months of refinement with the sharper techies in your team leading the business analysts by the nose before something more or less comprehensible and codable can be extracted from the morass of ambiguous waffle, jargon, inconsistencies and plain rubbish you were given to begin with. The unsophisticated would leave it at that, but the craftier fox will insist that this final draft is endorsed by the Steering Group. Top brass don’t do work as a rule, and they will squirm as hard as they possibly can to sidestep doing work that may require them to take traceable non-deniable responsibility for something in the future. However, your employer’s own bureaucracy will come to your aid at this point. For within the hefty volumes of your Enterprise Delivery Process Handbook, it will assuredly be spelled out many times in many different ways that only the Big Boys can make the Big Decisions as the small fry ain’t got the moxie, and that validating scope is one of those indubitably Big Decisions. It’s there in black and white: they gotta read all the bumph and grudgingly concur that it does represent what they asked for. Millennia will pass, oceans freeze, and mountain ranges rise and fall as they try and wiggle out of that culpability booby trap.

It is tempting to hope that they never do get out of the hole you have pushed them into, but in the end something will give. They might just for once decide to do the decent thing: wade through all the docco, table a motion at their next meeting and carry it nem con. More likely, they will find an underling to do their homework for them and write up a one page summary, and then move to accept on the basis of that recommendation. Less effort, and with the added bonus that a stooge can be conveniently bollocked, blamed and booted out when the need arises. Or it could be that the MD comes down like a ton of bricks and tells them to bloody well get on with it. Either way, your first set of barricades will eventually be breached. But do not be alarmed. You have bought valuable time, and there are several more delaying tactics at your disposal. We will continue to adopt a Judo-esque approach whereby our enemy’s vulnerabilities are used against them, and again we will deploy the company’s own processes and procedures as a lever to get what we want, but this time in the sphere of Architecture and Design.

In defending any position, defence in depth is essential. But one does need to know when finally to throw in the towel. If you wind up tearing up cobblestones in order to fortify the office against enraged and potentially violent Executive Vice Presidents, things have probably gone a little too far.

In defending any position, defence in depth is essential. But one does need to know when finally to throw in the towel. If you wind up tearing up cobblestones in order to fortify the office against enraged and potentially violent Executive Vice Presidents, things have probably gone a little too far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Architects love to theorise and pontificate, not always to entirely productive effect as has been noted before. This can be vexing, but if you want to stop things happening it can be ruddy handy. You have your assignment and it now has its requirements laser-etched into granite tablets, but self-evidently you cannot hope to plan out the delivery until the technology choices, design patterns and architectural frameworks have been agreed. So line up a bevy of architect types, and set the buggers off to do just that, or rather to argue the toss about it practically forever. Eons will pass. Scotland will drift away from England and connect with Iceland to form a new continent. Mars will be colonised. Bruce Forsyth will finally disappear from British TV screens. They may eventually finish ideating, creovating and squabbling amongst themselves but you can buy another couple of decades by getting them to present their proposal at the Strategic Architecture Review Board for final assent.

And so on. Once the Architects are happy, you can bring in the Boxes and Wires goons. Hardware people despise everything related to software and will flatly reject anything that comes from that direction on principle. The Systems view is that any kit they set up should be used solely for running performance alerts and virus scanners. Bunging some code on it that performs a conceivably useful function poses far too much of a security risk. So they ain’t gonna be nodding anything through. But naturally your officially sanctioned IT rules and regulations mandate that Systems must advise on, assess and approve any and all changes and deliveries to, via, across or upon all group infrastructure. You could be waiting for several years after the Day of Judgement before your Data Centre colleagues consent to the installation of your nasty bit of hackery-pokery on the blessed machines in their sanctified server racks. Thwack. Back of the Net.

Alan Partridge demonstrates the correct usage of the phrase “Back of the Net”.

All of which goes to demonstrate that, with so much governance, so many contributing parties, and so many boxes to be ticked, the wily and devious can slide round Gantt charts and deadlines almost indefinitely. But I am not by any stretch advocating loafing about. Quite the reverse. While all this positioning and dodging is going on, and concerns are being raised and challenges dealt with and issues and risks mitigated, you and the rest of the people who prefer doing stuff to pratting about have the space and time to get on with some actual business. You will obviously pass it off as prototyping or investigation or bug fixing, or maybe knocking off a handful of quick wins before the main event, but in fact you will be making the changes that everybody knows needs to be made, but within a cunningly synthesised pre-project governance-free limbo. Without the ceaseless demands for progress updates, exception reports, risk mitigation strategies, resource requisitions and lemon-soaked paper napkins, it may be possible to have a crack at some code and get moving without having to beg permission for every line typed, critique the productivity of every hour spent, and continually justify with voluminous spreadsheets that what is being done is in complete accordance with the Programme Vision, Project Brief, Technology Budget, Business Case, High-Level Plan, Mid-Level Plan and Quality Delivery Checklist. In short, you have to pretend to be doing all manner of pointless guff while simultaneously pretending not to do what you really are doing which is the necessary or even vital exercise that you were supposed to be doing in the first place.

This is ridiculous but not uncommon, and by no means restricted to the tedious world of an IT Shambles. There is often a huge gulf between what people say they want and what they honestly need. Imagine for a moment if a kindly but foolish parent did absolutely everything that his vocal, egocentric and frankly silly children asked him to do, and if he let them do absolutely everything they wanted to do. Things would not end well. The little blighters would stay up every night until three a.m. playing Minecraft and watching YouTube. They would go to school once a week. They would rarely leave the house, and never do anything resembling exercise. They would exist on a diet composed exclusively of Skittles, Coke, Monster Munch and Pizza. They would love the new regime for a fortnight, but after a year would be dribbling, irritable, grossly obese, friendless, and profoundly miserable.

Clockwise from top left: Skittles, Coke, Monster Munch and Pizza. Good for a birthday party, but not a sensible diet for the longer term.

Clockwise from top left: Skittles, Coke, Monster Munch and Pizza. Good for a birthday party, but not a sensible diet for the longer term.

In the case of shambolic project planning, what everybody needs you to do is whatever gubbins that provided the reason for the project to be initiated in the first place – the enhanced customer billing engine, the new turbine blade modelling package, the improved sonic-death-ray fire direction module, whatever it may be. That is the point. If the blasted thing gets built and runs and can fill the hole it was intended to fill, it was worthwhile. If it isn’t or doesn’t or can’t, then all the Optimised Critical Paths in Christendom will not stop it from being a complete waste of time. What everybody wants you to do, though, is participate in their mass-hysterical fiction that many months of extremely complex and ill-defined technical slog can be planned out as accurately as the sonic-death-ray beam can be targeted, by dint of analysing the bejaysus out of every single risk, story, dependency, milestone and requirement from now until Kingdom Come. They ask you to do this not only because they are bad people, but also because they believe it will help. In fact, they often sincerely believe that it is impossible for things to proceed any other way. They have no conception that doing and planning are two different things, or that the second may get in the way of the first a bit. But as we enlightened few know, in fact the endless preparatory box-ticking will soak up all of the energy that should have been spent on doing the proper job. If you are so naïve as to give them, the Senior Stakeholders and the Programme Office and the Business Sponsor and all the rest of the influential morons what they want, they will never in the end get what they need.


You Can’t Always Get What You Want. The Rolling Stones making the same point with fewer words but far more funky swagger

So there it is. Treat those harassing you as if they were querulous spoilt children, and use every trick in the book to dodge their requests for plans, deadlines, estimates, timelines, schedules and copper-bottomed iron-clad fully certified delivery dates. Any other course of action displays both bumbling ineptitude and a shameful lack of backbone.

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Know Your Enemies, No. 2: Consultants Again

We established conclusively in last month’s monograph that IT consultants are, on the whole, self-serving parasitic scum who have precisely two areas of high and mutually synergistic capability:

(a)    Bamboozlement at the Vice President level and above.

(b)   Shamelessly sky high invoicing.

But we have not yet looked properly at the type of snake oil they are peddling, and how they manage to keep on flogging it to credulous head honchos year after year after year.

Ah, for the days of the good old fashioned traditional down home authentically rustic conman, unencumbered by of this fancy-dancy modern day MBA nonsense.

Ah, for the days of the good old fashioned traditional down home authentically rustic conman, unencumbered by of this fancy-dancy modern day MBA nonsense.

Used Ideas are the commodities in which consultants trade. Software seems to breed a lot of this guff. Every third propeller-headed geek seems to fancy themselves as a Yoda of the Code(*) and so has developed their own pet philosophy, theory, best practice or development credo that they never tire of droning on about. Some of the lustier strains of dogmatic crankery make it out of the office into the wild and end up spawning sprawling ecosystems of handbooks, evangelists, training courses, gurus and toolkits. UML, for example, was all the rage in the early 2000s. Barely a week would go by without some grinning nutter of a business analyst turning up at your desk with bits of paper filled with ovals, arrows and little stick men. Thankfully those days are gone but new panaceas for global efficiency are minted every year.

Not only stating the bleeding obvious, but also over-stating it in such a ponderous and laborious way as to make decent sensible people grind their teeth down to stumps.

Not only stating the bleeding obvious, but also over-stating it in such a ponderous and laborious way as to make decent sensible people grind their teeth down to stumps.

So what does the market in pre-owned IT enlightenment look like now ? Well, over the last few decades, since the PC revolution made computers ubiquitous and IT projects a chronically untreatable blight of boils on the body corporate, there has at any given time been some currently hot IT doctrine which will wash your dishes whiter, shift stubborn understains and reduce the visible signs of aging more effectively than any other leading brand. In less than half a century we have had Six Sigma, TQM, Kanban, PRINCE2, XP, Scrum, TDD, BDD, SSADM, RAD, Rational Unified Process and The Zachman Framework to name just the first dozen which come to mind. Right now various flavours of Agile are to your average IT department what G Plan furniture, microwave ovens, the family saloon or the video recorder were to the aspirational post-war consumer. They are the must-have lifestyle-revolutionising commodity which will lead one into easy, comfortable, streamlined, successful living. Consultants exploit the changing fashions of corporate IT received wisdom in exactly the same way that advertising executives create and ride the endless waves of retail hysteria.

Just what is it that makes today's IT projects so different, so successful ?

Just what is it that makes today’s IT projects so different, so successful ?

Again, I sincerely do not want to be too dismissive. Not all of those once or currently hip methodologies are complete toss. They could do good, if applied sensitively and with some understanding of what the company they are being applied to does and needs. One could imagine the modern day Flora Poste spending a few months head-scratching before offering up a couple of handfuls of useful suggestions. One expensive mega-project ought to be canned, say. Three separate bits of gubbins doing the same job could be combined into one. Better business analysis is needed, as well as a lot more testing and testers. Maybe even dip a toe into test-driven development in a couple of spots. That system could be neatly replaced with a buy-in which would do a much better job. Those ones on the other hand can’t, and should be kept, but they’d be better maintained in-house rather than by a conveyer belt of fixed price contracts with innumerable semi-competent outsourced offshore numpties. That area could tentatively “go agile.” That bit on the other hand is working fine. Leave it well alone. And so on. But that would require most or all of the boxes in the checklist of ideal consultant virtues proffered in last month’s instalment to be comprehensively ticked. Let us have a look at that list again. For a consultant to truly merit their briefcase full of twenties, they would have to be honest, able, fearless, astute and self-sacrificing to such an extent that they:

  1. Understand software, IT and the business they are advising.
  2. Are sincerely concerned with improving it.
  3. Possess some acumen which could genuinely be of use, garnered from long and bitter experience of being dropped into and sorting out disastrous technology debacles.
  4. Are prepared to solicit opinion from all corners and all levels, from the CEO to the code monkeys to the call centre.
  5. Have no desire to extend their contract beyond the point where they can do good.
  6. Do not wish to bring in any of their pals on big fat day rates.
  7. Have no additional products or services up their sleeves which their employer is gagging to sell to their client.

If your man could at least muster points one, two and three, then he would be at least be competent, willing to help and possess the insight to figure out what might make things run better. However these boxes are never ticked, and if they were, the guy wouldn’t be the sort who’d get the job. A sharp cookie unafraid of speaking the truth and shaming the devil might well make the foolish mistake of pointing out that much of the mess in IT is caused by factors above and outside it. Say, the changes in strategic direction made by the board every damn year, leading to the commissioning of yet more costly and pointless techie clobber whilst existing kit which could be enhanced and improved more economically withers and stumbles. Perhaps the ever increasing requirement for bureaucracy, checkpoints and approvals in the name of governance and oversight might be getting in the way of progress rather than assisting it. Conceivably three of the directors being locked into a tedious alpha-male pissing competition isn’t terribly constructive either, as each time one of the twits gets some dopey vanity project approved the other two have to be compensated with equivalently witless IT budget-flushers thereby wasting three large sacks of money at a time rather than one.

An oft-used, arguably somewhat hackneyed, but still accurate and valuable visual metaphor for typical project progress within the shambolic IT space.

An oft-used, arguably somewhat hackneyed, but still accurate and valuable visual metaphor for typical project progress within the shambolic IT space.

Nope, that’s the kind of candour that leads one away from a four figure day rate. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, and if that piper is a shrewd piper and wants some well-paid repeat piping business, he’ll make sure his tunes flatter his paymaster. It’s an ignoble tradition across many fields of human activity. Even the venerated Bard was not immune; Shakespeare spent a lot of stage time bigging up the Tudors whilst giving a good posthumous kicking to Richard III. Following that bitter but compelling logic to its inevitable end, it’s fairly predictable what lines the final recommendations will follow.

Richard of York. Lovely bloke, by all reliable accounts. Loyal, brave, not at all hunchbacked and probably not a multiple-tower-prince-killer. Definitely didn’t deserve to be traduced by a propagandist Brummie scribbler in the pay of the new regime, or dumped under a car park in Leicester for 500 years.

Richard of York. Lovely bloke, by all reliable accounts. Loyal, brave, not at all hunchbacked and probably not a multiple-tower-prince-killer. Definitely didn’t deserve to be traduced by a propagandist Brummie scribbler in the pay of the new regime, or dumped under a car park in Leicester for 500 years.

First off, there’ll obviously be big dollops of whichever techniques, gear and psychobabble are currently snazziest and most ostensibly cutting edge and therefore most likely to dazzle the crowd. These lumps of currently modish tripe will be served up in the usual syrupy IT mumbo jumbo gumbo sauce with pints of buzzwords, quarts of polysyllabic waffle, and buckets of trite truisms delivered in such magisterial tones that it is as if a new science were being unveiled. Because of the need to butter up the audience and the desire to include everything sexy that could be thought of, the 200 page submission will be awash with contradictions even to the casual reader. One section will extol the virtues of agility, flexibility and iterative development. Two chapters later, the tub will be thumped for superlative requirements gathering, exhaustive planning, an unbreakable grip on scope and the iron fist of tight project management leading to right-first-time-on-time-on-budget delivery. The pages between will valiantly attempt to paper over the giant logical crevasse between these positions using all the rhetorical flourishes and weapons-grade jargon the writers can muster. In some cases there will be blatant jarring discord even within the same sentence, as one course of action is advocated from logic that would support its exact opposite. For example:

“Because it is essential that the business procure, and seamlessly integrate, best-in-class software over the whole technology landscape, it is vital that a single ‘One-Stop Shop’ supplier is engaged who can deliver a co-ordinated suite of interoperating solutions across the whole piece.”

How will each piece be best in class if you’re going to get all of them from the same place ? If you did need the best in the world for everything, you’d shop around. You’d go to Jermyn Street for your shoes, and maybe direct to an organic farm in Norfolk for your sausages. It amounts to saying that you wish to buy the finest wines, meats, cheeses, washing machines, underpants and literature available to humanity, and as it’s the only place you can find all of those goods sold together under the same roof, you must buy them from a really big out of town Tescos. The true greatness of that blob of italicised consultantese(**) is that it builds a daft contradiction from a set of asinine premises that are wrong to begin with. It isn’t essential that you buy any software. It certainly isn’t necessary to buy all new software for everything and what you do buy needn’t be the absolute tip-top toppermost of the poppermost; it just has to work well enough. And it categorically doesn’t all have to be bought from a single one of the mega-combines and, even if it is, all the pieces are very unlikely to slot together neatly and easily.

Argos. It’s got the biggest catalogue, therefore it must ipso facto have all of the very the best stuff. That’s A-grade ironclad consultant logic, that is.

Argos. It’s got the biggest catalogue, therefore it must ipso facto have all of the very the best stuff. That’s A-grade ironclad consultant logic, that is.

But it sounds nice, and most importantly it parrots back the half-baked and inconsistent notions of the bigwigs that commissioned the consultancy exercise in the first place. Because above all else, arselicking the top bosses is what the consultants want and need to do. They may have spent months gathering data, interviewing multifarious peons and producing pyschogeographical organisational topologies but the key inputs to the consultants’ final report will be the half-dozen half hour chit-chats they had with the directors. If an influential one of those Wise Men believes that strict adherence to ITIL(***) is the key to success, then that axiomatic truth will be hammered into every other page. If another one read something in Computer Weekly about amazing synergies achieved through Cloud-based hosting, then it’ll be Amazon this, that and the other all the way through. The other consequence of this continual need to soft-soap the top brass is that they will be kowtowed to incessantly as an essential source of wise counsel and sound judgement. If this was just another layer of the old flannel, that would be alright but sadly this has woeful practical consequences in the form of More Bloody Governance and Extra Sodding Sign-offs. Once all of the report’s many edicts have been enacted in full, and despite all its windy pontification about empowerment and flat structures and proactivity, you will find that approval is needed at the Assistant Director level or above for any spend over fifty quid or job of more than half a day’s duration. This on the basis that the plebs below haven’t even the wit to pour piss out of their own boots and therefore solid business decisions must be escalated up to those lofty Alpine heights where the air is pure and the lakes filled with clear blue managerial sagacity and erudition.

Up in the Managerial Mountains, where one can see from miles away what the toiling peasants in the valleys below will overlook, though it may be just under their miserable grubby lower-class noses. Much like this scene, albeit with more cufflinks, mahogany and trays of artisanal delicatessen sandwiches.

Up in the Managerial Mountains, where one can see from miles away what the toiling peasants in the valleys below will overlook, though it may be just under their miserable grubby lower-class noses. Much like this scene, albeit with more cufflinks, mahogany and trays of artisanal delicatessen sandwiches.

It’s not so much that your average Captains of Industry are any more vain, ignorant, self-aggrandizing and silly than the rest of us, but rather that they are more often given scope to exercise those defective personality traits and are able to do so in such a way that is ruinous for their workforce, their shareholders and ultimately the economy as a whole. Indeed, today’s weird contra-logical lunatic commercial setup seems actively to encourage them to behave in these ways, and to reward them handsomely for doing so. Consider at the extreme the Remuneration Committee of your typical large PLC, which has the job of setting salaries and benefits for the directors and other notable high-ups in the firm. It will be composed of non-executive directors who are in theory independent of the day to day (executive) management. But in fact they are drawn from the same slightly stagnant pool of top talent, the floating international gentleman’s club of senior suits. They will all be on several other boards around the world, mostly in a non-exec capacity but likely as not as a real live C-something-O somewhere. Or if they aren’t right now, they have been recently  and will be again shortly. Their kids went to the same schools, they see each other at the Royal Opera House and Turnberry, and they’re always bumping in to one another in the marina at Antibes. So when the committee meets and its august membership pose themselves the question “How much should hard-working, visionary, agreeable grandees such as ourselves be paid ?” it is not hard to guess which of the options

(a)    a little more

(b)   substantially more

(c)    a vast amount more in order to adequately reflect the massive weight of responsibility shouldered, the golden leadership acuity provided, and the need to compete internationally in order to procure and retain the very best expertise.

they might be likely to plump for.

But let us return from this tangential and generalised up-the-workers-down-with-the-bosses harangue to the point, i.e. the specific case of IT Consultants and their dreaded final report. We have by now clearly established that little can be expected from this lengthy eructation beyond flannel, fads, flattery, fudge and fashionable foolishness. That will not of course stop the piles of bumph being perused with a solemnity worthy of the publication of On the Origin of Species or The Wealth of Nations, and will not prevent your professional world being turned upside down for the next few years on the strength of its baseless and nonsensical proposals. Until, in fact, the company reaches the conclusion of its next consultancy exercise after yet another shitstorm of disasters. This will naturally demand the wholesale reversal of anything that was implemented the last time around: jobs that were outsourced should come back in, bespoke systems commissioned should be junked and replaced by packages, existing buy-ins replaced by self-builds, and if everything was Open Source before, then it’s all Microsoft now. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même f**king chose all over a-bloody-gain, as they say in France. There will be another round of tumultuous upheaval in the continuing quest to find a short cut to the sublime, a portal to a parallel universe of perfection, or a silver bullet(****) to slay the seven succubi of software development or what have you. And it won’t work in any way, shape or form, and the only thing that will be high-throughput, smooth, rapid and efficient will be the flow of money from customer to consultant. Or from sucker to swindler, if we decide finally to start calling a spade a spade.

But on the bright side, consultancy exercises do at least offer a break from mundane everyday routine. Here’s hoping you get a good one next time, who offers something a little more challenging than a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces as a team problem envisioning exercise.

Consultancy: How It Should Be Done. “The pig doesn’t care about you, but you care about the pig.”

- – - E n d – - -

(*) And the worst of these opinionated gits are the bloggers. On they bore, every month (or every bloody week if they have a particularly bad case of blogorrhoea) with their latest Olympian pronouncement on the emergent technology landscape. God, I hate bloggers. Unmitigated pompous gobshiteing twats, to a man and woman.

(**) Depressingly, almost a direct quote from a hefty consultancy excretion seen by this author.

(***) ITIL purports to stand for Information Technology Infrastructure Library and is a highly formalised means of controlling computer systems, services and projects. See here. It’s absolutely appalling. ITIL seems to have been invented purely to prevent anything at all happening ever, and to ensure that hard-working, clever, helpful and productive people are placed firmly under the thumb of the lazy, the stupid, the officious and the worthless. It amounts to an imposition of Feudalism on software development. Possible actual derivations include:

  • Inane, Totalitarian, Infuriating, Leaden.
  • Idiots Terminate IT Labours
  • It’s Terrible; I’d Leave

(****) Re: Silver Bullets – there aren’t any. Fred Brooks is older, cleverer and wiser than you and I, and he says so.

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Know Your Enemies, No. 2: Consultants, Volume I

Every large organisation is a complete shambles. Private companies, local and national government, charities, armed forces, British, Commonwealth and Foreign, all are hysterical bedlams of ego, bureaucracy, in-fighting, nonsense, confusion, pointlessness and stupidity. This is not always obvious from the outside. Through the evil agencies of marketing and PR what is internally a rotting cess pit can present to the world a shining spotless face of ingenious innovation, serene competence and worthy public spirit. We, the public, being the innocent souls we are, and with the childishly hopeful desire to be able to trust what Important People tell us, accept all of this bunkum at face value. Americans are particularly good at this type of extreme hyperbolic duality, to the point of being beyond satire or even comment.

"A magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price."

“A magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.”

“Don’t be evil.”

“Don’t be evil.”

"Can't break it, can't break in. Unbreakable."

“Can’t break it, can’t break in. Unbreakable.”

And with those big budget advertising con tricks comes great, great danger. We may consciously and vigorously dismiss the slogans, the ads and the hype the moment we see them, but the cumulative drip-drip-drip effect over many years is to form the subconscious belief that somewhere, over the rainbow, there are super-professional people in blue chip corporations doing everything perfectly right first time. They’re not having to wait three weeks and fill in two forms in order to get a new swivel chair or set of whiteboard markers. When they ring up IT support, the phone rings once before being picked up by a PhD-educated techno-ninja who has understood their problem in 5 seconds, diagnosed in 10, and fixed it in 25. But of course they never in practice have to speak to this wunderkind, as nothing ever goes wrong. IT projects whirr smoothly along the conveyer belt from design to development to deployment with the laser-guided automated efficiency of a Toyota production line.

Toyota. The acme of fantastically perfect Japanese engineering excellence. If you were to work there, you’d probably find out it’s a disaster – all the robots are fake, everything’s held together with electrical tape, filler and super-glue, and they all clock off at quarter to four on a Friday afternoon after staggering back from the noodle bar pissed on sake at half past two.

Toyota. The acme of fantastically perfect Japanese engineering excellence. If you were to work there, you’d probably find out it’s a disaster – all the robots are fake, everything’s held together with electrical tape, filler and super-glue, and they all clock off at quarter to four on a Friday afternoon after staggering back from the noodle bar pissed on sake at half past two.

It has to be tripe. You know this empirically, as every time you end up working for one of these first division teams they turn out to be an even bigger farce than the tuppenny-ha’penny-cottage-­industry-circuit-boards-on-the-kitchen-table-amongst-cat-food-and-leftover-curry outfit that you came from. The pay’s better, and it turns up every month more reliably, and you don’t have bits of solder and hair floating around in your cup of tea, but a lot less gets done with a lot more aggro than when you were hacking about on an Archimedes in Dave’s spare room. But still the nagging doubt remains – somewhere, the grass is luminously green and lush, and not just because it’s covered in an aggressively vigorous strain of mould.

And so the Myth of Premium Brand Perfection persists, and will surface every time something goes tits up. Being the trickiest component of the corporate engine with the largest number of complicated moving parts, IT will be the place where something goes badly wrong most frequently and disruptively(*); so it will widely be believed, probably unfairly, to be the most knackered part of the enterprise. Every so often the cumulative stink from an unlucky run of technology failures will be pungent enough to reach the collective nose of the directorship, and every so often the alignment of stars will be such that the board agree that they Cannot Stand Idly By – Something Must Be Done ! All manner of dust will now be kicked up. Tables will be banged, steps taken, corners turned, heads rolled, new leaves energetically and irrevocably turned. The inevitable first step, creditably enough, is to look outwards for inspiration and solution. This starts with the reasonable hypothesis that surely there must be some other shop that gets better results out of this stuff than the spectacularly messy bollocks we normally make of it. Amazon, for example. DHL, maybe. The BBC, perhaps. And though that may be true, there already is the germ of the first mistake. The modest assumption that things could be done a fair bit better than they are now is quickly and surreally extended into the delusion that just over the horizon there is a Technotopian Paradise through which the Big Boys are gambolling like spring lambs.

Now the delusional bandwagon is rolling downhill, it picks up speed. The second big mistake is the decision to throw the baby out with the bathwater – because nothing is perfect, ergo everything is rubbish and should be junked forthwith. The third mistake follows from the second; because everything in IT is rubbish, therefore every single employee in IT is rubbish, and hence their theories on what is good, bad or indifferent have as much worth and utility as a sucked and spat out smartie. The final mistake is the logical and historically inevitable consequence of the other three. We need to get an impartial external view on this: we’re getting the Consultants in.

I don’t want to be too cynical. Really. Were it carried out carefully, honestly and with a dollop of wisdom, a Third Party Consultancy Exercise could be an authentically Good Thing. One can imagine a modern day Mary Poppins or Flora Poste arriving at an IT cubefarm in sensible shoes and cardie, clipboard in hand, and by judicious observation over a few months determining what works, what does not and where useful change might be made. A limited pragmatic deployment of The Higher Common Sense would not leave the workplace 100% streamlined, but certainly it would be happier, tidier, more productive and a good deal freer of drag, waste, idiocy, red tape and duplication.

A successful consultancy exercise via the practical application of The Higher Common Sense. Seth, Big Business and Flora at Cold Comfort as impersonated respectively by Rufus Sewell, a bull and Kate Beckinsale.

A successful consultancy exercise via the practical application of The Higher Common Sense. Seth, Big Business and Flora at Cold Comfort as impersonated respectively by Rufus Sewell, a bull and Kate Beckinsale.

But will that happen ? Will it buggery. That tiny possibility of a moderately positive outcome would require the third parties engaged have to have self-sacrificing, nigh-on Christ-like levels of insight, morality and impartiality such that they:

  1. Understand software, IT and the business they are advising.
  2. Are sincerely concerned with improving it.
  3. Possess some acumen which could genuinely be of use, garnered from long and bitter experience of sorting out disastrous technology debacles.
  4. Are prepared to solicit opinions from all corners and all levels, from the CEO to the code monkeys to the call centre.
  5. Have no desire to extend their contract beyond the point where they can do good.
  6. Do not wish to bring in any of their pals on big fat day rates.
  7. Have no additional products or services up their sleeves which their employer is gagging to sell to their client.

And therein lies the rub. Specifically, starting at points 5, 6 and 7 all three of which boil down to the same thing: cold hard cash. Consultancies and consultants, be they one of the vast transglobal DeTouchPwMcAccent combines, some middle-ranking local player, or a lone cowboy with a nice car, a sharp suit and a fine line in snappy buzzword-encrusted patter, are all about the upselling. You hire them for three months, they’re going to look to stay for six. They feel there is more they can do; more they want to do; more they have to do. They’re going to need to go deeper, and broader. That means bringing in some of the gurus from Head Office – the boys who live Right On The Edge of the Biz-Tech-Transform interface. £1500 a day would be typical for that kind of vision but we’re gonna do some work on driving that right down for you guys. Before you know it a team of a dozen has been camped out in two of your larger and better appointed meeting rooms for a year. There’ll be an Enterprise Architecture Practice, a few Business Process Reengineering Leads, some Data Modelling Specialists, an End User Experience Designer or two and a small handful of very attractive and well-groomed young people of unspecified role who seem mainly to make coffee and take notes for the rest. And they certainly will have lots of extra gubbins in mind they want to flog you. It won’t be pitched quite that way. More that they feel obligated, duty bound even, to carry on helping. Having spent so much time getting to know the business, the technology, the people and above all, the culture, they can’t think of anyone else better placed to facilitate the next phase of the transformational journey. And they have an inside track on the technologies, products and toolkits which can truly penetrate an organisation and facilitate its evolution. The word solutions does not do them justice; solution implies a fix for a single acute issue. What we are envisioning here are frameworks for solution, meta-solutions if you will. These will create an ecosystem which nurtures an abundant crop of techniques, mind-sets and strategies to equip an enterprise to solve whatever problems it may face. Going Forwards.

Scaffolding provides an actual physical framework which will solve tangible problems, chiefly in the building industry. Other frameworks, especially ones of the meta- variety, are generally less helpful.

Scaffolding provides an actual physical framework which will solve tangible problems, chiefly in the building industry. Other frameworks, especially ones of the meta- variety, are generally less helpful.

You and I might be choking back the bile by this point but your high level opinion formers will be lapping it up. They are the ones that make the buying decisions and so they are the ones the consultants will be focussing on and fawning over. See point 4, above – the shop floor might well have a sharp and illuminating worm’s eye view of what is rotten in the State of Denmark, but there’s no percentage finding out what the proles think as they ain’t got no budget to sign off, the losers. Consultants are, you see, fundamentally salesmen. Second-hand ideas salesmen, to be precise. And they will concentrate entirely on flogging those used ideas to those holding the purse strings.

In the market for a nearly-new methodology, squire ? I could see you right with a lovely reconditioned paradigm, good runner, Japanese designed an’ all. C’mon, talk to me - at these rates, I’m robbin’ meself !

In the market for a nearly-new methodology, squire ? I could see you right with a lovely reconditioned paradigm, good runner, Japanese designed an’ all. C’mon, talk to me – at these rates, I’m robbin’ meself !

In the second and concluding part of this diatribe, we will explore the output of a typical consultancy exercise and review how exactly it will increase the sum of human misery. But consultants, even in comparison to Human Resources operatives, are loathsome to the extent that the bile duct goes into spasm if one is compelled to contemplate their full horror at one sitting. It would not be fair to expect the faithful reader to spoon up a double helping of splenetic vitriol without a chance inbetween to go for a brisk walk, have a lie down or drop a couple of Mandrax.

(*) Conversely, nobody would notice or care if the whole of HR or Marketing went on holiday for six months. Or better still, just packed up for good and f**ked off.

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Know Your Enemies, No. 1: The Human Resources Department

There are a few people in your life that you’re always pleased to see. A couple of mates who invariably lift the proceedings when they walk into the pub. Maybe your mum or your granddad, perhaps your life partner or even one of your kids. Your wife’s cousin who’s always throwing barbecues with an inexhaustible supply of Pringles, coleslaw, Lincolnshire sausages and bonhomie. Likewise in the professional sphere, there are certain folk who make the sun shine whenever they turn up. Could be the analyst who, refreshingly, genuinely understands software and always turns up with biscuits and home-made cake, or it could be the one member of the Board who seems actually to like his staff, can be trusted when he talks, and may not even be a flesh-eating reptilian alien from outer space.

I’m down with David Icke. Bosses, politicians, religious leaders, the Royal Family - they’re all lizards. Predatory, carnivorous human-blood-drinking fascist autocratic lizards from the Draco constellation, to be precise.

I’m down with David Icke. Bosses, politicians, religious leaders, the Royal Family – they’re all lizards. Predatory, carnivorous human-blood-drinking fascist autocratic lizards from the Draco constellation, to be precise.

Other workmates are less heartwarmingly uplifting. Most times, they’ll be somewhere on the continuum between bearable and annoying. One guy might be barely literate and lazy to the point of catatonia, but at least he doesn’t moan or make waves. Another woman is capable but slow, and painfully boring especially when droning on about her ailments. However, a few choice colleagues will be so unspeakably dire that dealing with them can only ever result in abject misery and suffering. In my own dismal history, I recall with chilling clarity an engineer who combined poor personal hygiene and a hair-trigger temper with a staggeringly poor grasp of even the basics of computer programming. For work purposes, he was King Midas in reverse; any routine he touched turned to shit, any project he joined would never see the light of day, or at least not while he was involved with it. Half a day of him hacking away at some unfortunate chunk of system and it would become an impenetrable thicket of incomprehensible spaghetti code. He’d then spend the next three months blundering in ever decreasing circles around the forest of garbled Java he’d created, slamming his keyboard on the desk, shouting, swearing, sweating profusely and cursing the original architects of the system he blamed for his predicament. Eventually we would tire of this and lead him gently away from the screen as he foamed at the mouth and strained at the restraints on his straightjacket. The job would then either get canned or passed on to an unassuming Northerner who would bin the mess, start again from scratch, and wrap the whole thing up neatly within a few days. By the by, I’d always hire Northerners given the option – they’re humble, they work hard, they don’t complain, and they operate at a pretty high level of ability for comparatively low pay(*). It’s the fear of being sent back up the A1 that keeps ‘em biddable. Remind them every now and then that the pits and steelworks all closed in the ‘80s and they’ll be good for another 50 hours at the keyboard.

The North, yesterday. Lovely people, but try and decline politely if they offer you tripe and mushy peas.

The North, yesterday. Lovely people, but try and decline politely if they offer you tripe and mushy peas.

But I digress. My dim former colleague was a lone maverick, and his problems derived mostly from hapless incompetence rather than malice. What we shall deal with here today is mass institutional hideousness. There are whole departments in your workplace filled entirely with terrible people bent on the creation of havoc for you and every other sucker trying vainly to do worthwhile work. Everything they do, be it consciously or otherwise, will lead to ruination and heartache for someone else. It will be pointless, excruciating, badly organised, stultifyingly banal, intellectually unsound, viciously ruthless and / or brutally destructive, but in all likelihood a full house of all of the above. I refer in the first instance of course to Human Resources.

Ah, Human Resources. Even their title is appalling – as if human beings are some bulk commodity to be shipped around the world in containers, like blocks of frozen orange juice or beef carcasses. But of course that name precisely reflects the way they think. If some bunch of unfortunate proles are to be layed off and their jobs bundled off to the Philippines, well, they’re the team to Make It Happen. If they turn up, it’s always bad news. Even if they aren’t closing the office, someone’s going to get whacked, or there’s going to be some dreadful reorganisation. Least worst, but still noxious, they’re rolling out some dim-witted Strategic Initiative – maybe we’re Living The Brand or perhaps instead working to Identify, Empower and Nurture Top Talent(**).

But before I go any further, are Human Resources really as comprehensively despised as I claim ? For once, in place of rabid, bilious opinion and unsupported invective, I can support my assertion with granite-hard facts backed by overwhelming statistical evidence gathered under rigorous experimental conditions. Well … to be honest, not entirely rigorous experimental conditions. Most of the field work was conducted in pubs, and some drink had been taken but I feel a certain amount of alcoholic blur was essential to ensure that the test subjects provided their most honest, unmediated, unfiltered responses. I give you “The Four Walls Thought Experiment”.

The Four Walls Thought Experiment

There are four walls. You are standing about 20 yards away from each one. Lined up against the first is a bunch of estate agents; against the second, recruitment consultants. The third wall has a motley collection of taxi drivers, lawyers, merchant bankers and telesales operatives, while along the fourth a group of top flight Human Resources Officers are arranged. You have an assault rifle loaded with 30 rounds; for the sake of argument let us say a standard issue unmodified AK-74M, but other models are available. Any action you take in the next half an hour is free of legal consequence though it may in time weigh heavily on your conscience. What do you do ?

An AK-74M with optional grenade launcher attachment. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every melonfarmer in the room. Hypothetically speaking.

An AK-74M with optional grenade launcher attachment. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every melonfarmer in the room. Hypothetically speaking.

I have been shocked, appalled and stunned at the responses I have received over the years to this purely theoretical moral dilemma(***). 80% of respondents instantly and without a single qualm or second thought snap off the safety and empty the magazine into the fourth wall. Some spray at random, some single out particular victims, some descend into the sickening and savagely pornographic detail of how they will inflict the most suffering on the greatest number of HR professionals given the time and ammunition available. I have had devout Christians, pinko liberal soft underbelly Guardian readers, pacifist Buddhists and strict vegans who could not even bring themselves to spay their cat dissolve into deranged dribbling bloodlust at the notion of being able to get even with The Man’s most hateable henchmen.

So why is this ? Well, most other potentially vile groups of people turn out in practice to have redeeming features. Taxi drivers in Lisbon, for example, seem to be the nicest people in the world. A recruitment consultant might get you a job. Estate agents and lawyers you only have to deal with once a decade or so, and you’ll never even meet a merchant banker. They might be terrible, but their terribleness is a fair distance away and only impinges on you occasionally or indirectly. The poor sod ringing you up to sell double glazing is stuck in a horrible job for rubbish money and all you have to do to get rid of him is put the phone down.

A beautiful city full of wonderful things to see and eat where even the taxi drivers are lovely. Who knows, maybe even Portuguese HR officers are alright.

A beautiful city full of wonderful things to see and eat where even the taxi drivers are lovely. Who knows, maybe even Portuguese HR officers are alright.

HR on the other hand is ubiquitous, unavoidable and right in your face. If you are an employee, as most of us are, they have to be grappled with continually. When you join, when you leave, for your annual review, if you are to get a promotion or a pay rise, if you want to claim expenses, if you need to sort out training, if you have a barney with someone, if you want to hire someone, if you want to help someone transition from within the organisation in order to seek success elsewhere.

But lots of things are ubiquitous and not in any way repulsive: lampposts, cups of tea, mobile phones, sandwiches and Myleene Klass spring to mind. But those things are united by their performance of some mildly worthwhile task in a moderately pleasant fashion. When they are done with, we have no reason to think any more about them either for good or for ill. What HR are paid to do is not even vaguely agreeable: they are at bottom corporate hatchet men. Or more commonly, corporate hatchet women. No more and no less. They are there to enforce discipline, weed out defiance, punish backsliding and liquidate weakness. In other contexts and other times, they’d be known as the Nutting Squad, the Military Police or the NKVD. I may be exaggerating slightly. I have never personally had anyone from HR come round and smash my kneecaps into bloodied shards of bone with a pickaxe handle, yet the fundamental equivalence is sound.

So, as Rottweilers-in-Chief to the Senior Leadership team, executing those nasty jobs that the Big Chiefs don’t want to get their hands dirty with directly, HR are never going to be anyone’s best pals. But then, there are genuinely nasty jobs which have to be done. Factories, offices and departments will on occasion outlive their usefulness and must, sadly, be closed. Dodgy boys who haven’t been pulling their weight for years have to be dealt with, up to and including the point where they are handed their P45 as they are kicked arse backwards down the front steps. There are vital roles to be filled by people who are happy and able to do those hard and needful jobs without scruples or guilt. One could opine that such folk must have a moral compass so severely twisted that they can be no more than two stops away from sociopathy on the tramline of personality disorder. But then, on the other hand, one could equally note that with the ever-increasing specialisation of the modern world, finding a cosy employment niche is as much about transforming your crippling personality defects into assets as it is of playing to your actual strengths.

Antisocial personality disorder need be no bar to a successful career in business. There are many lines of work where ones slight flaws (cruelty, complete lack of sympathy and compassion, absence of loyalty, inflated self-regard) will actually come in rather handy.

Antisocial personality disorder need be no bar to a successful career in business. There are many lines of work where ones slight flaws (cruelty, complete lack of sympathy and compassion, absence of loyalty, inflated self-regard) will actually come in rather handy.

An HR team that was keen on doing the grotty stuff and did it well would be bloody useful. But there is no such thing. If you have worked in and managed people for a Shiny Plate Glass High Building type company, you will know this. HR will certainly be the people who inform you that two of your team must be offed. They will also be the ones who create the labyrinthine procedures by which this must be gone about. They will make you sit through endless Powerpoint slides telling you what you should and should not do, what you have to say, what you must under no circumstances commit to and what the eventual outcome has to be. But when it comes time to have a little chat with the unfortunate hysterical / enraged / vulnerable / embittered almost-ex-employee, HR to a man and woman will have done a sodding collective bunk. You will be walking into that featureless meeting room alone except for the poor sap who is about to have his or her professional life destroyed. If there are tears, if one word is misplaced, if possible grounds for constructive dismissal are given, if you get stabbed in the face with a sharpened biro, it is All Your Fault as you are the Responsible Line Manager. HR showed you the presentations, they lectured you extensively on the procedure, they furnished you with a complete set of dire warnings. It is not the role of HR professionals to do a line manager’s job; they are there simply to advise, to support, to guide and to provide oversight and governance. If after all of that help and wisdom, a line manager is still unable to cope with a Performance Management / Employee Egress Situation, well maybe that line manager should themselves be moving into a Conduct and Capability Review Scenario. If you’re lucky, they will wait on initiating that scenario until the bandages are off and you have at least 75% vision back in the injured eye.

But even if you do manage to carry out your orders to the letter and effect the sacking without any nervous breakdowns, knifings or lawsuits following as a direct consequence, for the consummate HR pen pusher this will not be enough. It will not strike them in any way as contradictory, idiotic or hypocritical when two months after they arm-twisted you into getting rid of a quarter of your people, they call up to discuss the poor morale in your team and the fact that you’ve considerably undershot the retention targets for the year. Tut, tut, tut, tut.

In terms of thoroughgoing unbearability then, our chums in HR really are ticking all of the boxes. Let us, in classical HR workshop style, summarise what we have established so far. HR are, in general and provably:

  1. Omnipresent                                                                                            Tick !
  2. Cruel                                                                                                          Tick !
  3. Bureaucratic                                                                                             Tick !
  4. Time-wasting                                                                                           Tick !
  5. Patronising                                                                                               Tick !
  6. Unaccountable / Teflon-coated / slope-shouldered / shifty          Tick !
  7. Inconsistent                                                                                              Tick !
  8. Thick                                                                                                          Tick !
  9. Effectively useless                                                                                   Tick !

These nine check boxes on their own are more than enough to justify the homicidal rage which Human Resources provoke, but there is one final confirming trait which makes them almost infinitely abhorrent. Neatly again in classical HR style, we then have a handy list of ten gut-wrenchingly insufferable characteristics (****) of which this last cherry-on-cake-applying one is:

10. Delusions of likeability                                                                          Tick !

You see, they want to be Loved. Beyond that they feel they deserve to be loved, as everything they are doing has everyone’s best interests at heart. They are working to protect and strengthen the business and the workforce really should recognise the value of the enormous contribution they have made.

This is the curse of 21st Century Soft-Centred Innocent Bloody Smoothie Capitalism. Business thugs will jump waste deep into the most venal, barbarous, cynical and self-serving action in a heartbeat, but as they wade through the filth, they will nonetheless try to convince themselves and the rest of us that they are doing The Right Thing for The Best Reasons, in order to maximise The Sum of Human Happiness or whatever. They will even expect to be applauded by their victims as they are stiffing them, as though those innocents ought to be able to see beyond the immediate stiffing into the Big Picture and the Greater Good beyond. Ghastly. Back in the good old 20th Century, profiteering plutocratic villains were content to be profiteering plutocratic villains. Slater-Walker, Sir Jammy Fishpaste, Tiny Rowland and the rest of the Mayfair Set were delighted to be universally loathed as callous amoral bastards driven only by power, money, and a savage animalistic lust to destroy their rivals and grind their bloody remains into bonemeal. They were happy to takeover, asset strip, sack, close down and cash out with the cackling glee of proper Victorian-style baddies and without a jot or scintilla of remorse. They didn’t give a shit if the proles wanted to see them dead – not one bit of it, they got off on it big time. What they really cared about was that their new yacht was bigger than Bob Maxwell’s and that they could now justify buying a private island in the Caribbean so as to have somewhere nice to moor it. The whole set up had the brutal simplicity of the jungle. The bosses hated the workers and would screw them for whatever they could get. The workers hated the bosses and would use organised labour muscle to get as much as could be got for the least possible effort in return. It was perfectly symmetrical, and, while we may have collectively destroyed manufacturing industry in Britain during the 1970s, at least there was no gooey folksy BS.

Full-on red-blooded, buccaneering, winner-takes-all, 1970s-style Capitalism. So the plebs are out for four weeks already, huddled round a brazier holding up badly lettered red banners on a picket line in the West Midlands ? Who cares ? You’re moored off Grand Cayman with Mistress #7, soon to be Wife #4. More Bollinger, now, dammit !

Full-on red-blooded, buccaneering, winner-takes-all, 1970s-style Capitalism. So the plebs are out for four weeks already, huddled round a brazier holding up badly lettered red banners on a picket line in the West Midlands ? Who cares ? You’re moored off Grand Cayman with Mistress #7, soon to be Wife #4. More Bollinger, now, dammit !

From the 80s onwards, with your Bransons and your Jobses and your Googles and all of those bearded West Coast beatnik business types, it’s no longer enough to own a massive boat with a helipad and a midget submarine and three swimming pools. No, like some damn fool Absolute Monarch from the 17th century, the new breed of top banana now want to be adored by their serfs and courtiers as well. As Business Tsars lead, so their most dribblingly eager Human Resources lap dogs follow. Of course the iron discipline, kneecappings, backstabbings and defenestrations are as common and necessary as ever they were, but we now must have them covered with a yard-thick layer of soft lilac touchy feely nonsense. And as with all Big Lies it isn’t just that the target audience of saps must swallow it, those delivering the bilge repeat it so zealously and so often that they end up believing the nonsense even more fervently themselves.

Never Trust a Hippy. The beard is the give-away.

Never Trust a Hippy. The beard is the give-away.

Wouldn’t it be great if just once an HR department spontaneously decided to own up to its true nature. If I were in charge, I’d start with a change of name: Staff Services. SS for short. With the new name, we’d have a new dress code – out with the tired old high-class trolley dolly-cum-executive relief consultant clobber they normally sport:

Archetypal HR Officer chic. Super neat, well groomed to micron precision, in the same general stylistic vicinity as air hostesses and regional TV newsreaders.

Archetypal HR Officer chic. Super neat, well groomed to micron precision, in the same general stylistic vicinity as air hostesses and regional TV newsreaders.

and in with the new – starker, kinkier and far more blatantly aggressive:

Remaining dapper and impeccably neat, but with more muscle, and projecting a clearer, harder-edged message. Perfect if you’re Playing To Win in today’s highly competitive Global Marketplace.

Remaining dapper and impeccably neat, but with more muscle, and projecting a clearer, harder-edged message. Perfect if you’re Playing To Win in today’s highly competitive Global Marketplace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Full length leather trench coats obligatory of course, along with heel-clickable jackboots and a swagger stick. Dual lightning flash insignia optional, but personally I’d go the whole hog right down to the Death’s Head cap badge. In for a pfennig, in for a Reichsmark …

Once title and uniform were in place, honesty in word and deed would organically follow. If this HR detachment turned up at your workplace (always in a motorcade with armed motor cycle outriders) everyone would know it was going to be a Bad Day for some poor buggers. Edicts would be enforced rather than namby-pamby initiatives getting rolled out, and there would be no twaddle along the lines of “yearning to be all we can be as we evolve toward global best practice.” No, no, no, no, no. If anyone dared to ask for an explanation, it would always be because the Supreme Leadership had demanded that it be made so in order to stiffen morale and terrify any malingering potential saboteurs into compliance. One could even begin to respect a Human Resources department that set their stall out with such refreshing vigour and sincerity.

But no, that will never be. On they will go, with their delusions of benevolence, utility and adequacy, launching bright new dim-witted programmes designed to drive employee engagement up to Himalayan heights, which will have no beneficial effect whatsoever but will instead increase levels of incredulous cynicism, teeth-grinding boredom and generalised employee despair. This month they will be Opening The Door To Progression, next month they’ll be Coaching Sustainable Commitment, the month after that Identifying Talent, Promoting Quality and Standardising on the Superlative. There is no escape. The best that can be done is to remain calm and preserve decency and the stiff upper lip as madness, destruction and stupidity rage around you. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is the perfect role model in this regard.

Grp Cpt Lionel Mandrake. The epitome of civilised behaviour in difficult circumstances. Shoot it off! Shoot! With a gun! That's what the bullets are for, you twit!

Grp Cpt Lionel Mandrake. The epitome of civilised behaviour in difficult circumstances. Shoot it off! Shoot! With a gun! That’s what the bullets are for, you twit!

- – - E n d – - -

(*) With apologies to any readers who are in or of the North. It must be awful for you. Some of my closest friends, and even family, are Northerners.

The North, last week.

(**) I am afraid I am slipping into both buzzwordish jargonese and Inappropriate Mid-Sentence Capitalisation. It seems to be impossible to write about HR without picking up their bad habits. I’ve just outsourced the wife to Romania too, as it goes.

(***) Please note that I am not advocating the mass murder of HR consultants, or merchant bankers, or even corporate tax lawyers. Quite a few of the buggers do want a bloody good punch up the flump, mind.

(****) Having produced a list of ten objectionable features, I feel obliged to come up with a snappy mnemonic using their initial letters. That’s what a real HR person would do, so that key learnings could be carried forward into day to day business as usual operations. But with “OCBTPUITED” to work with, the best I can offer is “Butt Copied”. Sorry.

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