Estimation Peril: How To Estimate Software Projects Effectively(or How Not To Lie)


Consider, you are a rockstar engineer and you are given a task by your favorite person, your project manager, to show some new fields in the dashboard.

As usual, you are asked to estimate it as soon as possible. You think that well, seems like a quickie and you are tempted to estimate it a day. But you, being burnt before, decided to look at the fields that are to be added carefully. These fields are for analytics. You think, ok, let’s make it 2 days then. But being more cautious, you dig deeper and find that those analytics are not even being tracked on the app.

Now to complete the story, you’ll have to track the analytics, send them to the server, make the backend accept those and store them, show these on the dashboard, write tests etc….

What seemed a simple task is now a 1-2 week thing. Very hard to estimate. And your manager was expecting a response like, “would be done by end of day”.

What is the problem with estimates?

The main problem with an estimate is that the “estimate” gets translated into commitment. And when you miss a commitment, you breed distrust.

Most estimations are poor because we don’t know what they are for. They are uncertain. A problem that seemed simple to you on the whiteboard, turned out not to be so simple. There were non-functional requirements, codebase friction, some unfortunate bugs etc. We deal with uncertainty.

There is a rule in software engineering that everything takes 3X more time than you think it should, and this holds true even when you know this and take it into account!

Estimates can go the other way too, that is when you overestimate. This is as dangerous as underestimating.

What should an estimate look like?

An estimate should have 3 characteristics :

  1. Honest (Hardest)
  2. Accurate
  3. Precise

1. Honest : 

You have to be able to communicate bad news when the news is bad. And when the continuous outrage of your managers and stakeholders is on your face, you need to be able to continue and assert that the news is bad.

Honesty is important as you breed trust. You are not eliminating disappointment, rage and people getting mad, but you will eliminate distrust.

2. Accurate :

You are given a task and you estimate it to take somewhere between now to the end of the universe. That’s definitely accurate, it’ll be done within that time.

We won’t breed distrust, but we definitely will breed something else.

Which brings us to the 3rd characteristic.

3. Precise : 

An estimate should have just the right amount of precision.

What is the most honest estimation that you can make? I don’t know!

This is as honest as it can get. You really don’t know. But this estimation is neither accurate not precise.

But when we try to make precise estimates, we must note that we are assuming that everything goes right. We get the right breakfast, traffic doesn’t suck, your co-worker is having a good day, no meetings, no hidden requirements, no non-functional complexities etc.

Estimating by work break down

The most common way to estimate a complex task is to break it down into smaller tasks, into sub-tasks. And then those sub-tasks into sub-sub-tasks and so on until each task in hand is manageable and ideally not more than 4 hours of work.

Imagine this forming a tree, with executable tasks at the bottom as leaves. You just estimate the leaves and it all adds up.

This approach works, but there are 2 problems :

  1. We missed the integration cost
  2. We missed some tasks

There is a fundamental truth to work break down structure estimates:

The only way to estimate using work break down chart accurately, to know what are the exact sub-tasks, is to implement the feature!

What to expect from an estimate?

Estimates are uncertain. There is no guarantee that your estimate will work itself out. And that’s OK. It’s your manager’s job to manage that risk. We are not asking them to do something outside of their job.

The problem arises when you make a commitment. If you make a commitment, you must make it. Be ready to move heaven and earth to make it. But if you are not in a position to make a commitment, then don’t make one.

Because he’s going to set up a whole bunch of dominos based on that commitment, and if you fail to deliver, everything fails.

Some interesting links :

Uncle Bob on Estimates:

Happy Estimating!

That’s all, folks!


Clean Code Chapter 1&2: Clean Code & Meaningful names

I have started reading the book Clean Code by Robert C. Martin, which is considered to be a industry standard for writing maintainable and elegant code.

Because this book is such a heavy read, and each chapter is full of content and a knowledge bank in itself, for personal reference I’ve decided to summarise each chapter in a set of blog posts.

Chapter 1 : Clean Code

This was more like chapter 0. Author describes what is clean code and cost of maintaining it. How clean code is directly related to team productivity and what makes clean code clean.

It contains views on clean code by many of industries best known people like Bjarne Stroustrup, Michael Feathers etc.

One of my favourite definitions form the book covers it best :

I like my code to be elegant and efficient. The logic should be straightforward to make it hard for bugs to hide, the dependencies minimal to ease maintenance, error handling complete according to an articulated strategy, and performance close to optimal so as not to tempt people to make the code messy with unprincipled optimizations. Clean code does one thing well – Bjarne Stroustrup

Chapter 2 : Meaningful Names

Names are everywhere in software. We name our variables, our functions, our arguments, classes, and packages. Because we do it so much, we should do it well.

1. Use intention revealing names : 

The name of a variable, function, or class, should answer all the big questions. It should tell you why it exists, what it does, and how it is used.

int d; // time elapsed

Here d reveals nothing. A better name would be

int timeElapsedSinceCreation;

2. Avoid Disinformation :
Programmers must avoid leaving false clues that obscure the meaning of code. We should avoid words whose entrenched meanings vary from our intended meaning.

int accountsList;

Should only be named so if it is a actually a list data structure that’s used to store the accounts. Not an array or set.

3. Make meaningful distinctions
Entities named different, should be different, mean different.

If we have classes called




, you have made the names different without making them mean anything different. Info and Data are indistinct noise that doesn’t differentiates what they actually mean.

4. Use pronounceable names

Makes communicating about the code easy.

long genydhms;

is not a good name.

long generationTimestamp;

is a better choice

5. Use searchable names
Avoid single letter variables and constants as they are difficult to search.

6. Avoid Encodings

Hungarian notations, member prefixes, interface and implementations should be avoided.

It just adds another burden to remember the encoding format being used.

7. Avoid mental mappings
Readers shouldn’t have to mentally translate your names into other names they already know.

int r;



is lower cased url with host name removed adds to much requires too much mental juggling and mapping when working with the code.

A better name would be,

int urlWithoutHostName;

8. Class Names
Classes and objects should have noun or noun phrase names like Customer, WikiPage, Account, and AddressParser.
Avoid words like Manager, Processor, Data, or Info in the of a class. A class name should not be a verb.

9. Method Names
Methods should have verb or verb phrase names like postPayment, deletePage, or save.

10. Don’t be cute

If names are too clever, they will be memorable only to people who share the
author’s sense of humor, and only as long as these people remember the joke.

Don’t tell little culture-dependent jokes like eatMyShorts() to mean abort().

11. Pick one work per concept
Pick one word for one abstract concept and stick with it.

It’s confusing to have a controller and a manager and a driver in the same
code base. What is the essential difference between a DeviceManager and a ProtocolController?

11. Use solution domain names
It’s OK and preferable to use names from computer science and programming domains.
In transctionObserver

the word observer means a great deal to person who knows the observer pattern.

12. Use problem domain name
The code that has more to do with problem domain concepts should have names drawn from the problem domain.

int mriRecord

In a healthcare app will give a great deal of context than just

int record


13. Add meaningful context
Enclose names in well named functions, classes, namespaces, etc.

String state;

In a class called FiniteStateMachine will mean different that in a class called Address.

14. Don’t Add Gratuitous Context
In an imaginary application called “Gas Station Deluxe,” it is a bad idea to prefix every class with GSD.
Frankly, you are working against your tools. You type G and press the completion
key and are rewarded with a mile-long list of every class in the system. Is that
wise? Why make it hard for the IDE to help you?


This was part one of a 16 part series on the book Clean Code by Robert C. Martin, where each post covers a gist of a single chapter.


Philosophy Behind The Offensive Programming


Recently I was listening to a podcast and there was this really smart guy Piwai talking about something that instantly captivated by attention. That was the coining of the term Offensive Programming.

What is offensive programming?

Well, you can find the literature on  Wikipedia and also I am not the best person to explain that. So check that out please. But fundamentally, offensive programming refers to a style of programming that is exact opposite of the more famous counter-part the defensive programming.

Defensive programming refers to coding style which adheres to dealing gracefully with conditions that should not happen.

Offensive programming on the other hand, well just tells you to let the app crash. Don’t try to recover, don’t try to handle the exception, just log the stack trace and crash.

The reason behind this is that in reality the problem can be much bigger and somewhere else in the code, as a side effect of you are getting this error in first place. This forces you to fix the problem at the source and will possibly result in a healthier code base.

When it makes sense to be offensive?

This was my exact concern while I was listening to this podcast. Thankfully, Piwai answered that himself. I also, talked about it with a really smart guy at the office and he also made the same remarks.

So at Square (the company who do payments and author libraries) what they do is, they stick to a defensive style of programming  for interfaces and parts of code that deals with external interfaces and/or user interactions. Basically, something that is not in your control.

But, for the internal interfaces, where the classes you wrote are going to interact with each other, you don’t have to be that paranoid about that. This is where he (Piwai) said you should switch to the offensive approach. You have full control over the classes you wrote, and the expected behaviour is in your control. If it fails to do so, it’s better to just crash and let the problem to be fixed at the source.

That is the exact reason he said at Square, they make very liberal use of assertions in the code. Assertions are not forgiving at all.

Example Please!

I would attempt to point to examples here, one that the Piwai himself talked in very brief and the one that I’ve encountered myself where I thought it made sense.

In this example, say we are handling credit card objects. There is no point to internally validate the credit card object every time you deal with it.

As soon as we get a credit card, we decorate it with a validated credit card. That’s all the defensiveness we had to offer.

Now internally, we go offensive and throw exceptions or assertions every time we encounter an invalidate credit card object.

The code below is not perfect, but can give you an idea.

class ValidatedCreditCard extends CreditCard{

    CreditCard creditCard;
    ValidatedCreditCard(CreditCard creditCard){
      // Handling external user interactions defensively.
      catch (CreditCardValidationError e) {
        // Handle and try to fix the error
      this.creditCard = creditCard;

public static void main(String[] args){

    CreditCard c  = getCreditCardFromUser();
    c = ValidatedCreditCard(c);
    // Time to go offensive
    // ...
    if (c == null){
      throw new CardInvalidException();

Another example I can think of is a much simpler one and more relatable.
Suppose, we have a utility function that uploads a file to s3.
It would make sense to follow offensive programming style and just throw an exception if somehow they file or the key reaching the function is None.

def upload_file_to_s3(file, key):
    if file is None or key is None:
        raise TypeError


Few more tips from the podcast

1. How to start with offensive programming?

Best way is to start putting assertions in the code, where you think is suitable. Yeah, we’ll experience more crashes and that’s awesome!

Because now we know that we have a problem.

2.  We feel more confident about the code base:

We just know that, this method doesn’t try to handle nulls, thus I can confidently say that it was not null or it would’ve crashed.

3. Do incremental roll outs.

When you ship a code, roll it out like for 1% of users. We’ll have a ton of crash reports, and that’s good! I mean not for the 1% users but they are taking one for the team!

4. Crash at preventable errors and recover from expect-able errors :

Preventable errors are invalid arguments, NPEs etc. Go offensive on these.

Expectable errors are like resource depletion, invalid user inputs etc.

Try to recover from these.


Overall, it was nice to listen to a guy who works at a company like Square talking about how they use offensive programming for a healthier code base. And if Square is doing something, we all can learn something from that!