Digital asses in the computing industry

Ever noticed how academic asses are analog and industrial asses are digital? It's legitimate to not know whether P equals NP, or to not know what x is if x*2=y but we don't know y, for that matter. But it isn't legitimate to not know how many cycles, megabytes or – the king of them all – man-months it will take, so numbers have to be pulled out of one's ass.

The interesting thing is that the ass adapts, that the numbers pulled out of this unconventional digital device aren't pure noise. Is it because digital asses know to synchronize? Your off-by-2-months estimation is fine as long as other estimations are off by 5. But it's not just that, there must be something else, a mystery waiting to be discovered. We need a theory of computational proctology.

Ever noticed how painful the act of anal estimation is for the untrained, um, mind, but then eventually people actually get addicted to it? Much like managers who learn that problems can be made to go away by means such as saying a firm "No", without the much harder process of understanding the problem, not to mention solving it? Anal prophecy is to the technical "expert" the same raw enjoyment that the triumph of power over knowledge is to the manager. "Your powers are nothing compared to mine!"


There once was a company called ArsDigita (I warmly recommend the founder's blog and have his Tenth Rule tattooed all over my psyche), a name I tend to misread as "ArseDigital" – a tribute to an important method of numerical analysis and estimation in the computing industry.

93 comments ↓

#1 Bragaadeesh on 02.06.10 at 11:13 am

Nice post buddy. Yes it becomes a lot of times irritating with managers who are stupid enough to assess the resource strength and go by their intuition rather than facts and figures. One thing I do to satisfy myself is not to compare him and me at time 't'. Instead I do that comparison at age 'a'. You would feel real better if u do it.

#2 Yossi Kreinin on 02.06.10 at 11:24 pm

Well, it's not like anyone has much choice: either you have enough information or you don't (except the times when one ignores information because of the addiction to the way of doing without it).

Nice TI stuff.

#3 Yonatan on 02.07.10 at 3:24 am

The nice thing about work plan – which I've experienced first hand – is the transition, or maybe ascension, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
You write a work plan because you need to write a work plan, and everyone involved knows it's completely ludicrous, with all of the time estimates completely made up.
But somehow, you start working according to this plan, and your deadlines and demands from those involved are based on the completely arbitrary time estimates that you all made up.

I suspect there's a moral here for life in general.

#4 Yossi Kreinin on 02.07.10 at 8:15 am

Life as ascension from the ridiculous to the sublime? An optimistic outlook.

#5 Andrei on 02.08.10 at 3:55 am

Yossi wrote: "Your off-by-2-months estimation is fine as long as other estimations are off by 5."

But this is as it should be, isn't it? Guesstimating too far in either direction will result in either late fees or errors in planning and resource allocation. If the error is smaller you will trust its source more, right?

#6 Yossi Kreinin on 02.08.10 at 8:29 am

Sure, though I meant the relative error, not the absolute. An asstimation which is off by 2 years is also fine as long as other asstimations are off by 5; though "errors in planning and resource allocation" as you've politely put it far exceed those resulting from an error of 2 months, it's still someone else's ass that absorbs most of the consequences, hence the importance of syncing.

#7 gus3 on 02.10.10 at 9:59 am

Eleven years ago, I had a manager-boss whose #1 qualification was that his father had been a middle manager for a big oil company.

The first clue that he shouldn't have been in that position, was that he promoted to assistant managers, the two who had been in the department the least time, and whose cluefulness was directly proportionate to that time.

Not long after he fired me (my behavior threatened to expose his ignorance), he told his boss that the department could develop a battery of tests for a new system module in two weeks.

When word of this got to the rank-and-file, the rank-and-file requested, and got, a meeting with the manager's boss, the VP of the division. They informed the VP that, in order to get such tests developed in two weeks, they would have to work seventeen hours a day, seven days a week.

The manager was gone the next day.

Unfortunately, that was just one symptom of how bad things there had become. A year later, the company was sold to a Dutch corporation, who eventually fired everyone and moved the chattel to Amsterdam.

#8 Yossi Kreinin on 02.10.10 at 10:02 am

The success of the maneuver with the VP indicates that things weren't completely rotten; a pity the place went under nonetheless.

#9 gus3 on 02.10.10 at 10:13 pm

The fact that the maneuver was necessary at all, outweighs any success it accomplished.

#10 Yossi Kreinin on 02.11.10 at 12:01 am

Well, I wasn't there, and the fact is that they did go under quite soon, so I can't really say anything beyond what I think is the general rule of there being no organization that doesn't err (as in promoting someone to a position where he is incompetent), the only difference is that some organizations tend to correct their errors (as in fire him or put him into a situation where he chooses to quit) and some don't. I'm somewhat pessimistic regarding the chances of the existence of flawless meritocracies, though there can be an overall meritocratic trend.

#11 Dan Wiebe on 12.29.12 at 1:51 pm

My experience after decades of Waterfall followed by five or six years of Agile is that _nobody knows_ how long a given development task is going to take, if it's going to take longer than a day or two, and frequently not even then. _Every_ estimate is a lie, period. There is _no way to tell_ how long it's going to take from the beginning, and one very important reason–although not the only reason–is that at the beginning, nobody really has any idea what "it" is. Oh, people will swear up and down that they know _exactly_ what "it" is, and they'll wave three-hundred-page documents around, but those are lies too.

#12 Yossi Kreinin on 12.29.12 at 2:50 pm

What's lovely is how pointing this out will only get you in trouble. The rewarded reaction is to pull an asstimate with a straight face, and without a trace of shame; and when it turns out wrong, explain with the same straight face and an equal lack of shame how that couldn't be predicted.

#13 Dan Wiebe on 12.29.12 at 7:23 pm

Yup. The thing to do is to set a final condition and then repeatedly add the next most important single-iteration feature (as defined by the product owner) until the final condition is reached. The final condition might be a cutoff date, or it might be a budget limit, or it might be the point where the value of the next most important feature is less than the value of the time and money that will be required to develop it. The final condition might change over the course of the project. It almost certainly will _not_ be "When the project is complete," because by the time the rubber meets the road everyone will have different definitions of "project" and "complete."

Anybody who thumps a two-inch-thick requirements binder and says, "We're going to have this project done in twenty-four months" is lying and headed for disaster.

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