Costing Projects

Oftentimes in my career, I’ve been asked to produce project plans. I have a few simple rules I worked by, but they were not rocket science and I usually just ground them out.

By grinding them out, it was basically sitting down and working out, as best I could, all the different little tasks which went into the whole project, and, as best I could guess, the duration of each task. From there, just basically adding up the numbers together. The end goal was to be able to say how many man-years of effort would be required. I let other people juggle with the number of people involved, and, frankly, a lot of the time it really was no more than juggling!

A lot of tasks were repeated across the board. For example, every task finished with a unit test, so “unit test” was always a sub-task. A unit test is simply testing the part in isolation. But again, unless you realised this and took account of it, you wouldn’t allocate enough time for it.

I had a basic rule that a task would take a minimum of half a day. Sometimes a task might be a single change to a single line of code, so a half-day was overkill. But over the course of the project, it averaged itself out. Conversely, if I costed a task at more than a fortnight, I knew I needed to break that task down into smaller parts to get a better idea. Overall, there were normally the same feelings on each project – when you first worked out the numbers, you, and other people, would say “crikey, will it really take that long???” because the number you calculated would always exceed your gut feel. But at the end of a project, I was generally happy with my initial estimates, although requirements invariably changed during the course of the project, par for the course.  After all, because the duration of an entire project was just the sum of these small tasks, for each task if would have been very difficult to miscalculate by all that much. So, unless you hadn’t thought of all the tasks… Project Managers would often be not happy at the end result, but that was their problem – ultimately tweaking the numbers at this point would just have been wishful thinking – they’d have the math right there in front of them, so it’d take a degree of bravery (foolhardiness) to ignore it in favour of their gut. But some of them did, and they invariably got burned. If my advice had been wrong I’d have been concerned, but if they’d chosen to ignore my advice and subsequently got it wrong, that was their problem.

In my last few years, I met another guy who claimed he could estimate the cost of projects without grinding things out as I did. Quite funny, really, I’d regularly meet people in my career who could do things more efficiently than I could. For some reason, I survived despite being so inefficient. This guy just used his gut feeling. The difference, as always, is the working out – the documentation. My detail would be used as the basis of the plan that would span the entire project, the final number that I produced was just the headline. I was fortunate, I suppose, because I encountered this behaviour early on in my career and developed coping strategies – the guy, often parachuted in, who tells you. ever so nicely, that what you’ve been doing is crap, so you just had to cover your backside.

Telltale Signs

When I worked in the City, people (agents) would often call me to see if I was interested in a new job. I got into the habit of asking them to sent a spec (specification) over to my email address. Why? The spec itself might go on to be important or it might not, but relly, in the first instance, I just wanted to satisfy myself that a spec existed. A spec showed that the clients had, at least, put some thought into what they wanted. Furthermore, clients often need to produce a spec internally to receive budget, so a spec helped to know that they weren’t just on a fishing expedition. I’d sometimes get some bright spark of an agent saying, “this role is so new that there isn’t a spec yet”, to which I’d just say, “well, when there is one, send it over”.

Another thing with the type of work I used to do, was duration. If a client had a permanent need for somebody in my role, but only wanted to offer a short-term contract, a probation period, if you like, then fair enough. I was quite happy usually to take my chances that I’d do enough during that initial period to impress. Alarm bells started ringing, though, if a client said they wanted a designer for just a couple of months, since a decent project could be around the 10-man-year length, or maybe 18 months duration, and you really need a decent amount of time to get your teeth into something.

So I ended up looking more for things that should be avoided, rather than things with potential. The things with potential were the ones left over after I’d rejected the things which fell at one of the hurdles. It is the same, really, now, although there are altogether fewer vacancies locally so the scale is smaller. Indeed I haven’t seen anything in almost a year which ticks all the boxes. I saw a funny one yesterday. Somebody was offering just a three-month contract for a Head of IT. Obviously interim – someone must’ve been taking a leave of absence and the company didn’t feel they could manage. But who do they seriously think will take that on? What do they think somebody can achieve in just three months? I must admit that I could happily take on a “head” role these days, but reall, I’d want to have a bit of time to see the effects of any changes I introduced.

American Memories

I had a job in the UK between September 1995 and February 1997. I was a programmer with probably 7 years’ experience, and a novice project manager. The company was looking for a technical specialist cum project manager, so I suppose I was a decent fit.

The company was a start up and everyone was working on just the one project – a web-based business-to-business purchasing solution. Think Amazon, but without the frills. The idea was that somebody could buy someting as quickly as possible for their business, and to speed past all the frills. The web was, in those days, sufficiently immature (and the company’s idea sufficiently visionary) that this company could quite happily get into meetings with the High-Street banks.

The product required quite advanced (for the time) encryption, and we ended up building on a commercial US library. The library itself couldn’t be exported, but it was perfectly OK for our product to use the library (as long as we sat physically in the USA while we built it into our product), and for our product to be exported. It indicates that the lawyers didn’t understand the technology, because physical borders are no defence against cyber attack, but I suppose nothing much has changed in that respect. I didn’t have any hand in selecting this product in the first place, which probably also says how inexperienced I was.

So, the solution was for me to fly out to the USA to do the work. It was only for about a month, and my first taste of the USA. The company’s backers were venture capitalists based near Washington, DC, so that was the natural place to work.

In the end, it was a small town right by Dulles (Washington’s main) Airport. Aspects of the USA were brilliant but it was very “suburbs” – every journey had to be made by car, the highway was dotted with clumps of either houses or shops, and in between there was a whole lot of nothing. I didn’t like the suburb aspect but I did like things like the shops in the larger malls (I bought a new wardrobe!), Mexican food, say. Some things. I have a vague memory that this was around Easter 1996, and because I thought it was a one-off trip, I tried to squeeze in all the Washington touristy bits – the White House, Smithsonian, Arlington Cemetery etc. I remember watching the Oscars live from a bar – it was Braveheart’s year and probably to this day that’s the only Oscar winner I can name.

But because of the suburbs aspect, when I got back home I didn’t take it any further, and the project trundled on. The company signed a deal with Barclaycard in the UK, but Chase Manhattan were also interested, and the US is a far bigger market than the UK. Meantime I had started managing the entire project, although, because it was a one-project company, there was a lot of involvement from directors. I knew early on that management was not really for me – one of my employees came to me one day with a personal problem, and I remember thinking, “stuff your problem, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my deadline”. Not a brilliant attitude on my part and, in all jobs since, I’ve concentrated on the technical side rather than on people.

In order to help close the deal with Chase, I was sent out to their campus in Tampa, Florida. for a few weeks to hold a series of technical meetings about how the solution worked. I liked Tampa, it was mostly very new but had areas with a decent history and vibrant atmosphere thanks to its Spanish background. Plus, of course, the weather was a big improvement on the UK. This was early summer 1996, and the trip culminated in a meeting at Chase’s head office in New York City.

The series of meetings obviously helped, and we duly signed a deal with Chase. Instead of Washington, DC, we’d be located in Tampa, Fl. to be close to them. The company clearly had designs on moving to the US, so I let it be known that I’d quite like to go over there permanently, and they set the wheels in motion to obtain a visa. I liked Tampa much more than DC, somewhere I’d happily have lived.

Chase must have been having their own meetings about the project, and the next thing I knew, Chase dictated that the project now had a sufficiently strategic importance, that they wanted us close by, in New York City. Personally, this was fine by me, since I’d liked New York City even more than Tampa. My first impressions of Manhattan had been very positive. The only thing was that the cost of living was that much higher than in Florida, but that was the company’s problem, not mine, right? At the time, everything for me was on expenses anyway.

From midsummer 1996 onwards, therefore, I was over in New York City quite a bit, helping to set up a US operation. Funnily enough, I didn’t do many “tourist” things, mostly because there was no hurry. I did go up to the top of the World Trade Center, and remember going to Staten Island on the ferry, to see Liberty, but there was lots more I eventually wanted to do. I loved New York – it was very different to most of the US, just in terms of its compactness. And there was so much going on – if I had to identify the capital of the world, this was it.

By the end of the year, my visa had come through so it was time to make things permanent. I said most of my goodbyes in the UK and gave up my rent. Then, the snag!

Basically, the company offered me a deal to work in Florida, which I accepted. They offered me the same deal, but in New York City. I researched, and that the cost of living in New York was 3x that of Florida. Additionally, I’d been in New York for some months now, I’d made a few friends and, more importantly, had been involved in hiring future co-workers. So, I’d had some knowledge of the market – I’d be managing people earning $1000/day, while I’d be earning a quarter of that! Presumably the company gambled that just the opportunity to work in the USA would be irresistable, but that was never really the case. I also had my doubts about the company itself – was it really something I wanted to be involved with? I felt that the atmosphere could be quite toxic at times, even between the directors (which they should never have let me see). The company was very marketing-driven, often making promises that were impossible to deliver given the technology of the time. I remember once working a 26-hour stint the day before a meeting, for exactly this reason – and I was expected back in the office after a half day’s rest!

Also the support we had from Chase was equivocal. I’ve seen it many times since, but at the time it was a new experience. Weren’t we all on the same side? The middle-managers we dealt with harboured ambitions to become senior managers – they had to maintain a certain distance from us because if not, and the project went sour, then it might reflect badly on them. Middle managers in large corporates think very much like that the world over – make sure you don’t go out on a limb for anything, and you’ll get promoted just for not screwing up! Actually, the senior managers I know got there precisely by going out on a limb and succeeding against the odds, but that’s a different story, and I have the benefit of experience.

Anyway, the to-ing and fro-ing went on over Christmas 1996, but in the end I decided not to take the offer – it was a step backward rather than forward for me. I was still minded to get to New York somehow – the visa (which wasn’t transferable, but it did at least show that the US Immigration people thought that my skills were sufficiently desirable), whilst at the same time set up my own company in the UK, in case things didn’t work out. I was really at the point in my career where I felt able to strike out on my own.

As it happened, I severed my ties formally with this company in February 1997, fortunately there was a spell where I was on gardening leave but on full pay, which I used to develop my own business. I got the first work through my company in early March, down near Winchester (which brought me to this area), and over time lost the urge to work in the USA. I loved New York City but looking at how things turned out both personally and professionally, I can’t really complain.

I got a letter from an official receiver, some months later, telling me that the UK arm of this company had gone to the wall – I suspect they put all their eggs into the Chase basket and Barclaycard weren’t too thrilled – but by then I was nicely into the rest of my life.