How long will this feature take?

Be clear on someone’s definition of done when trying to communicate what it will take to build a feature.

Planning software development timescales is hard. As an industry we have moved away from the detailed Gantt charts and their illusion of total clarity and control. Basecamp have recently been talking about the joys of using Hill Charts to better communicate project statuses. The folk at ProdPad have been championing, for a long time, the idea of a flexible, transparent roadmap instead of committing to timelines.

That’s all well and good if you are preaching to the choir. But if you are working in a startup and the CEO needs to make a build or buy decision for a piece of software, you need to make sure that you have some way of weighing up the likely costs and efforts of any new feature you commit to build. It’s not good enough to just prioritise requests and drop them in the backlog.

The excellent Programmer Time Translation Table is a surprisingly accurate way of interpreting developer time estimates. My own rule of thumb is similar to Anders’ project manager. I usually triple anything a developer tells me because you build everything at least 3 times: once based on the developer’s interpretation of the requirements; once to convert that into what the product owner wanted; and once into what the end users will use. But even these approaches only look at things from the developer’s point of view, based on a developer’s “definition of done”. The overall puzzle can be much bigger than that.

For example, the startup CEO who is trying to figure out if we should invest in Feature X probably has a much longer range “definition of done” than “when can we release a beta version”. For example: “When will this make an impact on my revenues” or “when will this improve my user churn rates”. Part of the CTO job is to help make that decision from the business point of view in addition to what seems to be interesting from a tech angle.

For example, consider these two answers to the same question “When will the feature be done?”.

  1. The dev team is working on it in the current iteration, assuming testing goes well it will be released in 2 weeks.
  2. The current set of requirements is currently on target to release in 2 weeks. We will then need to do some monitoring over the next month or two so that we can iron out any issues that we spot in production and build any high priority enhancements that the users need. After that we will need to keep working on enhancements, customer feedback and scalability/security improvements so probably should expect to dedicate X effort on an ongoing basis over the next year.

Two examples from my experience:

A B2B system used primarily by internal staff. It took us about 6 weeks to release the first version from initial brainstorming on it. Then it took about another two months to get the first person to use it live. Within 2 years it was contributing 20% of our revenues, and people couldn’t live without it.

An end user feature that we felt would differentiate us from the competition. This was pretty technically involved so the backend work kept someone busy for a couple months. After some user testing we realised that the UI was going to need some imaginative work to get right. Eventually it got released. Two months after release the take-up was pretty unimpressive. But 5 years later that feature was fully embedded and it seems that everyone is using it.

What is the right “definition of done” for both of these projects? Depends on who is asking. It’s as well to be clear on what definition they are using before you answer. The right answer might be in the range of months or years, not hours or weeks.

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