Three tips for grief-free project estimates

Having spent six of the past ten years as a consultant, I’m all to familiar with the practice of estimating. Every client wants an estimate, and every client wants your estimate to be accurate. Of course, clients also don’t want to give you concrete requirements that are needed to give an accurate estimate, either, which compounds the problem.

Scott Hanselman has a nice post about estimating, where he mentions two lessons I learned over the years:

  • Make your estimate, then double it. I actually took this a step further. If an estimate had to be given based on very sketchy requirements, I’d double it twice (effectively quadrupling it). This practice leads to…
  • Under-promise and over-perform. Always make sure your estimate gives you sufficient cushion to come in ahead.

A third lesson he doesn’t mention is to be willing to walk away from a client if your estimate is too high. If a client balks at your estimate (even if you double, or quadruple, it), you can either reduce the scope of your proposed work (and thus reduce the estimate) or walk away. I’ve taken projects that I’ve regretted taking after all was said and done, and most of them can be attributed to me skimping on my estimate because the client was scared off by my original (and, usually, more accurate) estimate.

These lessons go not just for programming projects, but for nearly everything in life. Over-estimate, under-promise, over-perform, and don’t shortchange yourself. Words to live by.

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