If software estimators ran the National Hurricane Center

Posted by Robert Merrill on August 29, 2008 under Estimation, Project Set-Up | 2 Comments to Read

As I was writing this, soon-to-be Hurricane Gustav of 2008 was intensifying near Jamaica, and workers were already being evacuated from oil platforms in the northern Gulf of Mexico. This was causing a loss of production (and profits) for those producers, and driving an increase in the price of oil on world markets.

Evacuating the offshore platforms was a decision. It was based on some decision support, provided by the fine folks at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.

Tropical Storm Gustav Forecast Track and Error Cone

Tropical Storm Gustav Forecast Track and Error Cone

The solid line was the forecast track of Gustav’s center for the next three days. The dashed line extends that to five days. The white solid and hatched areas showed the expected errors in the track. Based on past performance of NHC forecasts, the center of Gustav had a 1/3 chance of going outside the threat area. This is the meteorological equivalent of a software project estimate, only presented with a lot more subtlety for use by much more sophisticated decision-makers.

As a decision-maker, there are a number of ways you could have misinterpreted this:

Misinterpretation Fact
Gustav will pass near New Orleans, LA Tuesday morning. That was the most-likely scenario at this point, but it wasn’t significantly more likely than the center of Gustav being near Mobile, AL, Lake Charles, LA, still well offshore, or inland over Mississippi (not only are you learning about Software-Intensive Businesses, you’re learning the geography of the Gulf Coast).
I live in Brownsville, TX (the southern tip) so I have nothing to worry about. Careful, there’s a 1/3 chance that Gustav will escape the cone. Actually, your probability of gale-force (40 mph or more) winds within five days due to Gustav is around 5%, or 1 in 20. Now you can decide if you need to take action yet, or not.
I’m on an offshore rig at 28 North, 89 West, and I need to be shut down before gale-force winds arrive. But Gustav’s a long way off. I should wait a couple of days before deciding what to do. It all depends on how long it takes you to shut down operations and get your people off. Your probability of gale-force winds within 48 hours is nil, within 3 days, 7%, within 4 days, 36%, and within 5 days, 46%. If preparations take three days to complete, you need to decide if a 7% chance of being caught is worth it. Trust me, it’s not. That’s why producers were already evacuating those platforms.
Look at the size of the error cone! These forecasts are useless! The Government should fire those forecasters and get us some who are able to make a commitment and stick to it, rather than being so wishy-washy. What do you think is wrong with this interpretation?

Notice the fine print on the chart. “Advisory 15.” The National Hurricane Center updates its forecasts every six hours, because new information is coming in all the time. If you called them and complained, “But yesterday you said!” they would have explained this very politely and referred you to the current advisory.

If the National Hurricane Center were run like most software projects, they would have issued one forecast track, as soon as a storm formed, with no error cone. When the storm deviated from the track, the offshore platform managers would blame the storm or the forecasters. But wait, you say. We can control where a software project goes. We can’t control a hurricane!

Oh, really? Influence, sort of. Control, no.

The SIB situation, on Slashdot

Posted by Robert Merrill on August 26, 2008 under Concepts | Be the First to Comment

I talk a lot about Software-Intensive Businesses, and the problems they can have because their management teams don’t know what they don’t know about software, and how I can help. Is this real, or do I have a solution in search of a problem? (not that I’ve ever made that mistake before!)

I found this thread, Sofware Quality in a Non-Software Company, to be affirming of my business plan. I’m not the only one seeing the SIB phenomenon. Granted, it’s on Slashdot, and not likely to be seen by my target audience. But I replied to the thread anyway. Maybe some Slashdot reader will find me and introduce me to their CEO, and maybe I can help everybody.

When it comes to introverts like me, necessity is the mother of marketing, not invention.

On Being Useful

Posted by admin on August 25, 2008 under Concepts, uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

First, thank you for using your limited time to read this.

“Be Useful” is the informal uFunctional motto.

I learned this concept from Kari Myrland, my mentor in technical sales. “On every sales call, the prospect is giving us a scarce resource—their time. We should always give them something of value in return.”

I learned that business people were thirsty for straight talk about information technology. Even if we found out that our company did not offer products or services the prospect could use, we would spend some time just answering questions. I don’t know if we closed more business or not this way, but it made nearly every sales call feel positive and successful, and that’s important.

Now that I’m on my own, I still remind myself to “be useful” in every sales situation.

Another part of being on my own is professional networking. I’s not something that comes easily to me. But it helps me if I go into each networking opportunity telling myself, “Be useful. You probably know concepts, information, and people that would be useful to someone here. That’s your goal. Meet as many people as you can, and be useful.”

For some reason, this mind trick takes most of the stress out of networking. I don’t know if I generate more leads or not this way, but it makes those dreadful networking events less dreadful, and that’s important. If you struggle with networking, you might try it.

I hope this blog entry was useful to you. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Project Setup Advice

Posted by admin on August 18, 2008 under Project Set-Up | Be the First to Comment

I just posted a comment on requirementsnetwork.com that I thought was a pretty good summary of how I’ve learned to set up smallish (under 1000 function points) projects. It’s called Analysis and Design Responsibilities — Coping with Scope Creep (and other perils of contracting).

I’m working on some real articles about this for the Wisconsin Technology Network, too.


Posted by Robert Merrill on August 13, 2008 under uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

What a strange topic for a consultant’s blog!

Not really.

Executives engage a consultant because things aren’t going great. The situation is a mess, and it’s their responsibility, and they’re not sure what to do. So they’re anxious, and maybe a little bit ashamed.

Employees don’t welcome a consultant because they and their work will be evaluated and judged by a stranger. So they’re defensive. Or maybe they greet the consultant with open arms because at last someone is going to speak truth to power. So they’re hopeful—maybe too hopeful—and are about to be let down, again.

I always remind myself of these things when getting started. Yes, the situation is probably a mess, but not on purpose. There’s history, and a lot of decisions that probably made a lot of sense at the time.

A client is a group of people, with knowledge and with feelings. I must learn from them, and before they will teach me, they must trust me. Then I will advise and instruct them. My advice and instruction may hurt, and before they can receive it, they must trust me even more.

My success depends on them, and their trust. In order to begin earning that, I must show compassion.

Not such a strange concept for a consultant after all.

Integrity? Insight? Innovation?

Posted by admin on August 9, 2008 under uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

The short uFunctional tagline is “Integrity, Insight, Innovation.” Just because it’s a trite, corporate-sounding cliché doesn’t mean I didn’t give it some thought.

It summarizes the flow of a successful consulting engagement.

Integrity means seeing and discussing the facts as they are, without any hidden agendas. Part of my role is to be trustworthy myself, and help this happen. Even though we’ll probably begin our conversation with a technical topic, I’ll also be intentionally building a relationship based on integrity.

Insight means seeing the same facts in a new way. It’s the A-HA that heralds a new-found sense of understanding, confidence, and possibility.

Innovation means following a new course of action and getting different (and hopefully better) results.

Here comes another cliché. There are no shortcuts.

Without integrity, there can be no insight. New ideas might sound, feel, and be trumpeted as insights, but they probably aren’t.

Without insight, we can act, even with great forcefulness, but innovation is an unlikely matter of luck (and without integrity, we might not even see and embrace the good).

Without innovation, we won’t change even though the world is changing, and we won’t improve, even though there’s always room for improvement.

In business, the doors to most prisons are locked from the inside. The key is integrity. Insight and innovation will follow.