Software Estimates and Seinfeld’s Cabinets

09-16-20 Drew Clemens

Sparkbox wants to work with you, and we do that partially through estimate ranges. Learn more about our process and how this customizes work to your project's needs.

When Sparkbox estimates projects, we frequently give a range. Almost every one of our estimates contains three possible totals: a minimum estimate, a maximum estimate, and an average of those two numbers. This range doesn’t reflect our fear of commitment. It is an acknowledgment that software “completeness” is not a definite thing—it is a spectrum based on a variety of factors.

For a humorous illustration of my point, I give you Seinfeld’s cabinets:

Unfortunately, we’re not the 90’s favorite comedian in this scenario. As software creators, we’re the capable yet inquisitive contractor. And although Jerry is the protagonist, he misses the point until it’s too late: there’s a range of effort and features that can go into a project and still create a successful outcome. Understanding that range and collaborating within it is key to ensuring your expectations (and budget) are met at project completion.

“…any way you want.”

What do we mean by Minimum?

In short, we provide an estimate for the minimum number of hours that we believe are required to deliver a minimum viable product (MVP). We take into account our understanding of the required features and boil them down to their most basic solutions. We think creatively and ask ourselves how we could accomplish this basic need if we had to do so as quickly as possible (but without compromising our core quality standards).

As a product owner, how does the minimum feel? It feels like a lot of compromise and constantly keeping an open mind. You’ll be presented with solutions for features that are creative, durable, and usable, but they will oftentimes require a shift in your original expectations.

Our client partners who are looking for a minimum approach generally have a very tight budget or timeline, and they are willing to work with us to find creative ways to keep the scope of the work down. This can be a great fit for folks with an open mind and flexibility in their product. Oftentimes, the resulting MVP is simply a foundation, a first release upon which more can be built.

What do we mean by Maximum?

After discussing the scope of work, we provide an estimate describing the most we believe the product would require based on our current understanding of the needs.

Now, admittedly, “maximum” leaves a lot to interpretation. To be clear, there is no maximum amount of effort that can be spent on a product to refine and improve it. When a software product is seen as a key business tool and revenue generator, its business value justifies constant investment. However, when we provide a maximum in our estimates, we are attempting to provide a ceiling on the amount of effort we believe is required to meet the objectives within the client’s expectations.

What does a project feel like when it’s working with a budget from the maximum estimate? There’s breathing room to explore, try more than one idea, and be more picky about the chosen solutions. We aren’t looking for the fastest way to achieve requirements—we’re looking for a better way

Projects working with a maximum estimate are a great fit for clients with stakeholders who see the business value of the product build. Budgets aren’t unlimited, but they are provisioned with understanding that a better product takes time.

And the Average?

Not surprisingly, the average estimate is squarely between the minimum and the maximum. The approach is moderate, a product of the project team and client carefully and collaboratively choosing where to spend extra time. Less critical features can be approached with a minimum viable solution, leaving space for other high priority features to be polished and refined further.

It’s actually more challenging to manage a budget toward the average estimate than one might expect. When a team is trying to drive toward a minimum approach, they are in a constant state of efficiency—every feature is a challenge to reduce. Likewise, on the maximum budget end, clients prioritizing exploration and quality tend to find value-add improvements as long as their higher budget ceiling allows. The average estimate is a balance that requires a great deal of focus and long-term perspective to moderate feature development.

Better Than “Any Way You Want…”

All project approaches are valid. There is a time and place for a minimum, maximum, or average budgeting approach. Our goal at Sparkbox is to work with you to understand how your project constraints fit within that spectrum, clearly set expectations, and deliver something wonderful. Unlike Jerry’s contractor in the video clip, we have opinions, and we make our recommendations known. While it’s true that we could probably build it “any way you want,” that’s not a partnership. Folks don’t choose to work with us because we blindly execute on requirements. We want to work with you, so you can trust that we’ll provide our perspective on a good path forward based on the context you’ve provided to us. And we look forward to discussing those paths with you to create a great solution for a great product.