Estimate @ Speed of Thought

Decided to share my research here, published for the first time somewhere at the beginning of 2010. Motivation is to teach others how to do ballpark estimations very quickly. This is extremely important in consulting job, when you have to calculate really quickly and accurately.

Table of Content

  • How to see the unknown
  • Who are you, Dr. Fermi?
  • Emergence of patterns

What is Unknown? What Unknown is?

Some mechanisms in our brains classify things as Unknown. It happens because of multiple reasons. Brain classifies as Unknown everything that we call Unclear, Invisible, Complicated, Scary and so on. Below are visualization of what I mean.

Unclear. What do you see on this Marsian picture: face or pyramid? Unclear again. What sign do you see?

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Invisible. What do you see below? Nude woman or elephant?

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Human perception works in such a way that we see in details what is in front of our nose, then almost without details what is aside, and very blurry what is a distant to us. It is related to all objects that we look at. People below see three modules, the structure of the first module in details, some high-level structure of the second module, and almost nothing in the distant third module. In out case, this is an abstract representation of some real-life objects, e.g. airport with multiple terminals, enterprise software system etc.

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Complicated. Are you comfortable with understanding of the diagram?

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Scary. Scary leads to unknown, because it blocks the brain from creative thinking. Unpleasant, non-aesthetic, negative is processed less efficiently than positive things. I could be wrong with biological terminology, but the fact that positive things works better is widely researched in UX (User Experience) field, and is confirmed by such gurus as Don Norman. It is Marylin Manson on the picture below, not Don:) And many people consider it as scary. Though the music is good. I played “Rock is Dead” and “Sweet Dreams” with a pleasure. The life is strange indeed. Nevertheless, scary things lead or nurture the unknown.

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Why Unknown is a Top Problem in Estimation?

There are obvious quick answers. Incomplete list is here. IT industry evolves so fast. Industry people hardly keep the pace of evolution. Those things that passed by are falling into Unknown automatically. Many youngsters are involved into the work. As in any other industry, all youngsters are inexperienced. What is pretty straightforward to mature wolves happen to be unknown for the newbie. Answers required for yesterday. Sounds similar? Or another situation, everything almost understandable, but there are nuances – it is for different business domain. That domain specifics redefine the whole picture and known things are falling into unknown category very quickly. The match of skills and problems (or mismatch of them) leads to more unknowns. Add your reasons from your experience here! Come on! I would conclude this section that unknown is relative, but permanent. Relative means that for somebody it is unknown, for somebody known. Permanent means the persistence of the problem in IT industry. It was yesterday, it is present today and tomorrow we will face it again. C’est la vie.

How to Look at the Unknown?

If we concluded that the problem is recurring, hence we need a solution how to deal with it. How to tame the unknown? You should look at it as you look at the diamond. Look at unknown from all possible facets. Rotate it and look again. Grab it close to you eyes and look. Put it one meter from you and look. Look in the morning and at the afternoon. Look together. Look, look and look! This is a solution. Actually, it leads to the solution. Let’s do an exercise, a small workshop for you.

Workshop for You. Saturn!

If you are not an astronomer, this should be good unknown thing for you. Its name is Saturn. Saturn planet. To make some decisions about Saturn you have to know at least something about it. What could you tell me about Saturn? Quickly and reliably? Look.

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OK, some things you really see. Some things you know from your school memories. It is sphere and there is a ring around it. Most people would stop here. But we go further! The sphere is not uniform. We should notice it and remember, because it might affect some decision making in the future. It is always important to classify uniform things and deal with them separately. Do not mix apples and dogs. Divide and conquer, isolate apples into one bin and deal with them, isolate dogs into another bin and deal with them there. Well, back to Saturn. There are many rings, not just one! This is also result of just slightly more deep observation of the same image. Invest slightly more time to analysis and it will pay off. But look differently from how majority of people look. Dig into all possible details that may lead (or may not) to better context for the decision making afterwards.

Good, we came up with some info. What else? How to get even more info? Solution is to look. Look again. Look in the different spectrum! Use infrared spectrum for example. Probably you would see smth new?

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Wow, the temperature is different across the planet. Almost like on our Earth! Notice this fact. It is sphere, like Earth. It has temperature distribution, like Earth. The principle of analogy could be applied here. It is the easiest principle that could help you a lot, but there is a big risk, if you apply the principle where there is no analogy. Hence, you need more details to get sure there is opportunity to apply the analogy.

What else? As we mentioned our mother Earth, let’s benefit from it. Look again, look so that you see Earth and Saturn together. What could you tell now about Saturn?

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Mamma mia! Saturn is huge! This observation brings numbers about the diameter, mass, density etc. Just take known Earth numbers and calculate Saturn numbers based on the ratios you observe. The temperature from the infrared spectrum also could be converted into the numbers. So, after few different looks you’ve got plenty of numbers. And numbers are good, we could calculate using them. Exactly what we need during estimations. We need numbers and ranges of them to play with them. What is an interim conclusion here that should be mentioned is orthogonality. We have used three orthogonal views onto the same thing. Orthogonal means independence. We applied independent looks and grabbed some information form them, and converted it into the numbers.

Good so far. Moving forward. You could guess what else possible? A lot of hidden views are still available. Let’s use them to get more information in the same context. Look closer. Zoom in.

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It is alive! Saturn is not a dead stone. There is some spiral movement. Kind of cyclone? Something is going on there. For us it means dynamics. We might count on it later during some decision making. Several more looks at Saturn…

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Now you should catch the idea. It is really possible to squeeze much more information from the given context. It is possible to See the Unknown. It is possible to convert new information into the numbers and use them in your further calculations. You could observe a lot. Then you should divide and conquer the observations. Then work within homogeneous sets. It makes analysis easier. Substitute the word “Saturn” by the word “Project” or “Prospect” and apply in your work. You will see a lot more useful info about your Projects and Prospects immediately. For sure, you could use that info properly. Ain’t fun?

Who are you, Dr. Fermi?

Look forward to the next post. It will be Part II. See you here soon!

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4 thoughts on “Estimate @ Speed of Thought

  1. Ritesh Man Tamrakar says:

    Interesting way to explain unknown and different ways to deal with it. Looking forward to part II of it :)

  2. [...] is Part III, continued. If you landed right here, it is recommended that you read Part I and Part II to grasp the entire [...]

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