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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 'ETA' Rush

Estimated Time of Arrival or ETA is used in numerous contexts in everyday conversation. But it holds a special significance in the context of Project Management in IT.

Your boss has asked you to take the lead on a IT project in your company. Maybe you are a project manager, software architect or technical lead. If your project is important, your boss will be pressed hard to keep his superiors informed of its progress. And so it happens that ETAs for important milestones are key to  publishing an excellent project status.

Smart managers consume status on important projects voraciously. Excellent status reporting means that managers are fully informed of your projects health and overall direction without having to get involved themselves. There is particular information your boss needs in order to show her boss that she is on top of things and able to run the show effectively.

So far so good. But what if the manager comes from a non software background and suddenly the whole project starts revolving around ETAs, the technical specification document is replaced by a time-line sheet, the architecture document is no more referred to and in all team meetings, the impending question is "What is the ETA for....?"

We are engineers. That doesn't just describe our training or job description — its who we are. We look at the world through a scientific, analytical lens and when we identify problems, we prototype ways to solve them. Engineers have unique viewpoints and skills and – in my opinion – a unique responsibility to use our abilities for the good of all. While each task must be time bound, it does not make sense to calculate and announce ETAs in  few seconds. Research and prototype or debugging the issue requires time before a date can be given.

Managers are like children and always want to know when they are going to get something. "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

So what happens to a project where ETA rules? An ETA driven project is a sure sign of very hard-to-meet deadlines and mostly poor project planning. Engineers get frustrated and lose interest in project.  Poor project management, software design and architecture is followed by hurried execution.  In short, it is a disaster waiting to happen.

Dealing with 'ETA' craziness requires some tact. Provide a time and date for when the issue will be resolved. If you cannot, then provide a time and date for when you will get to the next step in the issue resolution process. If you cannot do that, then provide an ETA for your next updated status on the issue or in short an ETA for an ETA!

Software Engineer: Jack, a bull is coming in your direction.
Manager: What is the ETA?
Software Engineer: 0.5 millisecond.
Manager: ----@!$@*@!