I don’t think I’ve ever seen Maria so flustered.

Don’t get me wrong.  Every architect gets a little put off, now and again.  It goes with being a passionate visionary, but this… this was unusual.

“These aren’t T-shirts.  I don’t want you to tell me if you think this project is a ‘Medium’ or a Extra Large,” she was ranting, now.  “I want to know what’s in the estimate!”

Maria is a tall black woman with short hair and an athletic build.  She was sitting one one side of a small conference table, with her eyes closed.  It was clear that she was determined to remain as calm as she could.  Across from her sat Fredrick, a project manager from one of the IT teams that Joe usually works with.

Now Fredrick is a very good project manager.  He works very hard to make sure, once a project gets kicked off, that he has clear requirements, well defined deadlines, and committed resources.  His projects are about as good as they get in IT. 

But this isn’t a project… not yet.  It’s a business case for a project.  The marketing team wants to change the web application that partners use to download sales brochures and white papers, and Fredrick has written up an estimate of the costs, benefits, and return on investment for management to decide if the project should go forward.

Maria, on the other hand, has to make sure that the project follows the rules.  She is overseeing a consolodation of web applications, and her ‘future state’ designs are setting the direction of a long list of applications, including Fredrick’s marketing web site.

“You have given me an estimate of the cost of this change,” Maria explained, “but I can’t tell if this estimate includes any of the integration work that I’ve asked you to do.”

“Sure it does,” replied Fredrick.  “The developers told me that they read your models before doing the estimate.  I’m sure that it includes everything you need.”

“But where have you written all that down?”  Maria looked down at the business case document on the table.  It was a sparse six pages long, with at least four used up by the template.  “All that’s in here is the cost, in hours, for the project.  I can’t tell what assumptions led to that cost.”

Fredrick looked at her like she was nuts.  At this point, he had become very quiet.  I don’t think he had any idea of how to respond. 

“Can I jump in here?”  I asked.  Maria turned away.  Fredrick looked at me, imploring me to get him out of this jam.

“Fredrick, I’m going to ask you for an estimate, and I’m going to take notes, OK?”

“Sure” he replied.  Anything to change the subject.  I opened up OneNote and typed as we went.

“How long will it take to travel from here to my father’s house?”  I asked. 

“Huh?  Oh.  Um.  That depends.  Where is your father’s house?”  He played along.

“Cincinatti, Ohio.”  I replied while I typed away on my laptop.

“OK.  I’d guess a couple of hours by air.”  He replied.

“I hate to fly.”  I replied. 

“Is the train OK, or do you want to drive?”  Fredrick was getting interested.

“I prefer to drive.”  I replied.  I was making this up as I went.  “Slowly.”

After a few minutes of this back and forth, we came up with an estimate of four days.

“Here’s the assumptions that I captured, Fredrick,” I said, clicking to the top of my document.

“Travel will take place by car, entirely by Interstate highway.  Driver will travel alone, and will not drive for more than four hours without rest, and not more than ten hours in a day.  Driver will not exceed the speed limit, and will stay only in nice hotels in towns and cities along the way.  Driver will not get in any major accidents.  The car is in good mechanical condition and will make the trip without the need of repair.  No major weather events will impede progress.”

He got it.  Maria smiled at both of us and took over the rest of the meeting.  When it was over, Fredrick had provided some of the assumptions himself, and had about a dozen more to run past the dev team, just to be safe. 

“Sorry to be so thick, Maria,” he said as we wrapped up.  “I guess I just hadn’t thought about the fact that a estimate, without the assumptions, didn’t really mean very much.”

“No problem, Fredrick,” she replied.  “We are all on the same side.”

Best assumption of the day.

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

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