Wednesday, September 18, 2013

We all need to predict the future

Sometimes, I find it frustrating to get work estimates from colleagues. It is even more difficult to ask for completion dates. It is indeed a difficult task and basically you don't always know what is involved and it is even more difficult to predict what other work will interfere. However forecasting is a necessary task we all have to do at times.

Not everyone is comfortable with making business decisions, since basically that is what you do. I also found that people sometimes misunderstand the context in which these forecasts are asked. Quite often I have to explain that we are in early stages of a project and that a high variation is acceptable or that giving an estimate is not a commitment to deliver any work by a certain date.

I found that the more technical/operational people are, the more reluctant they are to provide estimates. If they give an answer, they want to be exact and accurate. And that is simply not possible when making forecasts. Specifically when high level estimates are required in the early stages of a project. Technicians prefer to give you an answer when they have completed the job.

However, the more frequent people are involved in estimating, the more forthcoming they will become with volunteering estimates. For example, I had a case where a DBA was very reluctant to specify the tasks that needed to be performed. The project manager came to me in despair saying that the DBA was not willing to contribute.

The way I resolved this was by using my little knowledge of what was required. I wrote this down on the white board and asked for confirmation that this was it. As a true techie, the DBA could not stand any inaccuracies and started correcting me. Initially just the minimal information was contributed. Each time I tried to fill in some gaps of information, this was which again corrected. After a while I had a good list of tasks and started adding the expected effort to each tasks. Again these would be corrected. In later planning exercises the DBA was much more forthcoming and learned to contribute and make his how plans.

Identifying task completion dates is another challenge. In some cases you simply get the answer that there are so many unknowns that it is basically impossible to predict. Even project managers at times tend to come with these arguments in order not to give any form of forecast at all. I disagree since you can usually give a best case and a worst case scenario. For any form of planning this is crucial information.

And don't forget that our CEO's, senior management, sales and marketing people have to make predictions of how our business will go, how much money we will earn and how much expenses we have. The uncertainty and consequences they have to deal with is much higher. If they would stop forecasting, just because they can't predict the exchange rate, what the Chinese or what the government will do, we all would be out of a job in no-time.

So, just make a best guess and know that this is not bad at all since you will use much of your experience whether you are fully aware of it or not. The more you do it, the better, or at least more comfortable, you will become.


 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Fix the browser back button

I have always found the scripts running on web pages disturbing, but specifically with tablets running over wireless it has become very noticeable that when you go back to the previous page in the browser, these scripts cause a significant delay in rendering the page. I don’t notice it that much on my desktop due to the fixed line connection and the extra computing power, but most of my information consumption is done via tablets where this annoying.

This is specifically the case for newspaper websites, for example, where you click on an article from the home page, read the article and want to go back to the home page to look for other information. A previous web page is in principle cached by your browser. However it generally will check again with the server if there is a new version of the page and it will re-run the scripts on the web page. I suggest that browser makers change this behaviour. If you just visited a web page and go back to it, just show exactly what was in the cache and allow the user to scroll through the page and click on hyperlinks. Don’t check the server. Don’t re-run the scripts.

There will be complaints coming from the marketeers who want to count the return to the page as a second visit and even more when it comes down to dynamic scripts for advertisements. Free information needs to be paid by something, so I am OK with advertisements. But why not just suspend the scripts temporarily while you have left the page and when you return, continue the execution? The browser would need to maintain a run-state of the page and you probably can only do this for a certain number of past pages. Given that an IOS app and a tab of the browser do something similar, we should be able to do this for web pages as well.

If I had anything to say about how to build newspaper websites, I would build them rather differently. Clicking on an article should show the article in a popup so you don’t leave the home page. You read the article, close it and you’re back at your starting point without the need to re-load that page. There are many good technologies to achieve this. In addition, I would use all those cookies that you already have placed in my browser cache to know a bit more of me. Using this information, you should start loading articles that I most likely will view in the background. This will make it a much smoother reading experience. I haven’t followed the latest developments in browser technology and it might be that browser makers may need to include some capabilities for this, though I belief this can be achieved already now.

Furthermore, newspaper makers should be much smarter with targeting content. They probably will tell me to take an (online) subscription, but even as an anonymous recurring visitor you should be able to do something smart. The Sydney Morning Herald should have figured out by now that in the sport section, I never click on a rugby article while often will read the football articles. If they want to earn their money through advertising, they probably like me to visit their website frequently. And for that they will need to provide me with relevant content.