Such deadlines aren't there to annoy engineers, they are there because a lot of things need to be coordinated to happen at exactly the same time and place. Software is a means to an end, rarely a goal in itself.
Also, the "it ships when it ships" leads to an attitude in which nothing ships at all. Even if it's no hard deadline, people need a target in which they can frame their effort, especially if it's a joint effort. Nothing is more frustrating than really wanting to get something finished but your coworkers on who your work depends want to do something else. Without a fixed timeframe as a joint reference, it's very hard to stay in sync and make joint progress. I've seen it kill productivity more than unrealistic top-down deadlines.
Finally, there's no excuse for not making the effort to get better at estimating. I've seen well gelled teams play planning poker, give exactly the same estimates independently and hit their targets perfectly. It's not an exact science, but it's not dark magic or wild-ass guesswork either. It's a skill you can hone, especially as a team.
a) you fix deadlines and you vary on what you ship, sacrificing quality, features etc. to hit a deadline.
b) you fix what you deliver, in terms of functionality, quality etc. and slide your delivery date until it's ready
Trouble starts when you're varying on both axes at the same time; mission creep on what you deliver - an ever growing list of features - and no date to force a resolution.
Being able to say, "We are going to release version 2.0 on June 24th, 2013" does a lot of things. First, it signals confidence in your ability to manage your time and resources. Second, it allows your customers to hold you accountable for missed deadlines. Third, it prevents cases where you con yourself out of meeting the deadline with seemingly valid reasons.
I refuse to buy products from companies who do not publicize their development roadmap. I'll give games as an example. Back in the day I used to play World of Warcraft, and whenever we asked Blizzard when the next patch or expansion was, they would reply with a flippant and condescending "when it's ready." This was such a common response that players would often use it mockingly and append it with a "TM", because it was a trademark of how Blizzard communicated with its customers. It was one of the main reasons why I canceled my subscription.
These days I play Planetside 2, and SOE is a lot better with communication and they go so far as to publish a list of scheduled features and their estimated timeframes. And if schedules change and something gets postponed, they update the list with an explanation of why that happened.
As a customer, I want to know what features to expect and when to expect them. Do not try to hide it from me because that will piss me off. The end.
There seems to be no incentive in doing so. What's better for PR in case of missed deadline, imply that you will only release game when it's good enough, or make apologies? Do you get any reward for non-missed deadline?
I can't believe this blog post is even allowed to exist.
A formative moment for me was when I was the software manager for a company, and we had two clients with emergencies going on at the same time. The reality was, we couldn't really fix both problems at the same time. I went in to the president's office, and told her that we couldn't fix both problems right now, and I needed her to decide which client was going to suffer. She yelled at me, told me to get the hell out of her office, and figure out a solution that doesn't force either client to be the loser. I fumed and left, she obviously didn't understand the reality. But once I finished pouting, I realized there was a way I could implement a temporary fix for one real quick, and then work on the other...
There are business realities, and there are engineering realities. A business needs to manage both to deliver something awesome, or get overtaken by somebody else that will.
Marketing, sales, demos, meetings, running out of cash, press embargoes, and a host of other reasons can create real deadlines whether you like it or not.
Plans and deadlines are also helpful as a measure of progress - are we ahead or behind what we planned?
Now ideally you are able to agree on what to put in each release and stick to it, but a lot of work places are not ideal and feature creep can be a huge issue which can easily be addressed by implementing a release schedule and sticking to it (for the most part).
This is more applicable to areas such as mobile where it is unrealistic to ship releases every week.
- A number to use to whip people to work harder. (Yes, despite much research demonstrating how counterproductive that is for developers, a lot of management teams still try it. In part because big audacious goals tend to work well in other fields, like marketing.)
- A hard date that must be met. You need something to announce at a conference. A new tax law is in place. And so on.
- A date for the rest of the company knows what to plan around.
How you should treat a deadline varies by the type. If it is one that exists to whip you, ignore it as you file your resume looking for somewhere better. If it exists because something needs to be done, you should work hard to make sure that there will be a minimum viable product available before that date, then improve it as much as it can be improved for that date. If it exists for planning purposes, then make sure it has sufficient padding, and develop as efficiently as you can. And so on.
Now that you know what kind of deadline you have, where did it come from? In most organizations, the schedule estimate arrives as the first date that nobody can disprove. That is why software usually takes about 2x as long to deliver (if it ever is delivered) as it was estimated. But research indicates that, for software developers, the more confidence that they have in the schedule, the more productive they are. Many have noticed that when developers work to a schedule estimate that they produced, developers are more productive than if it is a schedule made up by management. However if developers work to a schedule estimate produced by an expert estimator, productivity goes up again.
Most organizations do not have expert estimators. So involve developers in schedule estimation. Add in fudge factors for sick time, unplanned obstacles, etc. As a good approximation the ratio between past plans and past performance is a good ratio to apply. As the project goes on, if the schedule starts to slip, immediately assume that all later parts will slip by the same ratio that you're experiencing already. To be able to catch slips, you need unambiguous milestones that can't be fudged. Otherwise people will say things like, "Coding is 90% complete" having pushed off the hard 10% that will take as long as what is done.
And if you want more good advice, I highly recommend Steve McConnell's Software Estimation. (You could substitute most of his books for that one, and the recommendation would stand. But that's the one on estimating schedules.)
Also the frequency of real deadlines depends on what you do. My neighbor is a project manager at JPL. They have a lot of deadlines and all are hard - you're either ready for the rocket launch or you're not.
If you're truly a member of a "team" (one that includes the positions of Marketing and Sales), hard deadlines are simply a fact that cannot be avoided (unless say, you're Apple Inc).
The key is for everyone to understand the difference between aspirational goals, and deliverable goals for the deadline.
If you're fighting this battle constantly, I'd take that as a sign that you're not a player on the team. Ball boy.
If the code being deployed requires announcements to users, Help Desk people, changes to other applications, changes do documentation, etc., then these are not "artificial" at all.
Long story short is that without deadlines people tend to push off work to the latest possible moment, at which point they tend not to be able to do as much as they thought they could in that short time space, so it actually causes more stresses on them than it would have to have had a series of deadlines along the way.
Edit: Here's some more research which backs up why your conclusion may not be correct: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374478/ Granted it is probably too early in the research of this area to say your conclusions are wrong, just that the research is leaning that way
Professionally, I've learned my lesson and while I've had some moments of procrastination (especially for tasks that I have little to no motivation for), I tend to work more steadily than I did in those first few years of college and I rarely run up against a deadline (soft or hard).
However, I've worked with plenty of software developers who wait until the last perceived moment and work crazy hours to try to meet the deadline. I'm not sure what they would do if they didn't have that deadline. I suppose they would either get fired for lack of productivity or just be productive enough when nudged to keep their jobs.
Well, with only five minutes left they are! Especially if it means they will lose the game if they don't.
I agree with your premise to just keep pushing forward, always making progress — but some things do have deadlines which are unavoidable.
If you have that luxury then that's great. For you. But if you're doing client work you likely don't have the luxury of never having to estimate. And even if you're not doing client work then it would likely be a good idea to at least give it a passing consideration.
Say you have a client who wants [x] and it needs to be done by a certain date (Yes! This does happen!), then it is helpful for you to know whether or not you might be able to deliver.
Say you have a client who wants [x] for [money]. Then it is helpful for you to know whether or not you might be able to produce it in a time frame which makes sense economically.
Say you have two ways of solving a certain problem. Then it is helpful for you to know if one solution would take a week and the other a year.
Estimation can be hard, sometimes impossible. But I'm not sure pretending it's not a problem is a viable solution for many.
You'll have the app delivered when? When we're done with it.
Mobile support is going to be added when? When we're done with it.
"When it's done" works great when you can keep the product mysterious or you don't have anyone using it. But not when you have real-world deadlines.
There is many ways to interpret the posted article.
Closest to home, I'd guess the advertising industry, where although highly abused, deadlines exist for a reason. Nevertheless deadlines are a disease spread mostly through cargo-culting.
Sometimes those can be rather extreme so my estimates have been "one month, plus/minus three months". If four months is acceptable then everyone is happy and as progress is made the range narrows. If time is tight then the discussion turns to reducing the range which puts everyone on the same page.
Consider this: If software, at a given state, is ready for consumption how long does it take until it is actually consumed and why is it that long? Could it be shorter? Could it be longer? Does it ever get consumed?
You can't really have an open deadline, and just charge whatever when you eventually finish.