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Five Stages of Microbudgeting

  • Moscow, Russia
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XDSDxdsd Zerocracyzerocracy

Microtasking, which I explained in an earlier post, works only when each task has a very specific reward for success and a punishment for failure. I believe that the best reward and punishment instrument is money. The budget is fixed, the programmer gets it only when the task is completed (reward), no matter how much time it cost; if it is not completed, there is no money at all (punishment). Pure and simple. However, a logical question arises: how can we know upfront what is the right budget? Who sets it?

Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese
Taxi Driver (1976) by Martin Scorsese

When we started to play with microtasking in our projects, in 2009, we were asking programmers to estimate each task. It did work, but only with very simple and obvious tasks. More complex ones almost always suffered from either under-estimating or padding—numbers were either very small and task performers were complaining in the end, or they were too big and customers were asking for refunds. It was not a manageable situation.

Then, we realized that it would be better if all tasks were rather small, with exactly the same budget. We tried to use two hours as a universal and fixed estimate. Everything else that didn't fit—programmers were allowed to reject. This model didn't really work either, because our managers had to deal with a very large amount of rejected tasks and didn't know how to make them smaller, since they were not programmers.

Finally, in March 2010 we found a solution, which was labeled Puzzle Driven Development (PDD). According to this concept: 1) Any task has a very small fixed budget (we use 30 minutes); 2) The task performer is allowed to complete only part of the task; 3) The code that is being returned to master must include @todo markers, called "puzzles"; 4) Puzzles are automatically converted to new tasks.

The beauty of this approach is that the most complicated part of the software project management—scope decomposition—is moved to the shoulders of those who are the best at it: programmers.

We are using PDD in all our projects now and have even created a public instrument for GitHub repositories, which allows anyone to play with PDD at no cost: 0pdd.com. This is exactly the same tool we are using in our commercial projects.

However, if and when you decide to apply microbudgeting to your project, together with PDD, there will be problems. Psychological ones mostly. In my experience, people go through five stages when they face microbudgeting for the first time:

  • Denial. They ask "How is it possible?" and then refuse to hear any explanations. There are many reasons why microbudgeting and microtasking may not work—you will hear them all. Very often they demand a traditional model of payment, especially if they were invited. They just say that our model is insane, and if we want to see them work on our projects we have to pay for as much time as they spend. Most of them quit.

  • Anger. Some of them decide to try. Thanks to their previous multi-year experience, they expect to be paid by the end of the day/week/month, no matter what they were doing. Very soon they realize that the total income for the first day of work was $0.00, even though they were doing something. They get very angry. They call us crooks, fraudsters, and many other names. Asking them to read the policy again doesn't help. They simply can't believe that we are not going to pay them anything, even though they were doing something. Most of them quit.

  • Bargaining. Almost everybody at this stage recommends we change the model. They explain why it's not really effective and how great it would be if we would pay them the traditional way. They give us examples of their previous projects, send references from previous employees, and criticize my blog posts. With some of them I try to argue, when their criticism is constructive. Most of them quit.

  • Depression. Most programmers are used to doing work because they feel guilty if the task is not done or the bug is not fixed. Microbudgeting requires a completely opposite attitude: we all are supposed to work because we are greedy. Money has to motivate us, not guilt. If there is no money, we don't work. Most people, when they see this new motivational paradigm and don't see the usual guilt, lose coordination and don't know what to do. They can't really achieve anything, because there is no traditional manager standing behind them and pushing them forward. They are supposed to go for the money. They don't, and so they don't make any money. Most of them quit.

  • Acceptance. Finally, the best of them realize that the model can work if they follow the rules, which are very simple: be greedy, selfish, egoistic, money-driven, result-oriented, lazy, misanthropic, heartless, and arrogant. They accept the fact that they lose, compete, work, and make money only when they produce results. They start enjoying meritocracy at its best.

You understand already that the vast majority of those who try to work with us can't really get to the final point—they quit somewhere in the middle. Most probably something very similar will happen on your projects too.

What is the solution? I don't really know.

Statistically speaking, three to five people out of a hundred manage to survive and become effective and productive. Thus, to build a team of twenty people you will have to screen and try at least 400.

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