Deadline – Why Does Every Software Project Follow This Exact Formula?

A deadline can be the ultimate inspiration for shipping your software, but do deadlines really have something to do with projects’ schedule?

Is Deadline a Dead Line?

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the definition for the term ‘Deadline’ is twofold:

Time limit: the time by which something must be done or completed
Line marked in prison: formerly, a line in a prison or prison camp marking a boundary beyond which prisoners were forbidden to go on pain of death

Ironically, there couldn’t be a better way to pair these terms together, at least with regards to software development, or as Douglas Adams accurately stated:

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

You might come to expect that when missing a deadline, somebody will get fired, perhaps not literally as was the case if you were a prisoner in Civil War camps back in 1864, but at least in modern days terms. somebody has to pay, right? This expectation, much like the essence of Deadlines themselves, has another crucial dimension – Time.

Algebra Vs Evolutionary psychology

We would like to believe that the easy explanation for projects going over time is all grounded in the science of Algebra. An in depth look at the problem, steeped in psychology and evolutionary biology lights the issue as more complex than simple calculus.
Evolutionary psychology is a new scientific psychology branch, in which knowledge and principles from cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology are put to use in research on the structure of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology is equipped with tools that can explain much of the constraints that cause us to behave in a way that contradicts our best interests.

Evolutionary psychology theory suggests that deadlines play to certain mental tendencies that have been “hard-wired” into our brains eons ago.

Darwin Technologies

The Evolution theory explains two paramount principals that dictate human behavior: Survival, and Reproduction.
Reproduction may seem like a more interesting subject to discuss but have little to do with deadlines so we will focus on survival instead.

Survival is the evolutionary principle that dictates our brain to continuously search for possible threats. The ability of the prehistoric man to rapidly spot danger was often the decisive factor between life and death.
Fast Forward some thousands of years, the importance of survival as it was imprinted in our brains a long time ago, is disrupting our ability to make decisions in the dynamic environment of our modern days.

Why so negative?

Researches show that our brain deducts negative meanings out of patterns, twice as much as it deducts positive ones.
Psychologist and behavioral economists suggest that we add an additional adjustment factor to apply subjective weights. It is no surprise then, that we weigh costs (or losses) and benefits (or gains) differently, with prospective losses looming more influential, and having a greater weight than prospective benefits. Hence, people can be expected to be cost, loss, and risk averse (if only because “cost”, “loss”, and “risk” carry negative subjective evaluation).

While economists are inclined to discount future costs and benefits by some constant instant rate, psychologist, by the way of contrast, argue differently.

The Time dimension

There is no reason to believe, psychologists insist, that people’s weights applied to cost over time need to move in lockstep with the weights applied to gains. This means, that the costs incurred immediately can be given a higher subjective value relative to gains than is the case for costs incurred in the future, and beyond some point in time, the weighted value begins to fade while the weighted costs escalate as they become more immediately pressing.

Procrastination is everywhere

By all accounts, procrastination is common and rising. More than quarter of surveyed Americans admit to being frequent procrastinators, with men being slightly more inclined to procrastinate than women. In 2006, the percentage of Americans inclined to procrastinate was 28%, up from 5% back in 1978.

According to economist George Akerlof, present effort is unduly salient in comparison with future effort, leading individuals to postpone tasks until tomorrow without foreseeing that when tomorrow comes, the required action will be delayed yet again.

Surprisingly, procrastination can also have a positive effect. By repeatedly delaying the incurrence of effort that is immediate at each time period, people can quite rationally make the delays pay. At present time, programmers may only have a vague idea of the true effort and deliverables of undertaking any particular action at various future points in time. As time goes by, programmers can often reasonably expect to be able to gather more and better information on what the relative effort is, hence, what they should do.

Akerlof argues that individuals can, in misjudging effort over time, all too often exhibit preferences that are “time inconsistent”, resulting in eventual outcomes that stand contrary to the procrastinator’s own long term interests and welfare. Much like overweight people who gain weight while supposedly dedicated to diets, and savers who continually postpone saving time period by time period until they enter retirement with inadequate income streams.

Drawing the Deadline

Though we would like to think otherwise, we are all overweight in the sense that we are dedicated to our diets, but on our own terms. There is a better way to put our software skills to good use, and that always seems to be somewhat different than the task at hand.

The unfavorable balance between the force of immediate and future weighted effort at the start of each time period can force an unwanted long-term outcome – unless a deadline is set.

It is understandable how drawing the end of an iteration period closer can, beyond some point, increase the implementation effort, as researchers found to be the case. And research has shown that extending the deadline into the future can lead to less code being generated at any given time.

Extending a deadline to a late software project makes it later

Given both the scientific evidence and psychological reasoning noted earlier, one would expect deadlines will only be scheduled in one direction over the time axis, that is, closer to the current point in time.

Paradoxically, this is not the case. In paraphrase on Brooks’s law, which says that:

“adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”

We can make an even stronger deduction that:

“Extending a deadline to a late software project only makes it later”

Of course, if software projects schedules were only estimated correctly for the first time, deadlines would never be as stronger tools they are.
Software cost estimation will be the subject of my next article and have less to do with costs than you may think. After all, It is not called “estimation” for nothing.