Time After Time

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Last year I led an effort to implement time tracking for our teams. A quick warning is probably in order here:

Never, ever, be the person who introduces time tracking at a company. You will be reviled before the gods and your name shall be stricken from the roles of the Agile. People will avoid you at parties, your kids will spurn you, and your pets will pee in your shoes. On the bright side, that Darth Vader helmet you have sitting in the closet will suddenly seem like a good thing to wear around the office.

So, now that we have that out of the way, back to our story. So I was leading this effort to introduce time tracking to all of the developers in our little corner of the company. The idea that had lead to this little misadventure was simple enough: if we used a time tracking tool we will get more detailed information about where time is being spent on projects than if we just make some educated guesses using excel spreadsheets (our existing mechanism). This will give us higher quality information and we will enable us to automatically handle things like capitalization easily.

That was the idea. If we ask people to report their time daily, they will give us a more accurate picture of the time that they are spending on the work. Simple enough. Our old system of excel spreadsheets made a lot of assumptions that probably weren’t true. For example:

  • Everyone works an 8 hour day
  • Everyone on a team works on a given project at the same time
  • Team membership doesn’t change during the sprint

If you use those rules then you can come up with some rough estimates for how many hours the team put into any given project on a sprint by sprint basis. You have to assume that any errors or mistakes will just be averaged out over time. That makes the time tracking very simple to do, but it makes the finance guys twitchy. They get anxious because you are making a lot of assumptions about things that we all know probably aren’t true. And they really don’t like that “It all kinda works out on average” bit either.

So we decided to go down the path of detailed time tracking. Give up all hope ye who enter here. Detailed time tracking doesn’t assume much: every hour of the day must be accounted for. However there is one hidden assumption:

  • Everyone will bother to take the time to accurately report their time for every day.

And there’s the rub. Very few people actually report their time accurately. First, you have to understand that they are ticked off that they are even asked to enter time. Second, they are very likely already entering their time in other places, like agile project management tools, HR vacation tracking tools, contractor management tools, etc. A single person might have to enter their time in 4 different systems! All you have done is add one more tool to the list and it is definitely not welcome.

So how do they use it? They either book all 8 hours of their day to the project and copy and paste every day, or they take one example day and copy and paste that. You aren’t going to get the real data, because the people using the system don’t really want to give it to you. At the end of a long day, nobody wants to have to sit down and try and figure out how much of their day was wasted in all those godawful meetings. They just don’t.

Oh, I suppose you could try policing it better – good luck with that.

You might come away from this little diatribe with the impression that I dislike time tracking. That’s not true. I realize there is a legitimate need for it in our business. However implementing it is much tougher than I realized and it’s very easy to find that the benefits really aren’t that clear at the end of it all.

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