“Could you, please, estimate how long it takes you to finish this?” or “If I only had time!”

I got my first real job as an engineer in the beginning of the 1980s. I had finished my university degree in Electronics and Communication and was very interested in anything related to micro-computers.

So, I applied for a job within a research group who had an appropriate open position.

During the job interview I got introduced to one of the engineering tasks which was waiting to be solved. I showed interest in working on it. Then, my interview partner suddenly asked the following question:

“Could you, please, estimate how long it takes you to finish this?”

This question I had not expected. And I got scared like shit! How should I know?  I thought that it was the boss’s duty to know about such things. Instead, he handed this problem over to me. I could feel that this was the crucial question in my interview.

So, I took courage and answered: “I guess that I can finish until next Easter.”

The question about time shocked me in a way that I still can remember it very well.

Later, the shock got transformed into the following observation: “Why have I not figured out earlier that this question is probably the most important question related to work?”.

As a young researcher, I developed the habit to write a journal. Among other topics, it included
pairs of “time estimates” guessed before, and actual “measured time”. For a while, my estimates for software projects were wrong by a factor of 5 to 10: When I estimated “1 day”, it took more like a week in reality. And an estimate of “1 week” got more like “2 months”.

Guess what happened: Of course, with these experiments I could increase my experience; my estimates got a lot better within not too long.

Meanwhile, I have been a university teacher for almost 30 years. In most of my courses
I urge the students to write a journal: I ask them

  • to write down what they have done,
  • to write down what they plan to do,
  • to write down how many hours they have worked on a particular task,
  • to write down, how much time they plan for a task to be done,
  • and much more.

Typically, only the really smart students get the idea. Most of the younger students think that writing a journal is a waste of time.

“I do not have time to write a journal. There is so much to be done and there is so little time left.” sounds a typical excuse.

If you got time enough to read until here — here is a programming model:

forever {

  •     make a forecast on how much time it will take you to accomplish a task;
  •     use this forecast in your planning;
  •     add enough extra time for safety;
  •     measure the time it actually takes to accomplish the task;
  •     document the hours spent on a task in your journal;
  •     compare forecast and actual time after finishing the task;
  •     learn from this comparison;
  •     tune your ability to plan for tasks to come;


I am sure that applying the procedure sketched above as a continuous effort helps a lot to increase personal comfort and even mental safety at the work place.

As a student you are training to become a professional. To my mind, improving your ability to estimate the time it takes for accomplishing a task is the prime issue in studying.

By the way: Yes, I finished my task before Easter 1982. And the boss then is still around over here.

1 thought on ““Could you, please, estimate how long it takes you to finish this?” or “If I only had time!”

  1. Karl

    And if you are clever and want to spend most of your time on the tasks and not on maintaining your journal you should learn how to use Emacs with Org-mode. There’s nothing comparable that takes away the boring task of note-taking and measuring task times.


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