Startup Artist

I teach entrepreneurs and coders how to communicate

Why I don’t do fixed-time, fixed-price projects

It seems that fixed-time, fixed-price (FTFP) contracts have become something of an industry standard in software development, even though most other long-standing professional-service industries (lawyers, contractors, etc) typically won’t ever work under those terms.

I’m firmly against FTFP contracts for software development; I think they are bad for clients and bad for service-providers. Below I’ll tell you why.

FTFP contracts often feel dishonest

…because software is too dynamic to accurately estimate

The estimate is at the core of the FTFP contract, but software has too many unknowns to create accurate estimates.  A list of some (but not all) of the unknowns around software development:

  • scope of work
  • quality of the final product
  • maintenance requirements
  • user-interface specifications
  • changes in technology during the lifetime of the product
  • etc, etc, etc

I once had a reputation for always having accurate estimates.  How did I do it?  I applied the Scotty method: take the amount of time I actually thought the project would take, and DOUBLE IT (sometimes triple, if the requirements are particularly nebulous).

I’m not alone in this.  Software estimates are known to be notoriously inaccurate in the industry, and yet many still use them as a way to bill clients.  It’s actually pretty dishonest, in my opinion, which is why I stopped doing it.

That’s not to say I don’t provide estimates, I do.  I just explain to clients what the estimate actually means, rather than building in buffer via smoke-and-mirrors.  Then I bill my actual time, and not my estimate.

FTFP contracts cause a ton of wasted work

 …because the scope of work has to be decided up-front

Since you have to understand scope before you can create an estimate, you must lead clients through the requirements-gathering phase at the beginning of the project.  This can be a long, drawn-out process; one that often exhausts both the client and the service-provider before any actual work has been done.

Anyone who has been through this knows it’s not fun for either side.  You’ll also know that scope invariably changes – it’s near impossible to lock it down at the beginning of the project.  So what happens?  The inevitable change-of-scope dance.

The client wants something changed.  Now both the client and service-provider have to decide: was this in the original scope of work?  The client will say that it is (they don’t want to spend more money for something they thought was included).  The service-provider will say it’s new scope (they don’t want to spend more time without being paid more).  The true answer is that your scope of work was not defined accurately enough, and left some ambiguity.

What it boils down to is this: it takes effort to make changes to a FTFP contract.  Mental effort, mostly, which is what most service-providers and clients use to make a living.  Since this effort is not paid and not productive, this effort is WASTED.  It also leaves lingering feelings of resentment instead of the camaraderie that you want on a team.  Which brings me to the last point…

FTFP contracts are more adversarial and less fun

…because the contract incentivizes bad behaviour from both sides

The fact that the project is FTFP means that the client and service-provider have adversarial goals.

Client: I want to get the most work for my money

Service-provider: I want to get the most money for my work

Instead of working as a team toward a common goal (creating the best possible software product), the FTFP contract incentivizes the client to extend the scope as much as possible and incentivizes the service-provider to cut corners.  This is absolutely the WORST way to set up a working relationship, it only causes frustration and resentment.

Is there a better way?

You bet your butt there is!  Here’s how I do it: My agile process.  Feel free to discuss how you manage your projects in the comments.

How I Set Up Gmail to Increase Productivity by 50%

time to read: 20 mins

time to implement: 30 mins

potential time savings: 30-45 mins a day

Email is a productivity tool, but if you use it wrong it can quickly turn into a time-vacuum. This is especially true for those who use email as a main point of contact – people like managers and freelancers.  In this article, I’ll show you how to make the most of one of the best email tools on the market – Gmail.  By following these tips, I was able to reduce my daily Gmail time from over 90 minutes/day to between 45 and 60 minutes/day.

Step 1 – Measure Your Usage

You’ll never know if this method works if you don’t quantify it.  I use my browser (Chrome) for 95% of my Gmail usage, so I used a plugin called timeStats (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/timestats/) to measure how long I spent in Gmail every day.  I used the default Gmail for one week, then followed the changes in this article and used it for a week.  timeStats will give you a nice line graph to show you how you’re improving.

Step 2 – Know the Workflow

Gmail has a TON of features, and everyone has a different way of using it.  What a lot of people don’t think about is the fact that the designers of Gmail have a workflow in mind for people who use their system.  If you use it the way it was designed to be used, things get a lot easier.  In general, we’ll be following these standards (some should be obvious):

  • Unread mail has not been read by you
  • Read mail has been read by you
  • Mail in your inbox requires your attention
  • Mail that is Archived (aka not in your inbox) doesn’t require immediate attention

The biggest change to most people’s workflow is the liberal use of Gmail’s archive feature.  Gmail’s designers WANT you to archive email, it’s why the archive button is so prominent everywhere:

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.14.22 PM

Archive – the key to Gmail

So your workflow will look something like this: a new email comes in, and you make a decision whether to deal with it right away or whether to leave it for later.  If you deal with it right away, you archive the email.  If you want to deal with it later, you leave it in your inbox.

Step 3 – Strip Gmail Down to the Bones

Gmail has a ton of features – it actually has way too many.  The first thing we’re going to do is strip it down to the basics, until you get used to the workflow.  After you’ve seen some how it works, you can add features back in as you need them.  Follow these steps:

1. Open the settings screen by clicking the gear on the top right of your Gmail window and clicking “Settings”

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.18.39 PM

2. Under the “General” tab, make the following changes:
     – ensure your stars are set to “1 star”
     – change “Personal level indicators” to “No indicators”

3. Go to the “Labels” tab and hide everything except “Starred” and “Sent Mail”

4. Under the “Inbox” tab, make the following changes:
     – change “Inbox Type” to “Unread first”
     – change “Inbox unread count” to “Unread items in the inbox”
     – change “Importance markers” to “No markers”

5. If you use chat in Gmail, go to the “Labs” tab and enable “Right-side chat”

6. Scroll to the bottom of the window and click “Save Changes”

Step 4 – The Big Archive

Chances are, you weren’t using the archive button before you read this article, so we’re going to move everything that should be in archive into the archive.  How do we do that?  It depends on how you’re currently tracking mails that need your attention.  In my experience there are two methods:

If you leave mail that needs your attention unread…

1a. Type “is:read in:inbox” in the search bar at the top of the page and click the search button

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 12.16.51 PM

If you star mail that needs your attention…

1b. Type “-is:starred is:inbox” in the search bar at the top of the page and click the search button

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 12.22.25 PM

 

2. Select all by clicking the select box top left of all your emails

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.33.08 PM

3. At the top of your list of emails, you’ll get a link that says “Select all conversations that match this search”.  Click that link.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.35.43 PM

4. Click the archive button

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 7.14.22 PM

The majority of your emails should now be archived – the only mail left in your Inbox should be the mail that needs your attention.

Step 5 – Reduce the Amount of Decisions You Need to Make

The real power of Gmail is unlocked in this step – you can set it up so that it makes decisions for you.  The mental energy it takes to make a decision can slow you down.  By letting Gmail handle this step, you’re going to turn into a power user, and you’ll save a ton of time.

The label button - aka the power user button

The label button – aka the power user button

How do we accomplish this?  By making use of Gmails label functionality.  Let’s start with a simple example.

1. Open an email from a sender that emails you regularly – let’s say a client.

2. Click on the label button to create a label for this type of email – I’m going to label it based on the project name:

Pay no attention to the fact that I am emailing myself.

Pro tip: you can next labels by adding a / in the label name. In this case, I’m nesting the “super important” label under the “projects” label.

3. After you label the email, the label should show up in the sidebar to the left.  Next click on the “More” button on the top right of your email and select “Filter messages like these”

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 11.41.10 AM

 

4. When the filter screen opens, click “Create filter with this search >>” at the bottom right corner.

5. The next screen will give you the actions that Gmail will take on your behalf when a message from this sender comes in.  At the bare minimum, you’re going to want to apply the label that you just created.  On top of that you MAY want to “Skip the Inbox” if it’s not something that will require your immediate attention.  Don’t worry – even though you auto-archive a mail, it will still show up as unread, and the label on the left sidebar will show you unread emails for each project.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 11.48.25 AM

6. Finally, select “Also apply filter to matching conversations.” and then click “Create filter”.

The message are all applied to the label, which shows up on the left sidebar.  If you’ve chosen to immediately archive these messages, they are OUT of your Inbox, no longer taking up your time or attention.

If you think about this for a moment, you realize how powerful it can be.  If you set up labels for each “stream of work” and have Gmail automatically filter them for you, you spend much less time thinking about what to do for each email – the decision is made in advance.  I can also see, at a glance, where my emails are piling up without spending any mental energy.

I create a label for every project, and then I have labels for receipts, bills, subscriptions and social notifications.  When I start working on a project, I click on the label on the left sidebar, and only emails for that project are shown to me.  This usually gives me an instant TODO list.

Another benefit: since I immediately archive subscriptions and social notifications, and so I’m never sidetracked when someone adds me on Twitter or sends me a message on Facebook.  I can stay focused on the task at hand.

Note that this is very similar to what Gmail is trying to accomplish with the “Default” inbox, but you get much more fine-grained control when you use labels.

 Step 6 – Enjoy Your Time

What do you like to do when you’re not struggling with email?  I use the extra 30-45 minutes as contemplative time.  One of my life goals is to enjoy my entire day – that 90 minutes I used to spend in Gmail was frustrating.  Now that I’ve set it up probably, Gmail is an absolute pleasure to use.

 

Ahhh....the satisfaction of a well-organized mail client.

Ahhh….the satisfaction of a well-organized mail client.

Feedback?

What do you think?  Do you have a method that works better?  Let me know in the comments!

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