Laymen’s Perceptions

  At work, my customers know that there is no way
that they could do the work that I do without some serious training
time.  But all too often after describing something they want done,
they utter those dreaded words, “That should be pretty easy, right?”
As is true with most professions, the work involved in software
development is both incomprehensibly complex and deceptively simple to
those on the outside.  Something as “simple” as moving an entry field
to another part of a form could take hours of work, depending on how
tightly coupled the system is to its user interface.  On the other
hand, something as “complex” as building a report that allows a user to
sort data, move columns around, and group things on the fly could take
the same few hours given the right tools.

It’s totally
understandable that people don’t know how complex a problem is and how
long it will take to solve.  The problem is that they think they do
know.  They try to base the estimate in their own mind on empirical
evidence from past projects (which can be misleading), or worse, the
raw visual complexity of the application.

I’ve also experienced
this outside of my corporate job.  About six months ago, I began
working on a small e-commerce site for a lady that goes to my in-law’s
church to get my foot in the door moonlighting as a web developer.  The
problem was, I had a budget of exactly zero.  That’s right, I did it
for free.  I figured the references I would get out of the project
would be well worth the time I put in.  But that meant that for every
feature I had to either find resources for free or build it myself.  (Visual Web Developer and PayPal Website Payments Standard
were godsends.)  I think I probably logged about 100 hours getting the
whole thing up and running, complete with a WinForms product
maintenance system. 

But now that I’m done and she would like
to recommend me to other people, I have a problem.  Her impression
about what something like that should cost is based on these chop-shops
that charge $350 for an e-commerce enabled site.  Am I really worth
$3.50 an hour?  You could argue that now that I’ve got an existing
codebase the time involved getting someone else set up would be
minimal, but what about sites that have other needs?  Do my prices
start at $350 but then jump up over $1000 as soon as anything outside
the e-commerce norm pops up?  I wonder how small consulting shops
handle the price issue…

I don’t suppose there’s any easy
remedy for this problem.  You just have to earn your users’ trust over
time that you know what you’re doing.

2 thoughts on “Laymen’s Perceptions

  1. Chad Myers

    I believe that this is the ol’ generalization vs. specialization argument. There are devs who only do e-commerce sites. They have a bag of tricks and keep up on new tricks and know how to leverage stuff that’s out there. But ask them to build anything else and they’ll fall over. They also don’t care about maintenance because they can knock these things out so fast, that any major change would be best handled with a quick re-write and it ultimately costs less.

    On the other hand, I’m guessing that you, like most of us, are a generalist. We may not be able to build a highly specific, low-cost specialized site cheaply, but as complexity mounts and features and maintenance start mounting, we quickly earn our keep and the specialist can’t keep up.

  2. Brian Sullivan

    That’s a good point, Chad. I think the problem arises when someone needs something out of the norm, but expects the cost to be the same as the boilerplate stuff. I imagine one of two things will end up happening. I’ll either go ahead and dig deep on the e-commerce front and get a really solid codebase that I can reuse, or I’ll have to go after a different crowd, the established businesses that can pay a bit more for something specifically tailored to their needs. Thanks for the feedback!


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