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Huge effort data-set for project phases

I am becoming a regular reader of software engineering articles written in Chinese and Japanese; or to be more exact, I am starting to regularly page through pdfs looking at figures and tables of numbers, every now and again cutting-and-pasting sequences of logograms into Google translate.

A few weeks ago I saw the figure below, and almost fell off my chair; it’s from a paper by Yong Wang and Jing Zhang. These plots are based on data that is roughly an order of magnitude larger than the combined total of all the public data currently available on effort break-down by project phase.

Histogram and density plot of project phase efforts

Projects are often broken down into phases, e.g., requirements, design, coding (listed as ‘produce’ above), testing (listed as ‘optimize’), deployment (listed as ‘implement’), and managers are interested in knowing what percentage of a project’s budget is typically spent on each phase.

Projects that are safety-critical tend to have high percentage spends in the requirements and testing phase, while in fast moving markets resources tend to be invested more heavily in coding and deployment.

Research papers on project effort usually use data from earlier papers. The small number of papers that provide their own data might list effort break-down for half-a-dozen projects, a few require readers to take their shoes and socks off to count, a small number go higher (one from the Rome period), but none get into three-digits. I have maybe a few hundred such project phase effort numbers.

I emailed the first author and around a week later had 2,570 project phase effort (man-hours) percentages (his co-author was on marriage leave, which sounded a lot more important than my data request); see plot below (code+data).

Fraction of effort invested in each project phase

I have tried to fit some of the obvious candidate distributions to each phase, but none of the fits were consistently good across the phases (see code for details).

This project phase data is from small projects, i.e., one person over a few months to ten’ish people over more than a year (a guess based on the total effort seen in other plots in the paper).

A typical problem with samples in software engineering is their small size (apart from bugs data, lots of that is available, at least in uncleaned form). Having a sample of this size means that it should be possible to have a reasonable level of confidence in the results of statistical tests. Now we just need to figure out some interesting questions to ask.

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