Mon, 18 Jan 2016

Gold Almost at $500

Gold almost hit $500/oz today.

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Requirements in Micro-purchasing

I recently completed an 18F micro-purchase task. It turned out to be a very simple task, tweaking some CSS. I spent more time on bidding, setting up the development environment, and figuring out how to receive payment than on the actual work.

My pull request was accepted, and 18F paid me quickly, but after my changes were merged, Maya Benari pointed out that a simpler solution may have been acceptable, or perhaps even preferable.

It turns out that 18F have drafted U.S. Web Design Standards, and have already given a lot of thought to things like vertical spacing, the subject of my change.

As an independent contractor with no previous experience working with 18F, I didn't know there was a U.S. Web Design Standards document, much less its contents. Had this task been assigned to an internal staff member, they probably would have known that the page being updated should follow the standards, or that if the standards didn't adequately address the requirements for the task, that perhaps a future update to the standards should be planned.

Getting the right level of details in task requirements is often tricky. One doesn't want to spend days writing requirements for a task that can be completed in hours. But one also doesn't want what could have been an hour-long task drag on for days because the requirements were ambiguous.

When working within a long-lived team structure, there is some shared institutional knowledge that doesn't need to be made explicit in every task, like the fact that U.S. Web Design Standards exist. Usually when bringing in an outside contractor or new employee, one is starting a relationship that will last weeks, months, or years, and knowledge transfer is an expected part of the on-boarding. This investment makes sense given the size of the overall engagement.

Micro-purchasing of software development work is unique in this respect. Neither party is committing to a long-term relationship, and therefore unlikely to bear significant knowledge transfer costs. Had the acceptance criteria for my spacing fix task included compliance with the U.S. Web Design Standards, I would have had to bid more to cover the time to read and understand the document. And 18F wouldn't want to bear the cost of making me an expert on U.S. Web Design Standards if I were only going to complete a single task.

It's still early in 18F's micro-purchasing experiment, but if the experiment continues or if other organizations want to try it out, it's worth thinking about what types of tasks are best suited for micro-purchasing, and what level of detail in the requirements is optimal.

Some possible questions to ask about tasks you are considering outsourcing as micro-purchases:

As always when discussing project management, I suggest ordinal prioritization of tasks and confidence interval based estimates. If your existing tools don't support these, I recommend checking out LiquidPlanner (affiliate link).

I like the micro-purchasing model, and I hope that it succeeds and is adopted by commercial organizations.

I've gotten multiple emails from grad students doing research on Github. If you're an economics student interested in industrial organization or open source, micro-purchasing of open source software could be an interesting research project.

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The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else. - Frederic Bastiat