A rant about utilisation

Last week I posted a script that easily extracted a series of repeating tables from Word to Excel using my favourite programming language of the last 4 years, Python. I’d like to expand on the last paragraph I wrote:

It took about 15 minutes to write (had to play around with accessing the table elements correctly) and less than a minute to extract the data. That’s the amount of time it would have taken to copy 5 of the tables manually. At that pace it would have taken about 4 days to complete the process.

I was quite irritated when I wrote this script, and part of the reason is why I have been railing against utilisation as a metric for billing. The person who requested this task probably reckoned it would take about a day for my former colleaguge to get the data into Excel. The actual time, based on my estimate above, would have been 4 days. In reality, it turned out to only be an hour’s work in total (my time and my colleagues’s time). How do you bill that?

I would say split the difference and bill it as 2 days work – only an extra day on the expectation, while still 2 days’ short of the actual time it would have taken. This way one would be 2 days “ahead”, with time to do research, or catch up on other projects where the budget is low.

The catch with doing things that way is that you would need to keep track of when to submit work. If you give the work after an hour, but then book 2 days to the project, the next week the person who requested the work is either going to come question you, reject your hours, let it pass because you’ve done favours for them before, or not even pick up that the hours were booked because they aren’t doing the project management part of their job correctly. Guess which option happens most often?

What really happened of course is that my colleague only billed for that 1 hour, because the person requesting the work checked in after 2 hours to hear “if it’s done yet”. I’m no expert on what running a business or being a project manager should look like, but I think I have a good idea of what it shouldn’t look like.

What is the alternative to using the billable hour and utilisation as a measure? I don’t know, I didn’t study management and/or finance. This just one example I have from a time when I was in a purely technical role, in a company where output was based on utilisation. I’m now in more a hybrid role, where output is based on “did you do it before the deadline?”. I’ll be able to judge more clearly as time passes.

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