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Delphi Estimates Featured

   Clara’s footsteps crunched in the thin layer of snow that laid across the campus parking lot, the only sound in the early morning’s hushed air. The snow fell slowly and thick, limiting her vision and clinging to her face and clothes. Sunrise had come an hour ago, but could not be seen along the horizon.

   Clara grew up with long winters and smiled happily at the scene before her. She breathed deeply through her nose, enjoying the crisp air. Clara started confidently up the building’s ice and snow covered concrete steps, glad she’d worn her boots. The university wasn’t used to snow and hadn’t salted or brushed any of the slippery stairs. A colleague was gripping the rail as he took each step, frowning down in his slick dress shoes with uncertainty. Snowfall where Clara used to live was more than common, however looking at her colleague now she remembered here in Florida the event was rare. She greeted him warmly as she passed him, and he raised his hand in a distracted wave that instantly returned to the rail when his shoes slipped.

   Clara pulled open the door and entered the building. The snow on the ground outside made it hard to pull the door open, but she managed.  It was a large building, housing multiple departments and their classes. Clara’s Computer Science department shared the building with the Mathematics and Physics departments, as well as the English department. She had been hired as the new dean of the Computer Science department at the start of the spring semester, just a few weeks ago. Clara shook the snow out of her long brown hair and brushed off her coat shoulders.

    “It’s not natural, snowing like this so suddenly.” Clara turned her head to see her colleague closing the door hurriedly.

   He took off his coat and sighed at the wet stains on the suede. “The last time it snowed here was a decade ago. Even then it had the decency to fall and melt before sunrise.”

   Clara laughed. Gary was an older gentleman and lived up to the term in every sense she knew of. It went beyond holding doors and such. Whenever she would enter a room for a meeting, he would stand. The few times they had lunch together he always held her chair for her and would wait for her to order first. He would even wait if his food came before hers, though he would look at the waiter as if they should know better. Clara sometimes imagined he was an older version of Clark Gable, with his thick silver mustache and slicked back silver hair. Occasionally his attitude irked her pride, but she liked Gary. He was kind and respected her. Clara and Gary started to walk down the hall to their offices together. Gary was older but not slow. Clara had to speed up her pace to walk with him even though she was taller.

   “Where I lived in Colorado the snow might fall around Thanksgiving and never completely melt until after February. It was beautiful, but after a few months it does lose its charm.”

   Gary shook his head, “A few months? That would drive me crazy in days. How people remain civil under all that snow I can’t imagine.”

   Clara nearly blurted out that people in larger cities are rarely civil to each other, no matter the weather, but kept it to herself. She reminded herself that Gary’s gentlemanly manner was his way of protesting against rudeness and impropriety, and Clara liked that. She liked to tease him by asserting herself when he was acting too old-fashioned, but she respected Gary because he respected her.

   They reached the door that led to their offices, and Gary held it open for her. She thanked him and they agreed to meet up later. Her department had four members, and only Gary and herself had doctorates. When she accepted the position as dean and moved here Clara learned that he had been offered the job first. He had taught at the university for nearly thirty years! It surprised her when they told her that Gary refused. He had told them the department was dying, falling behind every other university, and they needed to seek out younger blood to revitalize the department. 

   The university did just as Gary suggested. The ink on Clara’s diploma was still wet when she got the offer to apply for the position as the new dean of the Computer Science department. When she went in for the interview they told her if she took the job they expected her to turn the department around. As it stood, the department was obsolete. Its courses were falling far behind competitively. A degree from their department was worth little in the marketplace, and even though their teachers were good instructors they hadn’t kept up with modern technology and programming. The department in almost every way was two decades behind. The current Computer Science program has little attraction for qualified teachers or new students. She was tasked with turning all of that around.

   Clara is struggling with that task. Her staff are mostly supportive; they understand the need even if it means more work. The problem is her. She can’t move forward with confidence. The board wants a cost and time estimate for her program project plan. After attempting to work with her staff, she quickly realized several problems in getting accurate projections of the program’s cost and the time it would require to set up.  Since the school has never done something like this before, she has no data she can use. Clara knows she possesses no real experience in building a new program, so she has no reference for that either. Her estimate must be timely, the board wants it fast, so she doesn’t have enough time to put together a full project plan to get the cost estimate. Clara also knows her estimate must be both accurate and low. Clara continued walking down the hallway that lead to her office at the end.

   Yes, she could give the board numbers to make them happy, but she doesn’t want her program to fail or for the estimate to be inaccurate. The truth is there are lots of risks involved. If her estimate is too high they will find someone else to do the program. If her estimate comes in too low she could be held accountable and terminated when costs exceed her estimate, and the program shutdown. Clara entered her office and saw David Ramirez working at her desk on his laptop. He’s another reason she can’t fail. The students here need a better program. David is a student here from Nicaragua. He won the American University Emerging Global Leader Scholarship. Nearly over two hundred thousand students apply for the scholarship every year, and only one is rewarded. The scholarship is so competitive that if David’s GPA ever falls below a 3.8 he will lose his scholarship, be forced to return home to Nicaragua, and another applicant will take his place. Because of financial concerns he chose this university, but Clara worries constantly that all his hard work and sacrifice would be for nothing if the program doesn’t improve. David’s work was so exemplary that he was made a TA even though he is still an undergraduate. More impressive still, David double majors in Mathematics and Computer Science, and he is the only TA for the entire computer science department, supporting all four teachers and Clara. David also works full time to pay his own living expenses, since the scholarship only covers tuition. By any standard, David Ramirez deserves more, much more. Clara had to make the program stronger. More than just her future depended on it. When David had learned she was working to improve the computer science program he begged her to let him help.

   David looked up from his laptop and smiled enthusiastically. “Good morning Dr. Brooks, you make it out ok?”

   Clara set her small briefcase down on her desk. “Good morning David. I made it fine, thanks. I’m probably the only driver in town who has ever driven in snow. Been here long?”

   David shook his head and stood up from Clara’s desk chair, “A few hours only. I wanted to read over the information you gave me again before we spoke.”

   Clara could see that his jeans had gotten muddy from the snow. Biking in snow must have been hard for him. His usually neatly combed brown hair was all disheveled, probably from being stuffed inside a hood. He was a head and shoulders shorter than Clara, and only a little shorter than Gary. Clara was used to being the tallest person in a room.

   Clara nodded. “Great, and what were your impressions? Do you agree this approach will work?”

   David leaned against the wall and said, “The Delphi process of cost and time estimation. The parameters certainly fit.” He counted off on his fingers as he continued, “You don’t have any data that you can use to estimate the cost of the changes for the Computer Science department. No historical information from past projects like this because there are none, and you told me that you have no experience either. From the online wiki you asked me to read the situation fits the Delphi’s process use.”

   Clara took her seat and David sat at the edge of the chair opposite her. He sat at the edge, conscious of his muddy clothes and not wanting to dirty the chair. Clara had asked him to look over the wiki on the Delphi process, specifically in its use for cost and time estimations.

   Clara had found the wiki a few days ago while searching online for something she could use for her problem. After reading a dozen methods and approaches that would not help her, she came across an organization called pmNERDS that had an enormous wiki on all things relating to project and product management. In that extensive wiki she discovered the Delphi process and its use in getting timely and accurate project estimations, for both cost and time. She used the site’s chat feature and soon was having a conversation with a kind woman around her own age named Melissa. Melissa is an experienced project manager. Melissa answered several of Clara’s questions about the Delphi process and helped her tailor it to her needs for the new Computer Science program. David had discussed things with Melissa as well, though through emails rather than the site’s chat system.

   David turned his laptop towards him and continued, “So how do you want to start?”

   Clara’s eyes glanced away in thought. “First, we need to identify the factors and tasks that will impact the program’s costs and time to set up. Granted, since we know next to nothing concerning those factors or tasks, Melissa said we should keep the first wave of questions general.”

   David nodded and added, “In any calculation it’s important to identify all the factors. But, I’m not sure how the Delphi process is going to help us identify them.”

   Clara explained, “I picture it like a survey, only instead of random people we are asking experts. That makes their opinions more valuable, and their feedback more relevant. I already identified some people who know about starting new programs. I also want to include people that understand the costs relative to new courses.”

   Dave bobbed his head in agreement while Clara spoke, when she finished he added, “I think people that understand our current Computer Science program backwards and forwards need to be included.” David sniffed, wiped his nose, then asked, “So, who are we going to use?”

   Clara pulled out a small memo book from her purse. The small pad had a dozen names on them, with some scratched out. “Obviously, Gary will be included, his experience and knowledge of our existing computer science program will be needed. I included our current instructors as well. I’m sure their interactions with the students have given them ideas about what the new program will need to include, and maybe what those would cost us.”

   Clara handed the small notepad to David and he looked at the list. Almost immediately he looked up at Clara disbelievingly, “Tricia Aldane? From the Art department?”

   “Yes, she’s the one in charge of all their new art programs. Of everyone we can ask on campus, I believe Tricia may be the most familiar with program costs from an overhead perspective.”

   Dave needed only a moment of thought before agreeing. Tricia has been the Dean of Fine Arts at the university for just under three years but she already added a pottery curriculum, several advanced painting courses, and even worked with the university to get a weaving curriculum started. David and Clara went through the names on the list one by one. When they were done, they’d removed one name and added two more that David suggested. With their list of experts, they both felt they were ready to begin.

   David pulled up his email account on his laptop and opened a new email. He began adding each of their experts’ email to the recipients list. David spoke while he worked, “So from the wiki and how Melissa explained it, the Delphi process is a sequence of repetitive questions that allow the problem to be broken down until the questions and their answers have narrowed in on the desired information. I understood the wiki’s explanation of analyzing the answers statistically, but Melissa mentioned that asking each expert the reasons behind their answers was important. Why?

   “I think you’re misunderstanding just a little bit. Let me explain.” Clara approached her office’s small white board. “Our first question, which we are planning to ask all of our experts, is the general one. We are going to ask them this,” she began writing, “How long will it take to build out new courses for the new computer science program, and how much will it cost?” Clara put the cap back on the dry erase marker and pointed to the question. “This will give us numerical answers. Answers like this in the early stage tell us very little. For instance, Gary may say three semesters and thirty thousand, and Tricia may say six weeks and seventy thousand. Not all that useful, when we need a full plan and not just the estimate, is it?” Dave had finished adding the emails to the recipient list and was now focused on Clara.

   She continued, “It isn’t until we ask them how they came up with those numbers that the Delphi process starts bringing value. Gary may explain that he included factors like current instructors’ work load, and he may explain that he only expected three or four new courses. We may learn from Tricia’s explanation that she included the cost of new equipment, new staff, management tasks, and the training of those teachers.”

   Dave was nodding as he added, “And so on for the other experts. So, this is where we start getting the tasks associated with the cost and hour estimates.”

   Clara smiled and held a finger up, “and each factors weight. Every expert we use will have a different opinion on which factors are stronger than others. We are going to ask them to explain why they put such importance on some factors, and why they dismissed others.”

   “And the same with any tasks and sub tasks they mention?” David asked.

    “Right, so after we ask them to explain their answers we will have gone from having no information to a workable list of tasks, factors for the cost and hour estimates, and the weight of each.”

   Clara helped David write the email and after he sent off it they discussed their expectations. They agreed that once they got email responses from all their experts they would arrange phone call interviews with each. The purpose of that phone call would be to discuss their reasons behind each expert’s estimate. David offered to split the list so they could complete the interviews faster but Clara thought the faculty and her colleagues would give more meaningful responses if the questions came from her. The faculty would take it more seriously if they saw her as the force behind the interviews rather than a TA.

   It was a little past six when David finished his classes for the day and started making his way home. The snow had turned to puddles and mud and besides a few spots of white scattered here and there normalcy had returned to the town. No one had been more surprised this morning by the snow than David. He had only seen snow in pictures before today. He was glad it melted though; slipping in the ice hurt.

   David just left his friend Kyle’s room on campus. They were in several classes together since they shared a major, and were partnered for a class project. Kyle, two others, and himself were all working on a project together that was worth half their final grade. Kyle was tall and of athletic build, yet not the competitive type. They met three years ago at freshman orientation when Kyle accidently spiked a volleyball into David’s face. David shook his head at the memory. Kyle was such a gentle person, and had been mortified when David sank to the ground with blood all over his nose. A strange way for two men to bond; one blinking blood out of his eyes and the other fumbling over a thousand apologies.  David’s thoughts drifted back to the present and frowned. He needed to do something.

   The problem David dwelled on was the class project. The programming assignments he’d been given in the past were smaller and easier to manage. The purpose of this assignment, however, was to work with several people on a very large project spanning almost the whole semester. Whenever they got together, like today, to break down the project into manageable pieces Kyle and the others would just agree with what they thought the group wanted. Yet when David spoke to the members individually, they would share meaningful opinions, objections, and thoughts they didn’t bring up when they were all together. Sometimes the reason behind their silence was fear of what another member might think, or because they were dissatisfied with the project and couldn’t find a way to voice it. David felt frustrated because whatever their reasons, the project was suffering. Vibrations and sounds from his coat pocket brought him out of his thoughts, and he pulled his phone out. It was an email from Dr. Brooks.

David,

I got all the responses back from our chosen experts. First thing tomorrow I will start calling each individual expert to have them explain their responses. Three responses estimated the program would take 1 or 2 years to be ready. I’m nervous what those three were thinking. Don’t worry though, we’ll get answers. I’ll keep you in the loop. – Clara

   David put his phone away and began untangling his bike chain from the rack. Two years? He hoped not, he would graduate in three semesters and he needed the department to offer more advanced classes. A brief thought came to him. Why doesn’t she simply schedule a meeting with all of them at once? The question reminded him of the wiki she had made him read about the Delphi process. Something about social psychology impacting group decision making, but he couldn’t quite remember. The memory ate at him as he pedaled home. About half an hour later David arrived home. He pulled off his wet coat and after a quick change of clothes sat down at his computer. He entered the wiki’s URL and scrolled through its pages. There, he thought. He knew he remembered glossing over it. The paragraph was explaining why all the questioning done in the Delphi process was one on one. David read it much more carefully this time. The wiki explained that it was important to not allow normal social behavior impact judgements. Things like personalities, insecurities, fear of job security, manners and more can negatively affect the process.

   The wiki also explained the psychology of a group, and how its individuals tend to compromise or reach consensus prematurely. The Delphi process allows the existence of behaviors that are beneficial to the project but are unlikely to occur in a group setting, such as one expert criticizing another expert’s idea. David understood this first hand. If such critical analysis is done one on one, without the other people present, the focus of the criticism shifts to the idea instead of the individual that presented them. Posturing and defensiveness are replaced with open thought and discussion. Mulling over what he had just read, David went into his tiny kitchen and put his dinner in the microwave. While the meal spun, David thought of how he could fix his group’s current dynamic to work as he wanted. By the time the microwave chirped its high tone, he decided to apply this concept to his group.         

   David removed his meal and went back to his computer. He opened his email account and wrote the same email to each of his class project’s members. In this email, he asked each member to share their thoughts with him personally. David asked them to look at their project’s current breakdown and examine each task they had decided as a group was necessary. He also asked if they themselves thought each task was necessary and sufficient, and to explain why. Almost immediately after David sent the email he felt stress leaving his shoulders. He slumped back in his chair and ate his too hot meal. He felt confident this approach would allow each member to contribute their experience and knowledge to the project. Kyle’s shyness wouldn’t play a factor in his analysis now. Thomas, one of the other members, wouldn’t feel so defensive this way when someone questioned his ideas. David looked forward to seeing the results of his experiment and sharing his experience with Dr. Brooks. David closed his email account and started on the night’s homework. What eased his mind the most was knowing he had acted, and had not just hoped for the best.

   Clara thanked Karen and hung up her phone. That had been her first call this morning, and it’d taken nearly half an hour. Karen is the Dean of the Faculty, directly responsible for the recruitment and development of University faculty. Her experience had been overwhelming, but very useful. Clara looked at her notes and at all the factors and tasks she would never have thought of, but now agreed were essential for her project to succeed. Karen had been unsure of her estimate, admitting her own lack of knowledge about costs of equipment and such. However, Karen knew faculty. She knew what it would take to recruit new instructors; the time it would take to train them for new classes, and a dozen other tasks that went into play.

   Clara hoped the other calls she made today would be as informative. She was just about to dial Gary to start his interview when a quiet tap at the door stopped her. There was no window in her office door so her colleagues were careful to not interrupt each other by knocking loudly or just barging in. Clara called out for the person to enter. The door opened slowly and David entered with such a smile on his face that Clara almost laughed out loud. What’s made him so happy? She thought.

   “Good morning Dave. You’re chipper today. Glad the ice and snow is gone?”

   “Morning Dr. Brooks. Yeah I guess.”

   Clara extended her hand invitingly towards the seat across from her. “Where we supposed to meet this morning?”

   “No, nothing like that.” David’s smile stretched even wider, though Clara didn’t see how that was possible.

   “Goodness David, what has you smiling like you won the lottery?”

   David took the offered seat and relaxed comfortably, Clara realized that she had never seen him so relaxed and wondered if he had been stressed about something before. David leaned back in his chair and said, “No lottery, but I had to tell you in person what happened. It was so incredible. I used the Delphi process for a class.”

   Clara’s eyes burrowed in confusion. “How? What do you mean?”

   David usually spoke very carefully, his accent was strong and he normally tried to speak clearer, but he started speaking so quickly that his words came out thick and strong. He described to Clara the problems his group had been having working together. David explained how when they were in a group they would be polite and courteous; always seeking consensus publicly but privately feeling unhappy and discouraged with their project, getting no work done. Clara was impressed when he told her how he thought what he read in the Delphi process wiki could be useful for his situation. David told her about his email and how before the end of the night he had gotten emails back from all of them, each member pointing out where they thought the project was on the right path and where it wasn’t, and why they felt so.

   “So I called them like you are calling people. I asked them what they thought of this idea and that, not telling them who mentioned it, and I asked why they felt that way. They all got super excited about the project and we’ve been critiquing and improving upon the ideas all morning.” As if to emphasize his point, his phone made a notification sound. “See? It’s been non-stop. I was lucky to get the group to meet once a week to discuss things before this. Everyone must have felt as unhappy as I did about the project. I didn’t realize how much everyone was holding each other back until now. Kyle and Thomas are planning on meeting for lunch to discuss Kyle’s concerns with an idea that Thomas had. Thomas was always so defensive and Kyle too shy to speak up before!”

   Clara let David’s excitement and story go on for a while, until finally he stood and apologized for taking up her time. He said he couldn’t hold in his excitement and had to tell her. He wished her luck on her phone calls and left. Clara stared at the door for a moment, then she did laugh out loud. She knew David loved his majors, and she knew he was easily excitable, but she had never seen him giddy! Clara shook her head and picked up her phone, dialing Gary’s number. Clara thought it sounded like David had succeeded in more ways than he realized. He got good ideas from his experts, but he also created an atmosphere of collaboration among headstrong college kids. She doubted she could have done that at his age. David was deserving of his scholarship’s name. He was certainly a leader, and a good one. Clara finished dialing Gary’s number and it rang only once before Gary’s voice answered.

   “Morning Clara, what on Earth was Mr. Ramirez so excited about? I could hear him from my office.”

   Clara smiled. “David and his friends are just excited about the class project they’re working on.”

   “I see, well good for him. He’s been stressing hard on something lately. So, did my estimate help you at all? I can’t imagine it would without knowing what I used to come up with it.”

   Clara rolled her eyes, of course Gary would catch on. She explained that was why she was calling and they began discussing the factors Gary thought were significant in estimating the cost of her project and the time each task would take to complete. When he finished explaining his views Clara followed David’s example and asked Gary’s opinion on some points Karen had made, saying only that another faculty member had introduced the ideas. Gary agreed with most of what Karen said, emphasizing what he thought were more significant and what he felt were insignificant. They discussed the areas he observed the department was behind in, as well the areas and topics he felt if the new department incorporated could put them ahead of other universities, not just caught up with.  He also pointed out that some of the things he and the other faculty members might suggest will force her as the project lead to weigh the value her program could offer against the cost to add that value. Gary sounded genuinely concerned, but Clara remembered Melissa saying that when that became a problem to give her an email, apparently, there were processes for that too.

Last modified onThursday, 11 May 2017 16:24

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