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Time Entry

I can probably guess what your answer will be, but I thought I'd ask anyway.

I work for a large (> $2B company) and one of the things that is required is that everyone do weekly time entry. It used to be twice a month, but the new system is every week. Personally I don't see the point.

My question is regarding the value of this data. Do you or have you ever seen value in having developers, IT people, or anyone else that is salaried, enter their time into some system? Is this data helpful in any capacity?

Steve Jones
Thursday, April 01, 2004

Hmm, it may come in handy to the developers when you sue the company to be treated as nonexempts for the purpose of receiving time and a half for overtime.  You didn't say if you were in the US, but in this country people who work on the clock are required to be paid 150% of their normal wage for work beyond 40 hours a week...

It's sort of stupid and demeaning to require exempt/professional employees to fill in time sheets or clock in or whatever. If you're the manager of a team, have your administrative assistance fill in the time sheets for everyone on the team so they don't have to think about it. If you're not the manager, suggest this to your manager.

I can't even begin to fathom all the stupid reasons why someone in the bureaucracy has decided that having everyone fill out timesheets is a good idea. Probably some executive doing misguided Productivity Research.

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Friday, April 02, 2004

I agree. I am a developer in a software department for a large company, we all have to fill in three time sheets systems.

1. There's a clock in system to keep track of when we were here (we have flexi-time).
2. There's the project tracking system which keeps track of how many hours have been spent on each project.
3. There's our own spreadsheet based system to actually track how many hours everything is taking and how many hours are left to do.

All the managers seem to do all day is chase everyone to update their time in these three systems. Then, when the three systems don't match up exactly, it's the developers responsibility to sort it out.

It's all a waist of time because all anyone has to do round here to please their boss is make their time figures add up correctly. It's just not advantageuos for a manager to focus on things like critical path analysis, bug fixing, or design. The problem is that somewhere up the chain IT is seen as a cost, like stationary or accounting, so they wanted to track exactly how much was spent on it all. Then they knock a few percent off and call it a target, meanwhile down here at the rock face everything is about meeting the next milestone on time and on budget - rather than making long term savings by building a quality product.

Dan
Friday, April 02, 2004

we have a time sheet system as well, the main reason is that our client's sometime ask to show that we really worked x hours on a task ... so it should be detailed as well ...

 
Friday, April 02, 2004

I used to do contract development/team leading for a large Utility company here in the UK. They required everyone to fill out their timesheet, using some antique green-screen system.

Conveniently, as team-leader, I was able to add new "activities", so I added "Filling out timesheets" and booked 15 minutes per week to it.

Steve Jones (UK)
Friday, April 02, 2004

The reason we have to fill in a timesheet is supposedly to help ensure that the plan is correct and up to date and refects reality and can be evaluated to see how good our planning is and made it better.

I'm sure that's partly - but only partly - true.

John Burton
Friday, April 02, 2004

My present company uses the timesheet data to account for software development costs in the total product cost. We often have multiple projects running at the same time, and our products are things like gas pumps and station controllers. Thus, our products have a large non-software component as well.

My previous job we only filled out timesheets when we were working on government grants. My boss was scrupulously honest about the grant money (There were some things I didn't like about him, but at least he was honest).

There are times when timesheets make sense. But it should ONLY be done when it makes sense.

Michael Kohne
Friday, April 02, 2004

It's your government at work. On several occaisions large companies like, oh let's say GE or Lockheed Martin, have been caught altering time charges on gov't contracts and then they not only get fined but they have to set up company-wide policies for time charging on a daily basis. They not only require it of all employees but also their sub-contractors.

So now any company that takes gov't contracts can be faced with federal auditors showing up on their doorstep on a moments notice and have to produce time records that not only show who did what and when, but prove that the employee him/herself was cognizant and was a participant in the time recoding.

It goes beyond time recording. There are requirements for hazardous materials training records, sexual harrassment in the workplace awareness sessions, equal opportunity employment regulation seminars...

old_timer
Friday, April 02, 2004

I am a Project Coordinator for an IT Web Development group. (and formely a web developer)

Every day I get updated with "hours worked", "completion percentage", and I talk with the developer/graphic artist to see if they are still on pace with the current due date.

I use the "hours worked" to create a man-hours cost document at the end of the project. So we can say this project cost the company, man-hour wise, $XX,XXX. Tracking this stuff has been helpful in planing certain future projects.

I use the "completion percentage" to help (note: help) judge whether or not the person has been able to make progress on  a task. And like I mentioned above, I talk with the developer/graphic artist to see if they can still deliver the task by the due date or if we need to readjust our timeline or if they need something from another department, etc.....

I find time tracking to be useful. I won't use it as a "clock in / clock out" method, we're salaried and should be treated as such. I am simply tracking the project tasks.

-michael.

michael sica (michaelsica.com)
Friday, April 02, 2004

I also work at a large company.  We support NASA projects, which is US government work.  We have an on-site DCAA auditor.

Apparently, US government contracting rules require keeping track of the hours with time-cards.  In addition, we do get 'Compensatory Time' for hours worked over 40 hours.  This is time on the books we can take as if it was vacation time.  Once you've accrued 80 hours of Comp Time, you're eligible for paid overtime (at 100% rate).

I also find the actual time worked on a task, versus estimated time I thought it would take, to be 2 very useful metrics. 

If you are doing a fixed-price contract, your company needs to know how profitable it is to report to the shareholders, and to know if it should pursue similar work.  If you are doing a Cost Plus Fixed Fee contract, timecards document the cost, and the Fee is put on top of that.  Either way, the hours spent form ONE basis of value.

AllanL5
Friday, April 02, 2004

At (large financial) towards the end we were required to keep time sheets. The justification was that it was for internal billbacks to different departments requesting IT work - we gotta get our budget from somewhere. Of course, one wonders where it came from before that...

My manager never would have gone for the secretary filling in everyone's time sheet, he really wanted to keep tabs on everyone.

It's an industry semi-standard practice, and the real reason is probably to make you feel constantly like you're not working hard enough.

Write a program that comes up with a standard distribution of tasks you "should" be doing with some randomization and let it fill in your schedule every week.

www.MarkTAW.com
Friday, April 02, 2004

Not only do you need to track time if you are *currently* working on a gov't contract, you have to keep meticulous timesheets if you even want to be *eligible* for certain kinds of contracts, e.g. via 8A(?) certification.

Especially in the DC area, this means your firm would be disqualifying itself from a ton of work if they don't track your hours somehow.

Joe Grossberg
http://www.joegrossberg.com

Joe Grossberg
Friday, April 02, 2004

Many years ago, I worked for a small company that instituted weekly time sheets for programmers.

The first week, everyone tried to fill them out accurately. HR was shocked, shocked, to discover that people did things like work 12 hours one day, and only 6 the next. They explained that they wanted to see 8 hours per day, regardless of what was really worked.

The second week, everyone turned in time sheets that said 8 hours per day, with the fine print at the bottom changed from "I certify that this is true" to "I certify that this meets company standards even though it has no basis in reality." HR was not pleased, and explained to us that this was unacceptable.

The third week, a number of people turned in a stack of 8 hour per day timesheets covering the next two years.

As I recall, the timesheets were gone the fourth week. Even PHB's learn sometimes.

Jim Lyon
Friday, April 02, 2004

I worked at a place, all of a sudden a big emphasis on time sheets was made. We thought it  was a sign of a coming layoff, turns out our boss was using it for just the opposite. To justify our jobs. You never know about motivations
( BTW : we still had massive layoffs)

moses whitecotton
Friday, April 02, 2004

Keeping track of time is extremely important because of tax reasons.  Money spent developing product can be claimed against the revenue derived from it.

There might be other tax reasons to track this.  There might be balance sheet reasons to track it as well -- understanding how you spend money is an important part of managing it.

Lou Franco
Friday, April 02, 2004

At the moment I'm spending considerably more time administering than teaching so I'm using the Outlook Calendar to keep record of how much time I spend on different things.

Nobody requires this, though I can pull it out if Im accused of slacking, or if there is an argument between two bosses as to whose project has priority. I do find it very useful however, and it gives me a basis for estimating future jobs.

Stephen Jones
Friday, April 02, 2004

It's been done at most companies I've worked for, and it's mostly for cost/benefit ROI purposes. Supposing Department X wants a new system that they think will save them £100,000 per year, and IT estimates it will cost £50,000 to deliver. You haven't made £50,000 savings that year unless you know what the project actually cost.

To do that, you need to know how much time was spent on it by who. It's not just 40hours/week x no of staff. What about holidays? Training? Townhall meetings? People working on multiple projects, or who only spend a week or so on this one (EG hardware engineers, SAs etc)? Unless you track all this time (plus other expenses) you won't know if the project was on budget.

Mark
Friday, April 02, 2004

I work at a defense contractor. We have detailed timekeeping requirements. My previous job was at a commercial RTOS vendor. There was no record kept whatsoever of who worked on what for how long.

The RTOS vendor went under, in large part because of uncontrolled costs. No one knew anything about how much the various projects cost, who was working on what etc.  There was just one big 'burn rate' number for the whole company.  That scheme just didn't work. One month they just ran out of money and it was a big surprise.

At the defense company, the timekeeping is required by the government so we don't cheat them. (contractors are assumed to be crooks).  But, since we have it with a reasonably well automated system, the managers can pull up a real time view of how much each individual project  has cost to date, the burn rate per project etc.  That seems to have a lot of value for management.

So hopefully there would be a happy medium that keeps it usable and gives the right information.

david m howard
Friday, April 02, 2004

I work at a small company that just started keeping track of time spent on projects to get a rough idea of how much projects are costing. I think this is very important for ROI analysis. There's no feeling of clocking in/out because it is only being reported as percent of time per month. (Nobody's working tons of overtime right now so it's roughly accurate to say 5% ~= 1 day ~= 8 hrs.)

anon
Friday, April 02, 2004

I think my company has most innovative system. ;)

It's a fact that no one fills up weekly timesheet accurately. So we have an internal IT application which everyone is supposed to run daily. This application has been loaded with data from MS Project file with 'Tasks' for the project you are working on.

So when you log in to application, you will see task which are assigned to you. So before you start working on task, you select the task on application and turn the timer ON. Stop it when you are no longer working on that task.

So at the end of the week, you automatically have the *accurate*  hours spent on particular tasks.

Though it's a different matter that NO ONE runs application continously [It's a sucking Java app which consumes lot of memory and it's pain to use.] and eventually everone fills up the worksheet at the beginning of week!

ID withheld!
Friday, April 02, 2004

"...but in this country people who work on the clock are required to be paid 150% of their normal wage for work beyond 40 hours a week..."

Can somebody clarify this?  I'd love to use this as a club to nuke our timekeeping system, but I always thought programmers were by definition "professionals" not eligable for overtime whether or not they have to track their hours.

Kevin Junglen
Friday, April 02, 2004

Interesting comments. I'll respond to a few since I've thought about this for some time before asking Joel.

First I completely agree with Joel. Asking a professional to punch a clock is demeaning and stupid IF there is no legal reason to do so. Consultants/contractors, people paid hourly, gov't regulations, etc. are execeptions since this is required. I also understand the PTO thing where since the company is on the hook for the $$, they want to know when you take it.

At my company, we used to capitalize projects, in other words, change the books to reflect $$ spent on a project. However, that still doesn't explain why we have IT pros or developers track time. Every project is unique. EVERY PROJECT IS UNIQUE. Period. Even the simplest website has some differences, some new ideas, new twists, etc. that will cause it to take more or less time than the previous project. Not only that, each person is different on EVERY project. I might have T-ball for my 5 year old on this project when I didn't on the last one. My buddy might be getting a divorce or have an ill parent and not be concentrating as much as the last one, etc.  As Joel has pointed out, you have to include downtime and unexpecteds in your estimate and many times the person best able to do this is the PM.

That being said, if the PM is best suited to estimate and they are getting updates, presumably talking with developers, etc on a daily basis, aren't they in the best position to track time? Aren't they in a good position to see if the project is on track?

The other thing is that you assume the numbers reported by the employee is accurate. I was recently a line worker, a DBA, and honesly I couldn't give a rat's rear what numbers I put down. I don't have time, nor does it matter what I put down. So I work 3 projects plus other work and simply take a guess at the end of the week when the time sheet is due. I don't track time. And most of my buddies don't track time (there's always a few anal ones) , but most people just put "something" down at the end of the week, trying not to upset any applecarts by standing out. Goof off too much? "This part of the project was really tricky" or "I kept getting interrupted". Get ahead of the game, people "save" some hours for next week in case they get behind or have a long lunch or whatever.

Tracking time by person (when not legally required) and expecting accuracy is stupid. It's a waste of time and doesn't accomplish anything but like airline security, it makes someone (in this case bean counters) feel warm and fuzzy.

Steve Jones
Friday, April 02, 2004

I've got a couple theories about keeping time.

First is that managers are lazy SOBs too, just like us.  Why actually bother keeping up with projects when you can have workers fill out little sheets.  That leaves more time porn ^H^H^H^H meetings. 

Second is that the company is losing money, therefore the finance/accounting department has seized control of the company.  This will usually result in a request not to spend so much more time, on average, in the bathroom than your coworkers.

Ok, one more.  This one is probably most accurate.

The IT manager (cto, cio, vp, whatever) has recently gotten his ass chewed by the (board, president, ceo, whatever) about why they never see any results from IT.  Since he doesn't really have a clue what he's doing, and for all he knows the IT department spends all day on JoS, he decides to make the grubby bastards write down what they do every day so he can line 'em up. 

I was at a place that resembled the last option for a while.  I was working in a maintenance role, and a lot of time was spent running around figuring out what broke and how it broke.  The coding would take about an hour, tops, after spending the rest of the day going through data and talking to people.  The *management* would get upset if you said you spent 8 hours fixing the problem because clearly there wasn't enough code to justify that amount of time.  Yet if you said you spent 1 hour they were equally livid.  I know deep down they never understood why we couldn't just "Sit there and type all day".


Friday, April 02, 2004

One reason why people like to do this sort of tracking is to do some basic Cost Accounting to determine the cost of a project or product. The basic equation looks like this: Cost = Cost per Hour * hours. Simple no? I could go on and on about why this is a bad idea and how it doesn't work and how Cost Accounting is one of the worst evils produced by all of human civilization. I won't because a guy who is way smarter than I am wrote a really good book that all of your managers should have read in college that explains it all. The Goal http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0884270610/qid=1080944400/sr=8-1/ref=pd_ka_1/002-9440597-1478430?v=glance&s=books&n=507846
it's based on manufacturing and production but the concepts are the same. Anyway the funniest thing about cost accounting is the cost per hour part. The idea is that you're supposed to do all of this work to determine how much it costs you per hour to produce something. This is not easy. Everywhere I have seen this done, however, the cost per hour magically turns out to be some big round number that is really easy to do math with.

Craig
Friday, April 02, 2004

MarkTAW,

Your random timesheet generator idea reminded me of the first "real job" I had (during college).  It was a chemical plant, and was required to sample air emissions on a hourly basis and send an annual report to the EPA with all the numbers.  The Plant Engineer showed me the excel spreadsheet that he used that was a large grid of a years worth of random numbers.  With one click, all the numbers would change.  Every year he would just click the button, print a copy, and mail it to the EPA.

Ugnonimous
Friday, April 02, 2004

All of these arguments are interesting, I just wonder if keeping accurate time is so important for (reason x) then why weren't we required to do it all along?

We merged with Tightwad & Co where the burnout rate was extremely high, and seem to have adopted the practice from them. Whatever reasons they gave seemed logical enough, but we all knew it was a farce. Internal billbacks, project cost estimation, tax evasion... err, writeoffs. Oh, and that company that went under because nobody knew what the IT budget was had much more serious problems than not knowing how many minutes were spent at the donut truck.

ID withheld!,

The Allnetic Working Time Tracker (look it up..., I think it's allnetic.com) does exacty what you say, but much better. Sits in the systray, click it to start a task, click it to stop a task. It'll detect if you're idle and auto ask if you want to start/stop a task at that point. Double click to get a menu to change tasks. The newer version outputs XML files and CSV's and stuff like that, but I used the previous (free) version. Items are editable, so if you need to fudge some numbers, like moving the 2 hours from monday into tuesday, you can do it.

www.MarkTAW.com
Saturday, April 03, 2004

One reason for getting people to fill out timesheets is that it provides a basis for invoices to other customers or even other departments within the organisation.

When Customer X queries his bill for $60,000 per week, Mr Manager pulls out his stack of timesheets as proof that Joe, Jill, and crew really did spend those hours on The Huckleberry Project.

Of course, Customer X knows as well as Mr Manager that this doesn't prove anything, but it means he has to prove why the timesheets don't justify the charges, and that's not easy.

Must be a Manager
Sunday, April 04, 2004

It can be worse.

If your company does contract work for the government, the timesheets are required by contract. AND they're governed by "total cost accounting"

This means that if a salaried worker spends 30 hours in a week on the contract and 20 hours that week on another project, the company can only bill 3/5 of a week's hours on the contract.

Net result - employees are "encouraged" to work 40 hours/week on projects, work overhead outside that 40 hours, and not report the overhead.

When I was told this, I challenged management that someone in the organization would pull timesheets when evaluation time came around, and those of us who were working infrastructure would be penalized. Obviously, I was promised that wouldn't happen, and I got to be sitting in the room when it did happen. (And yes, I raised a stink about it, and yes, I did get a below-average review that year)

And yes, I quit less than two weeks later.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, April 04, 2004

The other fun part of gov't require accounting: you can't make up your hours at week's end. At least in my company, you must put in your hours daily. If they're not in by mid-morning the next day, management sends you an email reminding you to input your hours. If miss this too many times, they write you up, take administration action, etc.

All in the attempt to prevent us from swindling the government.

The useful thing is these hours can be pulled later to hel estimate project costs for proposals.

David Fischer
Sunday, April 04, 2004

>>The useful thing is these hours can be pulled later to help estimate project costs for proposals.

This is probably the most useful part of time keeping, if you don't track how long it took you to develop some function in the past then you aren't going to be able to predict how long it will take in the future.

Tony Edgecombe www.frogmorecs.com
Monday, April 05, 2004

I do agree with the last estimate concept, but so many people multi task, work at odd hours, get a spontaneous idea, etc, that it's tough for the individual to track. That's why I suggest having the PM do it. They can at least "guess" how long a machine build, a rough number of functions, etc. take to build.

But keep in mind. If I built item A, chances are I'll resuse it so using this to build Item B doesn't necessarily work. Item B may have some weird trick required that grossly expands or contracts the amount of time it takes.

I wish I had a secretary, unfortunately we have this crazy ERP system that only allows me to input my time. Fortunately it does have a "copy from previous sheet" function...... hmmmmm....

Steve Jones
Monday, April 05, 2004

I'm at a large finanacial company and we keep time sheets in order to bill back project work.  However, every few months they review the time that's been entered against what's actually budgeted and put in adjustments so that it matches the budget.

When I asked why they don't just automatically charge the amounts they want if in the end it must match the budgeted amounts - they just looked at me like I was crazy.

I guess the time tracking keeps someone employed.

Just Joe
Tuesday, April 06, 2004

We are required to fill out timesheets for accounting purposes.  We'd like to know if there are clients that we aren't making any money on because they use so much of our time.

Anonymous
Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Tracking time is like keeping track of your receipts.

Not everyone does it, mainly because it is time consuming and a pain to do. Keeping track of time is hard, but that is no excuse to dismiss the activity as one of "no importance".

There are many benefits to keeping track of your receipts (and these are identical to the benefits of keeping track of how long you do what).  The two main ones have been mentioned in this thread already:

1) Comparison of budget vs reality. 

2) Provides historical record for:
- estimation
- billing
- government regulations (eg overtime, benefit payment requirements, tax credits such as SR&ED, employment insurance entitlements etc.  While some of these numbers can be generated, in many cases you have to justify the breakdown) 
- ROI / project costing analyses (I have no time for people who feel this is unimportant because *they* get a pay cheque regardless.)

Most people suck the suck at estimating how long something is going to take them, and in my experience that is particularly true in the programming field.  Actually, most people suck at estimation period - which is one reason that both debt management and dieting magazine articles usually recommend that you start by writing down everything that you are spending or eating. 

Successful time management is no different in principle.  You have to know where your time is currently being used and roughly how long it takes you to do a given task in order to improve the next time.

Having someone else (like a secretary or manager) estimate your time is like having someone else estimate your spending.  They are going to be even worse than you, the person who actually did it.  It cannot be done accurately unless that person watches you very closely, or unless there is another way to verify your expenses (eg you request a receipt for every purchase and turn them in for tabulation.  The closest equivalent for "time expense receipts" are those software programs that continuously track what you do.)

Of course, the trick to tracking your time is that it has to be built into your logical flow of work in such a way that it doesn't interfere with actually accomplishing work.

Phibian
Thursday, April 08, 2004

Just Joe said: I'm at a large finanacial company and we keep time sheets in order to bill back project work.  However, every few months they review the time that's been entered against what's actually budgeted and put in adjustments so that it matches the budget.

---

Isn't that fraud?  Especially if they then go and mail out an invoice, isn't that clearly mail fraud?

Ryan Anderson
Friday, April 09, 2004

I think the time tracking may be needed in several cases:

1. When there are part-timers in a company.
2. There are flexible working hours.
3. There is a need in tracking time for particular short-time development tasks and implementations.
4. Programmers (designers, tech editors) are switching between different projects.
5. There is a need to track overtime.
6. There is a need to report hours for customers/clients, or top management, to track products' development costs, etc.

I personally don't see a difficulty in setting time tracking system up. What each person in a company would need to do is to walk to a particular computer to:

- Log in each morning, or any entry time.
- Log out each time when leaving an office.

It would take up to 5 minutes to do this.  Of course, this log-in computer should be located wisely, not far from working place/desk.

I believe the time tracking makes sense in many (but not all) cases. It is a good knowledge base for large companies with many projects and tasks.

Denn
Tuesday, June 08, 2004

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