The Lost Art of Estimation.

One memory that has always remained clear in my mind was from the first few weeks of engineering degree. Sitting in an introductory electronics class the lecturer began by throwing some rudimentary math our way and lamented how we were quick to grab our pens and paper or calculators to work out the exact answer. It was a clever way of showing us how much we relied on technology to do our thinking for us and so the next week was spent teaching us methods of estimating values, working out rough solutions to equations and educating us in the ways of solid guesswork. After a while it became second nature to us engineers (all 10 of us!) and I don’t think any good engineer would be without it.

I hadn’t really thought about it until I was dicussing LED backlit TVs with some of my friends over lunch. The basic premise of the technology (I’m not going to talk about edge LED backlighting, that’s cheating) is that instead of using what amounts to giant fluro tubes to light up the screen for each individual pixel you use either a single white LED or a RGB LED array. I imagined what the sales pitch to the higher ups must’ve been when they were trying to make a full 1080p display, saying that the amount of LEDs would have been huge. One of my friends then whipped out his phone to calculate it (instantly bringing back the university memories) and instantly the engineering estimator kicked in and I came out with about 6 million LEDs to make up the panel. The actual figure is 6220800 (1920 x 1080 x 3), which made me feel like I’d earned a fair whack of geek cred for being able to guess that close without a calculator.

It’s not just party tricks like doing insanely large multiplcations in your head that estimation is good for. Most of the time I spent in the labs at university were trying to get some electronic widget to give the correct output. Now all the equations you’re taught are based on perfect models, so you’re never going to get exactly where you want. That’s where estimation comes in handy, if you know your inputs and can hazard a rough guess at the outputs it can save you hours sitting down and working out the actual output. If everything comes out inline with your expectations then you can go back and verify your results using the equations, otherwise you know you have to rework your experiment.

Although the real scientists would argue that’s what research assistances are for 😉

In the real world where project managers and higher ups demand estimates to ensure resources are allocated appropriately being able to come up with figures quickly is one skill that’s saved me countless times over. It’s one of those things that once you learn you never really think about again as the answers just start popping into your head, kind of like muscle memory but in your brain. Plus being able to do large multiplications in your head is a sure fire way to get all the ladies.

Well, that’s what my lecturer told me anyway 🙂

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