One of the most useful life skills that you can gain from your computer science training is the ability to perform quick estimates. This is sometimes known as “back of the napkin” or “back of the envelope” calculation. Both nicknames suggest that only a rough estimate is produced. Estimation techniques are a standard part of engineering curricula but are often neglected in computer science. Estimation is no substitute for rigorous, detailed analysis of a problem, but it can help to decide when a rigorous analysis is warranted: If the initial estimate indicates that the solution is unworkable, then further analysis is probably unnecessary.
Estimation can be formalized by the following three-step process:
Determine the major parameters that affect the problem.
Derive an equation that relates the parameters to the problem.
Select values for the parameters, and apply the equation to yield an estimated solution.
When doing estimations, a good way to reassure yourself that the estimate is reasonable is to do it in two different ways. In general, if you want to know what comes out of a system, you can either try to estimate that directly, or you can estimate what goes into the system (assuming that what goes in must later come out). If both approaches (independently) give similar answers, then this should build confidence in the estimate.
When calculating, be sure that your units match. For example, do not add feet and pounds. Verify that the result is in the correct units. Always keep in mind that the output of a calculation is only as good as its input. The more uncertain your valuation for the input parameters in Step 3, the more uncertain the output value. However, back of the envelope calculations are often meant only to get an answer within an order of magnitude, or perhaps within a factor of two. Before doing an estimate, you should decide on acceptable error bounds, such as within 25%, within a factor of two, and so forth. Once you are confident that an estimate falls within your error bounds, leave it alone! Do not try to get a more precise estimate than necessary for your purpose.
How many library bookcases does it take to store books containing one million pages? I estimate that a 500-page book requires one inch on the library shelf (it will help to look at the size of any handy book), yielding about 200 feet of shelf space for one million pages. If a shelf is 4 feet wide, then 50 shelves are required. If a bookcase contains 5 shelves, this yields about 10 library bookcases. To reach this conclusion, I estimated the number of pages per inch, the width of a shelf, and the number of shelves in a bookcase. None of my estimates are likely to be precise, but I feel confident that my answer is correct to within a factor of two. (After writing this, I went to Virginia Tech’s library and looked at some real bookcases. They were only about 3 feet wide, but typically had 7 shelves for a total of 21 shelf-feet. So I was correct to within 10% on bookcase capacity, far better than I expected or needed. One of my selected values was too high, and the other too low, which canceled out the errors.)
Is it more economical to buy a car that gets 20 miles per gallon, or one that gets 30 miles per gallon but costs \$3000 more? The typical car is driven about 12,000 miles per year. If gasoline costs \$3/gallon, then the yearly gas bill is \$1800 for the less efficient car and \$1200 for the more efficient car. If we ignore issues such as the payback that would be received if we invested \$3000 in a bank, it would take 5 years to make up the difference in price. At this point, the buyer must decide if price is the only criterion and if a 5-year payback time is acceptable. Naturally, a person who drives more will make up the difference more quickly, and changes in gasoline prices will also greatly affect the outcome.
When at the supermarket doing the week’s shopping, can you estimate about how much you will have to pay at the checkout? One simple way is to round the price of each item to the nearest dollar, and add this value to a mental running total as you put the item in your shopping cart. This will likely give an answer within a couple of dollars of the true total.