Random Acts of IT Project Management

Project Management for Information Technology

Archive for May, 2009

Bridging the Gap

Posted by iammarchhare on 29 May 2009

This week, we’ve looked at use cases vs user stories, basic abilities for PMs and BA competencies for gathering requirements.  All of these involve in one way or another transforming user requirements into reality.  In “Use Cases and User Stories – Just Degrees of Difference?” we saw that one of the issues with user stories is whether or not the customer has built up “trust” in the process.  I mentioned in “Are You Cut Out to be a Project Manager?” that a PM must be able to bridge people and technology.  And, finally in “Avoiding Project Failure: Gathering Requirements”, we looked at some core competencies for BAs or for PMs filling the role.  All of these involve communication.

I couldn’t help but think of communication when I read “The Role of Agile Advocates” by Lynda Bourne on PMI’s blog.  She writes:

Forget the jargon of “sprints” and “iterations.” Communicate in your stakeholder’s language. As an Agile project is progressing through its cycles, what benefits are being delivered and how can they be measured? What contingencies are in place? What real progress is being made from the business perspective?

You know, this has little to do with Agile.  It is good advice always.

I’m of the opinion that all developers should have to either do helpdesk or desktop support starting out.  Why?  Because there is no better way than experience for a developer to get to know how endusers work, how they think and what they want.  You develop a real empathy for them if you care about your job at all.

I learned something early on because of doing desktop support.  I learned that users just want to get their work done.  They don’t care about bits and bytes, routers, packets, objects, classes or any of the other stuff that IT cares about.  They don’t want to learn a new language to talk to you.  All they care about is that their email, spreadsheet, billing or other program isn’t working.  They want it fixed.  I had to learn their language.

Mind you, this does not mean talking down to them.  Some of the people I dealt with were chemists and engineers.  You want to hear jargon?  They will give you jargon!  Don’t even get me started on day traders!  They are from a completely different country!  No, if you talk down to these people, they could put you in your place rather quickly!

Remember, you are rendering a service.  You might have a degree, and you might make more than a burger flipper, but the reality is you are enabling a person/team/company to be more productive.  To achieve that end, you have to be able to communicate, which means listening as well as talking.  You then have to be able to encode and decode the information between a technical core and the business owner/sponsor/customer.

Without communication, nothing else you do as a project manager will be successful.

Posted in People Management, PM Basics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Bridging the Gap

Avoiding Project Failure: Gathering Requirements

Posted by iammarchhare on 28 May 2009

After a round of LinkedIn discussions about project failure, it was a general consensus that most project failures stem from bad or vague requirements.  This is a recurring theme in project management, it seems.  Well, in “Eight Things Your Business Analysts Need to Know”, it appears that Brad Egeland would agree:

In an online poll of 2,000 business professionals, the question was asked, “What are the key challenges in translating user needs into system specifications for mission critical projects?” 50% stated poor requirements definition as the key challenge. Inadequate risk management (17%), poor scope control (15%), and communication problems (14%) followed far behind as key challenges.

After the discussion online, someone posed the question to me, “Who should gather the requirements?”  Again, Egeland’s article answers the question, “What about the business analysts?  What role do they play?”

Egeland’s article, which distills down a whitepaper from Gantthead, goes on to identify 8 competency areas for BAs.

But, you know, input from a BA is usually not hard to get on a decent-sized project.  On smaller projects, though, it can be difficult to even get a BA assigned.  So, now what?  Well, it usually falls to the project manager if a project falls under a certain number of hours.  Therefore, it would behoove any decent PM to check out these competency areas as well, especially the first 5.  Don’t be afraid to pull in an architect or a SME to answer questions, either.

If you really want to rescue a project from the safety of victory and dash it into the jaws of defeat, though, then ignore competency #6 “End-User Support”.  How many projects have I seen that were “done” but lived on as the walking dead that sucked the life out of team members long after it was put away?

Posted in Requirements | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Are You Cut Out to be a Project Manager?

Posted by iammarchhare on 27 May 2009

On the blog Project Management Tips, Brad Egeland wrote 2 articles titled “Five Signs You Aren’t Cut Out to be a Project Manager” and “Five More Signs You Aren’t Cut Out to be a Project Manager”.  Both of these articles are worthwhile reads.

The first 2 he lists pretty much show that an IT PM’s job is to bridge people and technology.  While people skills are important, they certainly aren’t the only skills you need.  Likewise, a PM in a technical position needs some sort of technology background.  While it is important for an IT PM to be technically minded, it certainly isn’t a necessity to be an expert.  Being an expert can help, as it lends credibility to the PM, but the reality is that the PM must rely upon the subject matter expert (SME) in a given area.  However, to be totally unable to understand the technical team members and to not be able to communicate the information to a business partner, a sponsor, an executive or customer can be a death sentence to a PM career.  This touches a few of Egeland’s other points as well.

In addition to the signs Egeland lists, I would like to submit these 5 for your consideration.  It isn’t that these are any better than Egeland’s lists, but his certainly got my own thought processes working.

Inability to Negotiate

Part of being a manager is the ability to negotiate items.  As a PM, you may need to assist purchasing with negotiating features or price with a vendor.  A PM will definitely be negotiating timelines and resource allocations.  A PM might have to probe into estimates and help come up with alternatives.  A PM will have to set customer/sponsor expectations.

Unwillingness to Continue Learning

Some people graduate college thinking they will never need to learn again.  A PM, though, is constantly learning.  In fact, any IT manager, including an IT PM, has to do double duty on learning because a good PM will be keeping up on the latest technology as well as learning new management skills.

Shady Ethics

Yes, it is a sad statement on the state of the world to even mention this one, but many companies these days have lost sight that the public trust has to be earned.  International companies can present special challenges because graft and “gifts” are taken for granted in some cultures.

Lack of Transparency

This is similar to lacking ethics, but it also includes hiding “bad news” from stakeholders.  This does not mean, of course, that you just bluntly state bad news, but it does mean you don’t try to hide it either.  Bad news has a way of leaking out when it is least convenient.  Unfortunately, I have witnessed executives and product managers that try to cover up the truth only to worsen customer relations in the long run.

Lack of Creativity

Perhaps the most controversial on my list, this item isn’t referring to artistic flair or even to not being able to create an appealing user interface.  Rather, this is the ability to use or reuse technology and processes in some new way.  If you are really creative, it may mean using items in a manner that wasn’t originally intended.  For things that already exist, someone had to be first.  Someone had to be first in applying user supplied tags to objects.  Someone had to be first to take the idea of streaming video and create video conferencing over the Internet.  I can remember using DOS batch files for fdisk-ing and formatting hard drives in a computer lab during bootup because the Novell scripting had limitations that made it difficult in Novell.  Do you have the creativity required to be a true solution provider?

Those are Mine

So, what are some that you have identified as being necessary in order to be cut out to be an IT PM?

Posted in PM Basics | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Use Cases and User Stories – Just Degrees of Difference?

Posted by iammarchhare on 26 May 2009

What is the difference between doing use cases and doing user stories?  Use cases are UML methods of bridging user requirements with a system.  User stories are an Agile way of doing the same thing.  However, throw into the mix that there are formal and informal use cases as well as a use case brief, and you have a potentially confusing situation.

What are the differences between these, then?  Well, Scott Sehlhorst at the Tyner Blain blog tries to tackle this question.  Perhaps they are really just different points on a continuum of overhead and detail.  Throw in the level of reader trust, and you can graph these different items.  “User Stories and Use Cases” is an interesting read.

Posted in Agile, Requirements | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Have a Good Memorial Day

Posted by iammarchhare on 25 May 2009

In the US, we are observing Memorial Day.  This is a day to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.  Families often get together and grill outside.  Wherever you are, spend time with your loved ones today.  Keep alive the memories of the ones who are no longer here.  If you live in a free land, then thank a veteran today for your freedom.  Pray that the day comes soon where wars are no longer necessary.

Posted in Mostly off-topic rambling rabbit holes | Comments Off on Have a Good Memorial Day

What I Like About Being an IT PM

Posted by iammarchhare on 22 May 2009

The LinkedIn group Project Management Institute Group had a general news discussion about “Why do you like Project Management?”  That got me thinking.  Specifically, why do I like being an IT project manager?

BTW, if you aren’t a member of LinkedIn, consider this an unofficial unauthorized plug.  They have great pointers to other information and sometimes some lively discussions.  There are more groups than just the PMI one, but obviously that is where I hang out most often.

Anyhow, there are some core items that I enjoy that aren’t necessarily tied to PM.  I like giving customers what they need, for example.  Now, I’m not necessarily into giving them everything they want, but I do want to make sure what they get is what they need to do their job.  It needs to make their life easier, not harder and not more frustrating.  I want to give them the best service for the price.

Obviously, I could do the above by being a developer, a desktop specialist or a system engineer.  However, one thing that being a PM affords is the ability to learn more about both technology and the organization.  Since project management cuts across organizational lines, it gives me the opportunity to learn more about the folks in finance, marketing and other areas that I normally would not have the opportunity to even meet.  Being a PM gives me exposure to technologies that likewise I would not have the opportunity to learn about.  If I was still in either desktop/LAN support or development, then I would probably not get the same amount of exposure to either other departments of an organization or different technologies.

What do you like about being an IT PM?

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Posted by iammarchhare on 21 May 2009

I am on the road, but I have queued up some articles for you.  I will pop in and out as wifi access and electrical outlets allow.

Posted in Admin | Comments Off on Traveling

Consulting Maxims

Posted by iammarchhare on 21 May 2009

If you are reading this, then it is likely I’m either still on the road or recovering from the road trip.  However, this gives me an opportunity to point you to some backlogged bookmarks I’ve built up.

Many PMs are consultants, so TechRepublic’s article on “18 maxims of successful IT consulting” might be of interest to you.

And, if you are not a consultant … well, rethink that, will you?  As I’ve quoted before, we are all consultants in this economy.  Companies can let you go at any time with no reason.

Posted in Consulting, Economy, Employment | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Consulting Maxims

IT Jobs – Some Things to Think About

Posted by iammarchhare on 20 May 2009

I’m still on the road, but if you are laid off, thinking you might be laid off or just generally uneasy, you might want to read this article.  Technology Ladder posted an article by Kevin Fogarty that “Tech Employment [is] Down, Not Out”.

Fogarty points out that medical IT jobs. VOIP and IT security jobs are growing sectors.

Posted in Economy, Employment | Tagged: , , , , | Comments Off on IT Jobs – Some Things to Think About

Earned Value Management Now More Important Than Ever

Posted by iammarchhare on 19 May 2009

Containing costs is a really big deal in this economy.  CEOs and CIOs are not likely to react favorably to unexpected project cost overruns.  Project managers (PMs)  do not want to get caught in this squeeze.  Early detection and mitigation are key factors in a project’s success.

As stated in the PM Hut article “Utilizing Earned Value Management During Economic Downturn”:

Utilizing EVM techniques does not prevent project costs overruns, but it does provide project managers with data for more effective cost and risk management, which has become increasingly important to corporations. Risks that are identified through the use of EVM provide early warning signals that immanent project risks exist.

~ Smith, Kevin.  (13 November 2008).  Utilizing Earned Value Management During Economic Downturn.  Retrieved 12 May 2009 from http://www.pmhut.com/utilizing-earned-value-management-during-economic-downturn.

While the article’s main premise is that company executives will (or will need to) pay more attention to EVM, I haven’t worked anywhere where that was a major problem.

What I find useful is to maintain 2 EVM calculations.  If you have a tool like CA Clarity, then it has a built-in EVM calculator that is rolled up into the various dashboards.  If you do not, then consider which EVM method you want to use to present to the world.  I would pick either percentage or 50-50 methods to present the most accurate data at that snapshot in time.  I would consider this my “tracking EVM” because it is the one being reported and the one everyone will be evaluating you on (officially or unofficially).

However, you, as the PM, need to know even before the rest of the world knows.  Therefore, I have always kept a 100% method EVM spreadsheet to update on a weekly basis to gauge when the project is even thinking about falling behind schedule.  Using this method, you are either late or not on a task.  There is no middle ground.  If you are even one day late, severe penalties are built into the calculations.  Then, you can dig in to find out what is going on underneath the calculations.

Posted in PM Basics, Tracking | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Earned Value Management Now More Important Than Ever