Project Management – The snowball effect

Project Requirements

image depicting idea quote with light bulb with gears.In the beginning there are requirements.

Initially, requirements may be in the
form of a very loose idea or proposal. Even so,
the simplest high level proposition will contain a level of requirement definition.

I want a report that will show my sales by region.

The very word “want” flags a requirement.

As the life cycle of a project proceeds, requirements  become more detailed. Users, business departments, clients, sponsors (lets just call them “customers”) refining their needs.  For example.

I want a report that shows my sales by region, broken down by product and sales manager.  I want the report to also show the level of profit of each sales grouping.  I want  a graph that tells me which is the best performing sames manager in each region based on sales profitability. The worst performing manager should be highlighted as red. The report needs to be produced on the first of each month and be available by 9 a.m. UTC.

By the design phase of a project, requirements should be fully defined. They should be at a level of detail that removes ambiguities, allowing the analyst or developer to produce a design ready for build.

In practice, businessman looking tired and frustrated in office. we are human.

Producing an unambiguous set of requirements is virtually impossible for any reasonably complex deliverable.  This is addressed by discussing and resolving any ambiguities with the customer as we progress through the design.

The inability to produce a perfect requirement, should however, never be an excuse for a poor requirement.  That’s when the snowball effect begins.

The growth of the overrun snowball

image of a snowball rolling and increasing in sizeThe snowball starts with ambiguities and omissions in the requirements. This results in additional (generally unplanned) time and cost to address the shortcomings of the requirements.

Moving into build, missing requirements or invalid assumptions made in lieu of clarity, results in the design having to be updated.  This in turn potentially leads to changes in the build.

The snowball begins to grow.

As we move into system testing, test cases are likely to highlight further omissions, lack of clarity and discrepancies in requirements.  As a result the design, build and potentially test cases need to be updated, delaying the test phase.

The snowball continues to grow.

As the project enters user testing, a lack of time and effort spent on defining requirements is likely to result in a situation that the deliverable is not what the client, customer, sponsor, user etc. expected and probably not what they need.  So it’s back to altering design and build, then retesting.

The cost/time snowball gets bigger and bigger.

Deadlines are missed.

Budgets overrun.

This isn’t what we wanted!

image of a frustrated business man hold his head in his hands.In order to mitigate and constrain delays and budget, a number of compromises will commonly be made. Scope and functionality will be reduced. The design will be locked down to prevent any further requirement changes being made.

When the system finally goes live, there is likely to be a level of dissatisfaction and numerous manual work-arounds to address missing functionality.

Dissatisfaction will probably be tempered by the promise of a future version that will address all the shortcomings of the delivery. In most cases the proposition for this type of “follow-up” delivery fails to get budget approval.

The system we have is working.  What you are proposing is going to cost money we want to use for other things that are of greater priority.

So users, left with the system they never really wanted, have to make do. They are disillusioned, feel let down by the project and complain that the project didn’t have the customer’s needs at heart.

The irony is of course, that it was probably the same users that provided the poor requirements in the first place.  It’s not all their fault though. Business users are not skilled at providing requirements and need to be assisted in doing so by project professionals.

Project managers need to work with their analysts to identify poor requirements, highlight them and address shortcomings early in the project life-cycle.

Warning Signs

There are a number of warning signs that a project manager should be aware of that indicate a potential snowball.

    • avalanche sign on ski stationCustomers, users, business areas, clients etc. that complain that they cannot spare skilled resources to work on requirements.
    • People working on/contributing to requirements constantly change.
    • Requirements have the following words or phrases, or similar, in them
      • “anything else that may be required”
      • “etc.”
      • “to be determined”
      • “further investigation required”
      • “subject to future decision/legislation/project/announcement”
  • There is pressure to complete design/build before requirements have been agreed and signed off.

Project Management Reality

image of project schedule analysis with pen, calculator and notebookIn reality, a project manager can’t always avoid a snowball effect. We often don’t have the final say in how the project proceeds. In such a situation plans need to be adjusted to reflect the level of requirement uncertainty.  My suggestion would be to determine how much extra time to allocate to testing.  Double that amount for build and again or design. Determine your resource run rate for those elements of the plan and add the appropriate amount to the budget.

There are many things that can cause project to overrun budget and delivery dates, but poor requirements is one of the biggest impacts.

 

Learning Never Stops

Image if a badge showing that Mainplus Technology are attending WordPress Europe in Vienna 2016

 

 

An industry that never stands still

I’m a great believer that you should never stop learning.  This IT industry of ours never sleeps and unless we make the effort to educate ourselves we inevitably get left behind.

More to learn, less time to do it in

As I have got older, I have found that I slip behind the learning curve. I like to console myself that this is mostly due to my interests widening so the learning I have to do to keep up with our world, just becomes greater, but my time to do so seems to ever decrease.

Formal courses are all very well….

Formal courses and text books are a well proven education channel, and generally have the benefit of providing some sort of evidential piece of paper to prove that you have completed the learning in question. However, one of the great things about our industry is the willingness of incredibly talented and knowledgeable people to give their time and effort to pass on their knowledge. Often for free.

… but why not take advantage of free knowledge transfer

There are many YouTube videos that act as brilliant learning aids. These “how to” videos are great if you need help doing something specific.  They are instantly available but in general you need to search for a specific topic to make use of them.

In my opinion he best way to take advantage of the generous nature of our industry colleagues, is to go to conferences. While there may not be a presentation dealing with your latest, hair tearing, issue, conferences have presentations that expand your outlook and put you contact with like minded individuals, any one of which may have the “magic bullet” you are looking for.

So, for just a few pounds, or even for free, you can get to see and hear industry experts sharing their knowledge.  Not only do you get real world advice in the form of a presentation, but almost without exception, these experts are incredibly approachable and happy to discuss their field outside the confines of their presentation.

Which conferences?

 WordPress Edinbugh

image of the Edinbugh Wordcamp Wapu 2015

Well let’s start off with the Edinburgh Wordcamp held in November 2015.  A great weekend of talks from some of the best WordPress speakers in the UK.  Including Heather Burns, who is probably the foremost speaker on web law in the UK if not Europe.  I have to declare an interest here though.  My local WordPress group, were the organisers of the event. A nicer bunch of people you couldn’t wish to meet. By the time the event was coming to a close there were already talk of the next one.

FOSSDEM

image of the fossdem logo

To quote the Fossdem website, “FOSDEM is a free event for software developers to meet, share ideas and collaborate.”.

Fossdem is held in Brussels and is the biggest free and open source conference in Europe. Attended by some 5000 hackers and with over 600 presentations it attracts some big names from all over the world to speak.

This year, 2016, I’m really exited.  It would appear that one of the biggest free software names in the world will be speaking. Richard Stallman, Founder of GNU Project and Free Software Foundation will be giving his thoughts on advanced licensing issues in Free Software projects.

Even though I do not consider myself a developer (and neither do many other attendees of Fossdem) I always get a lot out of the conference which is entirely free of charge.

WordcaMp Europe

imapge of an I'm attending Wordcamp Europe 2016 badgeWordcamp Europe is the premier Wordcamp conference in Europe.

To be honest, I’m not too sure what to expect at Wordcamp Europe.  I have talked to many people who have attended in the past and their enthusiasm and determination to return has made me decide to attend for the first time.  It has to be said that the location of Vienna didn’t hurt any either.

Like Fossdem, the size of the conference (at the time of writing they have sold out all 1500 tickets and trying to secure more space to sell more) draws speakers from all over the world.  These include speakers from Automatic (the owners of WordPress) and other companies, such as iThemes, that are world renowned for their plug-ins and themes.

Don’t just sit there…

Make the most of the generous nature of all these people willing to share these knowledge with you.  I’m sure that I will be attending other, smaller events during the year.  After all you can’t be over educated, can you?

I love it when a Plan comes together!

 

The majority of work carried out by Mainplus Technology Ltd. over the last 5 years has been Project Management. Mostly managing IT projects for large organisations but with the odd web and business project thrown in for good luck.

Carrying out Project Management in the corporate environment brings with it a number of challenges.  There is a myriad of people that want reports that show progress against plan but want it on a single page in a very simple format that an audience with no project planning expertise can understand.  Given that the plans in question tend to be complex, and often part of a portfolio of projects which also need reporting in a similar manner, the challenge of producing such documents is not inconsiderable.  Add to this that projects are monitored on a weekly basis, producing reporting packs is a significant overhead.

A few years ago a good friend decided enough was enough and developed a PowerPoint add-in that analysed one or more Microsoft Project plans and created a single slide view based on simple configuration items and judicious use of specific columns in the plans. Even in its original basic form the tool was incredibly useful and soon became used by project managers, planners and project management staff across the organisation in question, including myself.

Since those early days he has continued to develop the tool and use it in other organisations to enhance his value as a jobbing contract planner/project manager.

Last year, at a meeting of project manager and planner friends, he came to the conclusion that development of the tool had reached the point where it was feature rich enough to warrant it being offered on a commercial basis.  A partnership was formed with another good friend with corporate connections and PagePlan development became commercially oriented from that point onwards.

Although I was part of that fateful meeting and a user of PagePlan over the years, my involvement in it’s growth as a commercial product ended at that point, other than the normal calls between friends etc.

I felt real excitement then, when asked a few weeks ago to help launch PagePlan into the marketplace. My own experience includes marketing support for a software distributor so I think I can bring something valuable to the party.

As a contractor I know how much PagePlan has helped my standing on projects in the past and I’m really looking forward to being part of making it available to other planners and managers so that they can add value to their efforts too.

We know there is still a way to go before we will get the product launched, especially as we all have very time consuming projects we are working on, but I hope to blog about the journey from an in-house tool to commercial product as we roll it out.

Ubuntu 13.04 Raring Ringtail – faster than a speeding bullet

OK, not quite faster than a speeding bullet but way faster than previous releases.logo for raring ringtail 13.04

Last weekend I decided to upgrade to Ubuntu 13.04 “Raring Ringtail” after watching Nixie Pixel’s review of the release.  The key part of the review that prompted me to upgrade was Nixie’s comments about how video works right out the box in Ringtail.  The poor video handling has been a major bugbear of mine ever since I installed my first Ubuntu OS.

My main use of Ubuntu is to breath new life into machines that are considered “unworthy” by other operating systems.  In the past video has been jumpy, out of sync, crash prone and even unplayable on these older boxes.  Things seemed to be getting worse rather than better. I found that Ubuntu 12.10 didn’t even recognise my GeForce 6600 graphics card (it’s not that old, or unusual for heaven’s sake).  It only took me a hour or so of digging around the forums etc. to get it up and running but I have worked in the IT industry for longer than I care to admit and if Canonical want to seriously challenge the major OS players, this is the type of issue they have to sort out.

It was fingers crossed then when Ringtail first booted up.

I was practically jumping for joy when the desktop was displayed with no dodgy offsets, a decent resolution and the system info told me that it had recognised my graphics card correctly.

My next step was to check out how well Ringtail did when playing video.  Would Nixie’s comments only be relevant to newer faster PCs than mine?

All the  YouTube videos I tried played without problem.  No skipping, crashing and no audio sync problems!  I think it may even handle YouTube videos better than Windows 7 running on a newer more powerful machine.

I gave up trying to watch DVDs and movies using Ubuntu long ago because they were just unwatchable.  As a result my expectations were pretty low when I opened my first movie, but what the heck, things were already better than I had been expecting.  I was pretty much blown away when the movie kicked into life and played as smooth as silk!

Whilst going through these tests I noticed that performance in general seemed to be somewhat better than previous releases.

Did this mean that my other major gripe, that the Software Centre essentially hangs my machine when it open, has been resolved.?

Yes! The Ubuntu Software Centre still takes 30 seconds or more to open (I do have a slow broadband connection), but this is much better than previous releasses.  I generally went and made a cup of coffee while it opened.  The really big news is that it doesn’t hang my machine while it opens so I can get on with other tasks while I’m waiting.

So is all now rosy with Ubuntu?  Not quite yet.

Some common third party software packages like Dropbox disappears when you install the release.  Yes, I know you get a warning during the upgrade process that this will happen, but if Canonical wants to lure away the average Windows home user, this is not conducive to that aim.  Having said that, at least Dropbox now appears in the Software Centre.

There are web pages and videos that suggests the “top x things to do once you have updated Ubuntu”.  These suggestions include the loading of additional drivers, software and changes to configuration settings. Most of suggestion pages are release specific, but some common themes crop up in most of the suggestions and across releases.  The suggestions list I used was from Web Upd8.

There are generally good reasons why Canonical doesn’t include the additional drivers and software (e.g. to prevent bloating and to remain true to its open source principals) but perhaps they should consider including a package, as part of the installation, that would allow users to optionally instigate some of the more generic and popular suggestions.

There has been some criticism that Ringtail hasn’t got enough in it to attract new users.  Let’s not forget though that both Ubuntu 12.10 (Quantal Quetzal) and 13.04 (Raring Ringtail) are intermediate releases and perhaps Canonical has more up its sleeve for 14.04 the next LTR (Long Term Release) due sometime around April 2014.

I for one will be using my Ubuntu machine far more in the future as a result of Ringtail and this post is evidence of that. I am writing it using Ubuntu whereas I would have normally written it on my Windows machine.

http://design.ubuntu.com/wp-content/uploads/logo-ubuntu_su-orange-hex.png

Oggcamp 12

I decided  a while back that I would make the effort to visit Oggcamp 12 this year.

When it came time to head off to Liverpool though, I was filled with doubt. Despite really looking forward to meeting the guys from the Ubuntu Podcast and the Linux Outlaws, I was taking a couple of days off from a really high pressure project and was feeling guilty. A number of questions were running around my head as I settled down on the train….

  • Would the trip be worth spending time away from the project?
  • Was I techie enough to get the most out of the trip?
  • Is everyone there already going to know each other and I would end up drinking in a corner on my own.

At least I knew the last of these questions wasn’t going to be too much of an issue.  My son had also decided that he wanted to attend and was also heading to Liverpool and would be meeting me later that evening.  As long as he wasn’t too embarrassed by his dad  I would have at least one drinking companion.

As it turned out none of my fears were justified.  Even whilst checking on at the hotel, Tony   Whitmore from the Ubuntu Podcast team, who was already checking in, chatted to me and made me feel welcomed.  Once we hit the bar later that night, there were plenty of others happy and eager to chat.  Already this was turning out to be the most friendly and open techie gathering I had attended.  And I’ve attended quite a few all over the world.

Once the (un)conference got under way, the biggest problem ended up being an embarrassment of riches in terms of everything on offer.  Sessions on open source and privacy from the likes of Simon Phipps president of  the OSI and  Ross Gardler from OSS Watch rubbed shoulders with Pete Lomas, Managing Director Director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and a specially recorded video from Stephen Fry.

Whist all this was going on there was a floor of hacker areas, with everything from Raspberry Pi’s for sale and free components being given away, to automated sewing machines, arduino projects and makerbots.

On top of all this, on Sunday there were a series of lightening talks from attendees.

On the Social side, Saturday night saw a great party with 20lbs of Sound providing a great set of music and brilliant company.  I was able to meet up and share beverages with Gary a fellow British Tech Network listener from the South Coast (thanks Ewen), Ian from Ireland, a couple of fellow Scottish attendees and even Pete Lomas.  I cannot get over just how friendly everyone was.

I even won a couple of prizes in the raffle.

I will definitely be back again next year.  If Oggcamp 13 has exactly the same content as Oggcamp 12 there would still be enough items that I didn’t see this year to keep me occupied and lots of new friends to see again.

Thanks to everyone who put Oggcamp together. You did a mighty fine job and I look forward to seeing you all again.

Word-Up Scotland

Saturday at Word-Up Glasgow was phenomenal!

Apart from the usual brilliant sessions by everyone, especially Heather Burns, Kevinjohn Gallagher and Kimb Jones, it was great to talk chat to guys like Jim Convey and Martin Young to get their take on how to best approach CMS user access in WordPress.

Unlike last year’s Edinburgh Word-Up, there were lots more WordPress newbies in attendance which made for a conference that felt a little less like experienced WordPress techies talking to other WordPress veterans.  As a result the level of questions and answers made the whole day much more worthwhile for myself and has made me enthusiastic to get more involved with the group.  It has also enthused me to do more posting as you can see.

I will be checking out the Scotland Word-Up site to see when and where the monthly meet-ups will be and go along if possible.  I have also suggested to Martin that we perhaps use a hack space to do some practical hands on sessions.

There is a rumor that there will be a Word Camp in Edinburgh this year as well.  I think I will definitely be up for that one.