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Monday, December 11, 2006

Software Project Management — A short story

Since returning to Chennai, I've been working on a project management tool for small, distributed and agile teams. To illustrate my vision for the product, here is a small story. Do you find any part of the story familiar? Are there any characters that you can relate to? Maybe some of this stuff happens in your project. Solving this kind of problem is what I'm setting out to do.

The characters

Geoff (Male, 42)

Geoff is a manager at the LoansNow bank. He wants Quality Software Inc to develop an IT system to automate some processes. This is the third time that Geoff is trying to get this system built. The first two times were complete disasters and left a bad taste in Geoff's mouth.

Quote: “If I dont ask for lots of reports, I'll never know what the hell is happening to my project”

Susan (Female, 38)

Susan is a senior manager at QoS Inc. She spends most of her time soothing the nerves of her customers. ‘Yes, you will have your software on time and on budget,’ she tells them, but she doesn't believe it herself.

Quote: “The developers have gone dark again! What do I tell the customer now?”

Alex (Male, 31)

Alex is the project manager for the LoansNow project. Alex finds himself in a tough position, stuck between an irrational customer and the unpredictable developers.

Quote: “Hey! I just remembered something else that we need to do”

Barbara (Female, 29)

Barbara is a senior developer. She has years of experience developing solutions for a number of clients, right from when she was 15. She thinks that software development will be so much better if there were no customers.

Quote: “Not another change in the requirements!”

Kevin (Male, 30)

Kevin is a senior developer leading the second team in Chicago.

Quote: “Why does the other team always mess up?”

“Susan, I still haven't got my status report.” Geoff's voice thundered through the phone.

“Alex is working on it” I replied. “You'll have them by this evening.”

After the call, I stopped by Alex's cubicle. Alex is the project manager for this project. We call him the Scrummaster.

“How is the report going?” I asked.

“I'm almost done. Why does he want the reports every week? Susan, it's insane! I spend two days of the week preparing this damn report, and I'm not sure that he even understands what is on it.” Clearly, Alex isn't happy.

Both of us know that the time spent preparing the report can be better utilized in actually managing the project, but what are we to do? We are the third company that Geoff has given this project to. The previous two attempts were complete failures. Not only were they over the schedule, but the delivered system was unusable. Geoff had no idea what was going on till the system was delivered. Geoff is under pressure to make sure that the project goes through smoothly this time, and one thing he has learnt the hard way is that he needs visibility into the project.

I take a look at the report. It contains a bulleted list of tasks completed this week. Visibility. It's that ugly word again. I sympathize with Alex. After all, I spend a couple of days every week writing up a report to email to my boss back at headquarters. It's a pain, but they need to know what is happening.

“How is the project going?” I ask.

“Alex!” A voice rang out from the distance. It was Barbara, our technical lead. Barbara looked angry. She quickly walked down to Alex's cubicle.

“Alex, you won't believe it. It's the Chicago team again. Kevin didn't do the multiple edit feature. He thought that we were going to do it. I thought we made it clear in yesterday's call that it was reassigned to Kevin. Alex, this is crazy. We have a release every two weeks, and these mistakes take up valuable time.”

Alex looked at me. I knew what that look meant. Just a couple of releases ago, a vital feature was not implemented because of a misunderstanding between the teams.

“Let me think about this again,” I said and went back to my cubicle. This was a recurring problem and no solution had been found yet. I decided that writing things down might help. I got myself a coffee and headed to the conference room. Fortunately, it was empty. I took a marker and started to write:
  • Communication problems
    • HQ needs to know how the projects are going (once a week)
    • Geoff needs to know what is happening (once a week)
    • Alex needs to keep track of the project (daily)
    • Barbara and Kevin need to synchronize their teams to the current project status (daily)
    • Any changes made by Barbara, Kevin or Alex needs to be propogated to everyone else on both teams (immediately)
Below that I list out our current practices and problems with them:
  • Current practices
    • Weekly status report to Geoff
      • Takes two days a week out of Alex's schedule
    • Weekly status report to HQ
      • Takes a couple of days a week out of my schedule
    • Daily call between the team here and in Chicago
      • Great for status, but details tend to get missed out or misunderstood
    • Excel sheet maintained by Alex
      • Alex seems to be the only one who sees this, the rest of the team hardly open it
      • The situation is even worse in Chicago, they hardly ever open this file
      • Everyone thinks they know what they should be working on, but they don't synchronise with the spreadsheet
    • Chart maintained by Barbara's team
      • It's only visible to the team and anyone else who can physically walk there, which rules out Geoff, HQ and Kevin's team

I think for a while. Then I add another two lines below that
  • Excel sheet is not visible enough
  • Chart is not visible enough

Dang! It's that visibility word again. What a mess. I finish my coffee and look at the whiteboard again. "This is stupid," I think to myself. "Just look at the effort spent in synchronizing everyone and it doesn't even work very well".

I take the digital camera by the side of the whiteboard and take a picture of the board. I email it to my home account. I also take the opportunity to check my mail. There is a mail from Kevin. He is not happy either. He blames our team for the misunderstanding. He suggests that Alex mail out the final task sheet daily after the call. That sounds like overkill. I shut down my computer. It's been a tiring day.

Back home, I take a shower and cook my dinner. Once dinner is over, I take some time to think about the problem again. There is only one project, so why is it so hard to keep everyone in sync? Then it hits me. The DRY principle. The DRY principle is short for Don't Repeat Yourself. It makes sense that if there is only one project, there should be only one authoritative source of information concerning that project. Since everyone needs information about the same project, we can just point to this source and they can get information out of it. Why are we creating lots of different sources and reports and struggling to keep everything consistent?

I take out my notebook and make some notes:
  • Keep project information DRY
    • The information should be accessible online. This is for those who cannot be physically present.
    • The information should cover the needs of the various parties. In this project, that would be Geoff, HQ, Alex, Barbara, Kevin, the two teams and myself.
    • The information should be easy to change. That will make sure everyone uses it.

I am on a roll now. I add few lines below that:
  • As a side bonus, neither Alex nor I would have to prepare reports, leaving us free to concentrate on our work
  • This is great. The tool will free us from doing this kind of silly work and let us concentrate on the things that really matter.

Only one question remains. Is such a tool already available or would we have to roll out our own?

1 comment:

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