Taylor Putnam's blog

Taylor Putnam's blog

Cut the 'Madness' Out of Software Estimation

The time has come, once again for QSM’s annual March Madness tournament.  As we enter our 6th year of friendly office competition, I looked back at some of my previous strategies to help me figure out how I wanted to go about completing my bracket this year.  In doing this, I realized that many of these concepts can be applied towards IT project management.

Three years ago, I built my bracket around an emotional desire for my preferred team to win.  I paid very little attention to their previous performance that season, or any of the other teams for that matter.  Needless to say, I did not do as well as I had hoped that year.  Unfortunately, this strategy is applied fairly frequently in software estimation, with stakeholders committing their teams to unreasonable schedules and budgets for projects that are “too big to fail.”  Committing to a plan based off of the desired outcome does not produce a good estimate, and often results in cost overruns and schedule delays (or in my case, quite a bit of ridicule from the Commish).

Blog Post Categories 
Data Estimation Risk Management

Managing Project Risk through Early Defect Detection

Managing Software Project RiskWith the most recent spurt of inclement weather, there is really no denying that winter is here.  After awaking to about 4 inches of snow accumulation, I begrudgingly bundled myself up in my warmest winter gear and proceeded to dig out my car.  Perhaps the brisk air woke me up faster than usual because as I dug a path to the car, I began to think about software testing, specifically how effective early testing can reduce the chances of schedule slippages and cost overruns.  Allow me to explain.

Being an eternal optimist, I was grateful that the snow I was shoveling and later brushing off my car was light and powdery.  Despite the frigid temperature and large quantity of snow, I realized that it was good that I had decided to complete this task first thing in the morning.  At the time the snow was relatively easy to clear, and had I waited until the afternoon, the sun would have melted enough of the snow to make this task significantly more difficult and time consuming.

Data-Less Decision Making

I rather enjoyed the Google Analytics April Fools prank earlier this month, Welcome to Data-Less Decision Making on Analytics Academy.  Though satirical, this video brings to light an important reason why individuals have such trouble making decisions in a business environment: they don’t have data.

I’ll agree that without data it’s really appealing to turn to the coin flip method and be done with it.  After all, 50/50 odds really aren’t terrible, right?  But project management software such as SLIM-Estimate make empirically-based business decisions possible, even when company data isn’t immediately available.

Leveraging our database that contains over 10,000 projects, QSM has developed and regularly updates 17 distinct industry trends.  When creating an estimate or benchmarking a past performance, simply select the QSM industry trend that most closely reflects the type of system being built.  This will serve as a reference point.

If historical data is available but you’re unsure of which metrics to collect, SLIM-SmartSheets is a new downloadable feature in SLIM version 8.2 that mimics the look and feel of SLIM-DataManager and allows users to collect project data, even when they’re not on a network computer.  Each project can then be pulled into one SLIM-DataManager file using the API.  


The Cinderella Stories of Software Development

After enduring the longest winter I can remember, I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of spring, and what better way to do that than to participate in QSM’s annual March Madness Tournament?  For those of you not familiar with our March Madness pool, it’s kind of a big deal.  The top finisher receives a portion of the winnings as well as bragging rights for the following year, and in the process gains immunity from being subject to ridicule by our Commish.  This year the steaks are especially high, as Warren Buffet has offered $1 billion to the person who can guess the perfect bracket.

I will admit that while my standings in last year’s tournament were not as high as I had hoped, I am determined to turn that around this year.  I’ve abandoned my mascot battle strategy and instead will be implementing some techniques used by some of the best software estimators in the field.  I will be using history to determine my picks 

Taylor's Bracket

Instead of spending a lot of time laboriously filling in each line, I had Yahoo Sports auto-fill my bracket based on the teams’ historical standings this season.  To come up with my final score, I averaged the scores of the previous 10 national championship games.  It pains me to predict that some of my favorite teams will be eliminated in the second and third rounds in this bracket, but in the interest of becoming a self-made billionaire I cannot afford to make any emotionally-driven decisions that ignore the stats. 

Blog Post Categories 
Project Management

When Bad News Isn't So Bad

I think it’s safe to say that nobody really enjoys hearing bad news.  It’s especially hard if you’re the person who has to deliver the bad news, particularly to a superior.  How will your boss react?  Will you be the one held responsible (unfairly) for the project failure?  These are all reasons for keeping the ‘bad news’ to yourself and letting those in charge find out on their own.  

I’ll share a story about one of the first jobs I ever held, as an assistant manager at a summer swimming pool.  My supervisor had a very hands-off approach to management and would often rely on me and the other assistant managers to handle the day-to-day operations of the pool.  Whenever I would deliver less-than-favorable news to him, such as our pool vacuum breaking, or a health inspector dropping by to schedule a visit, my supervisor would literally stick his fingers in his ears and say “La la la la la, I can’t hear you.  Taylor, you know how I feel about bad news.  Fix the problem.”  This put me in a very awkward situation, because as a high school student, I didn’t necessarily have the training or the authority to fix every problem myself, in order to shield him from the ‘bad news.’  

Unfortunately, this type of management exists beyond the pool house and can frequently be found in the corporate world as well.  In an environment where your reputation can mean everything, stakeholders can be very reluctant to receive bad news about the status of their project.  The silver lining in this is that receiving ‘bad news’ isn’t necessarily always a bad thing.  Allow me to explain.

Blog Post Categories 
Estimation Schedule Project Management

A Year in Review

As 2013 begins to wind down and everyone begins making plans for 2014, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on all the projects we’ve worked on this year.  Despite our relatively small company size, we’ve managed to accomplish quite a bit over the last year.  Below, I’ll recap everything we’ve been up to and also highlight some of our great resources and publications in case you missed them earlier:

How to Customize SLIM Charts to Make Them Presentation-Ready

Think of a time when you gave a presentation that did not go well.  Was the actual content of your presentation subpar, or was it that something lacked in the delivery?  More likely than not, your answer was the latter (after all, why would you present something if it wasn’t worthwhile?). 

When putting together a presentation, I’ve found that the overall aesthetics can drastically impact how your message is received.  Seemingly small things, such as displaying a graph that uses clashing colors or an undesirable font can sometimes overshadow the content you are trying to deliver.

In her recent blog post titled Customizing SLIM-Suite Workbooks, Katie Costantini discussed how the default workbooks in SLIM-Estimate, SLIM-Metrics, SLIM-MasterPlan, and SLIM-Control can be customized.

I applied the techniques outlined in her post to one of the Sample Files to give my presentation slides a more modern look and feel.  Below is a ‘Before and After’ view of a sample SLIM-Metrics Workbook View. 



Blog Post Categories 
Tips & Tricks

How to Use Big Data to Improve Your Software Projects

In the recent Washington Post article How the Obama Campaign Won the Race for Voter Data, Joel Kowsky writes about how the 2012 Obama campaign used analytics to improve their campaign strategy, and to ultimately secure the presidential victory.  

Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, it’s hard to argue that Barack Obama’s campaign strategy was anything short of impressive.  As soon as Obama took office in 2009, his team began preparing for his 2012 campaign.  From the start there was a strong emphasis on measuring the campaign’s progress.  Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, stated 

“There’s always been two campaigns since the Internet was invented, the campaign online and the campaign on the doors.  What I wanted was, I didn’t care where you organized, what time you organized, how you organized, as long as I could track it, I can measure it, and I can encourage you to do more of it.”

The team began by conducting a postmortem study on their 2008 campaign where they analyzed the number of homes visited, phone calls placed, and voters registered by each field organizer and volunteer.  The result was a 500 page report which highlighted areas of improvement for the 2012 campaign.  

The suggestions led the Obama campaign to invest in building customized software that would integrate all the data the campaign had collected on voters, donors, and volunteers and link to individual voter profile.  This software analyzed previously collected data to calculate the likelihood of candidate support, the likelihood of election day turnout, and the degree of persuasion for each voter.  

When You Plan Your Projects Impacts the Bottom Line

In my previous blog post, I discussed the similarities between software and home improvement projects, and how the planning process greatly impacts the project lifecycle.  Better planning in and of itself is a great way to streamline the Construct & Test Phase of development.  However, when you plan is equally important to the development process.

While watching home improvement shows, like Discovery Home’s "Flip That House," one of the primary concerns of the project manager is often how quickly the team can get started so that they can meet their target deadline.  One cringe-worthy line that I distinctly remember was “as long as we have activity, we have productivity.”  Unfortunately, activity and productivity do not necessarily go hand in hand.  

For instance, in software development a project manager may tell a developer at the beginning of a project to start building a system.  If the requirements have not yet been determined, it’s challenging for the developer to build anything.  Yes, it’s possible for the developer to start building something while the project manager decides what should actually be built.  However, once the requirements are finalized it’s very likely that the developer will have to go back and rework the code so that the system will have the desired functionality.  

Blog Post Categories 
Benchmarking Process Improvement

How to Improve Your Software Project at the Foundation

Now that it’s officially summer I’ve been feeling the pressure to do some of the home improvement projects that I’ve been putting off since winter.  I figured watching one of those cable shows about flipping houses would inspire me to get started.  But instead, I started thinking about all the parallels between the show and software projects.

In our training classes, we often make the analogy that software projects are like construction projects.  When you start a project, you need to determine its scope.  That would include how big it is and how much functionality it will have.  You need to determine what resources are available to you.  This includes what tools you have to build your project, the number of people available, their skill levels, and your budget.  You also need to determine how much time you have to complete this project and the level of quality you’re willing to accept.

This particular episode began as most home improvement shows do.  A team of overly ambitious stakeholders with limited construction knowledge decide that they are going to flip a house because it’s all the rage this year.  They do some calculations based on the costs of acquiring, renovating, and maintaining the property, which determines that the house needs to sell in 60 days or else they will lose money.  Already, we’re looking at a high risk project.  

They hire a team of carpenters and contractors to start the work, but during the initial survey of the property they discover that the scope of the project is not possible given the allotted schedule or budget.  The team then engages in a series of spirited discussions about which features they can cut without compromising the overall quality of the house.  The remainder of the episode is then spent watching the team rush to finish the project on time.  

Blog Post Categories 
Process Improvement Project Management