Monitoring Software Project Progress by Money Spent Can Be Misleading

Sound financial practices are a core value of any successful enterprise; and should be.  It may come as a surprise that monitoring money spent against planned expenditures is not the best way to evaluate the progress of software projects.  The reason is simple:  by the time financial measures indicate that a project is off track, it is often too late to take effective corrective actions or identify alternative courses of action.

Here is an example that illustrates this.  Let’s take a hypothetical project plan with these characteristics:

  • Planned project duration of 1 year
  • Full time staff of 6 for the length of the project
  • Billing rate of $100/hour
  • 335 business requirements to complete
  • Project begins at the start of June and is scheduled to complete May 31 of the following year

According to this plan, the project should have a labor cost $1.245 million.  Now, using a software project monitoring tool, SLIM-Control, let’s see what the project looks like at the end of September. 

Software Project Cost

If we only look at money spent, the project is on track since planned and actual expenditures are exactly the same.  However, when we look at the progress of the actual work completed, a different story emerges.  The project got off to a slow start and the gap between what was planned and what has been delivered has increased every month.  Unless this is rectified, the project will last longer and cost more than originally planned.  Here is a forecast of what will happen if the current trend continues.  The project will complete over two months late and cost an additional $215,000.

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Effort SLIM-Control Tracking

10 Tips for Better Software Project Tracking & Oversight

Software Project Tracking


During QSM’s 40 years in business we have often been asked to help with software projects that are out of control and riddled with unrealistic goals and soaring costs. Project managers often ask, "where is the light at the end of the tunnel?" In honor of Larry Putnam, Sr., who started QSM back in 1978, here are 10 tips for better project tracking and oversight.

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SLIM-Control SLIM-Collaborate Tracking

Estimation Is Good. Tracking and Oversight Are Even Better!

Now that the baseline estimate has been created, and stakeholders feel their inputs and concerns have been addressed, we as purveyors of the estimate have done our job.  In the world of IT project measurement, many organizations will deservedly feel accomplished that they have armed their development staff with an empirically based roadmap from which to navigate the next x number of months toward delivering a product.  Now let the construction and testing begin!  But wait, there’s more!

It’s always wise to have a sound estimate, but for added assurance of hitting the budget, schedule, staffing and risk targets, organizations have the option of tracking the project mid-flight. Just as estimating is conflated with planning, tracking can be equally confused with other one-dimensional monitoring of projects underway.  So many things can change from the time an estimate is created to the time the first iterations are built.  It’s likely that our estimate assumptions will change after some time has passed into the construction process, unless we have reacted to inevitable unforeseen forces.  For example, requirement changes, staff turnover, management demanding the project x weeks/months earlier, but still expecting all the original functionality.  These are all very real events that are thrown at the PM after the project is underway.  We at QSM have provided a solution for this since the mid-80’s in SLIM-Control, a module in our SLIM Suite.

Software Project Tracking

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SLIM-Control Estimation

Can We Take the Tracking of Agile Projects to the Next Level?

Before an agile project starts, many product owners will run an early release estimate. Once the activities get started, managers or scrum masters begin to track the progress. When they track, they usually include the person hours of effort and the number of user stories within each sprint.  There are a number of agile tracking tools and methods in the marketplace for these tasks. 

But wouldn’t it be great if the tracking and estimation process could be combined, using the actual tracked effort and user stories to run new and improved ongoing estimates at the release level? At QSM, we have applied this process to hundreds of software projects. This type of adaptive forecasting can help save time and effort by showing when a software release is headed down the wrong path. It can also help organizations avoid signing up to inflated resource planning numbers that cause many companies to waste millions of dollars at the release and enterprise levels.

In the SLIM-Control charts below, we see the blue plans versus the red actuals and the new forecasts in white. We are capturing the total effort spent and the actual work delivered each week, then using that information to generate mathematical models that produce new empirically based forecasts at the release level.

Agile Project Tracking

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Agile SLIM-Control

Can We Increase Project Success by Tracking the Big Picture?

Many of the project managers that I speak with track their software and systems projects at a very detailed level. They use detailed spreadsheets or other tools to track hours and tasks on a daily basis. This is fine, but it's important to manage the big picture so we can avoid assigning detailed tasks to duration and budget goals that are unrealistic.

By "big picture" I mean tracking at the project release level and focusing on a few key actuals: size, duration, effort, reliability, and efficiency. It's important to track these actuals to a reliable plan. These are the measures that can give us the biggest and quickest insight into a project’s potential success or failure. You can see this analysis in the SLIM-Control graphs below, showing the blue plans versus the red actuals.

Software Project Tracking

Once the project is underway and we start tracking the actuals, we can generate new project forecasts based on the actual work delivered, time elapsed, and effort spent. These new forecasts are empirically-based. This will enable us to adapt to change requests, see when the project will finish and how much it will cost. The SLIM-Control graphs below show the blue plans versus the red actuals plus the new forecasts shown in white. SLIM-Control is curve-fitting to the actuals and running empirically-based mathematical models to generate the new forecasts.

Software Project Forecast

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Project Management SLIM-Control

Resource Demand Management - Are the Right People Working on the Right Thing?

I am excited about the resource demand management capabilities in our newest SLIM-Estimate release (8.2). Software project estimates can now provide a breakout of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) staffing requirements by role by month. The staffing profile below shows how different roles, or skills, are required at different points in the schedule, based upon a particular development methodology. You can see that 6 FTE Programmers are needed by the month of May. Producing a high-level, scope-based estimate early in the software development lifecycle with detailed resource demand data helps the PMO and portfolio managers determine the best timing for project resource allocation, and setting project start dates that maximize productivity and reduce bottlenecks.

Software Resource Demand Management

Once the estimate and resulting project skills allocation plan has been approved, resource demand management has not ended. Tracking actual staffing at the skill and task level for in-flight projects not only ensures the right people are working on the right things, meaning that product development is on track, it also allows timely resource plan adjustments to address unforeseen staffing needs.

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.  

Customizing SLIM Suite Workbooks

Although each workbook is set up with default themes, the look and feel of SLIM-Estimate, SLIM-Control, SLIM-Metrics, and SLIM-MasterPlan workbooks are readily customizable.  

Default workbook settings

Screen Background

The easiest way to change the feel of your workbooks is to change the background color and style.  To change the background color, go to Tools|Customize Display|Screen/Printer Fonts, Colors, and Symbols…, then go to the Colors & Symbols tab on the right.

Screen/Printer Fonts, Colors, and Symbols

Color Start and Color End are important if you want to create a gradient background, like the background in the first image.  A gradient background begins with your specified Color Start color then transforms into your Color Stop color either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally (pictured above).  If you choose the Solid color style, simply select your Color Start.

Graph Background

Like the Screen Background, you can have a solid background or a gradient.  Simply follow the steps above for selecting your colors and styles.

Solutions and Reference Data

How Does Uncertainty Expressed in SLIM-Estimate Relate to Control Bounds in SLIM-Control? Part III

In the previous articles in this series I presented SLIM-Estimate’s use of uncertainty ranges for size and productivity to quantify project risk, and how to build an estimate that includes contingency amounts that cover your risk exposure.  In this post I will identify the project work plan reports and charts that help you manage the contingency reserve.  You will see how to use SLIM-Control bounds and default metrics to keep your project on track. 

Understand the project work plan documents.

In our example so far, you have estimated a project to deliver a software product in 11.7 Months, with a budget of $988,223.  This estimate includes an 80% contingency reserve, or risk buffer, on both effort and duration.  Your work plan is based upon SLIM-Estimate’s 50% solution; 11 Months and $755,400.  Thus, the uncertainty about size and productivity are accounted for; it is built into your plan.  The probability that you will meet the project goals is driven by many factors ‒ too many to measure.  You can only manage what is within your control, and escalate issues so they can be resolved in a timely manner.

Managing the project well begins with a solid understanding of the detailed project plan.  SLIM-Estimate provides several default and customizable charts and reports that document the plan.  Here are a few key reports1 to study in order to identify the core metrics you will want to monitor closely.

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SLIM-Control SLIM-Estimate

How does uncertainty expressed in SLIM-Estimate relate to Control Bounds in SLIM-Control? Part II

Several months ago, I presented SLIM-Estimate’s use of uncertainty ranges for size and productivity to quantify project risk.  Estimating these two parameters using low, most likely, and high values predicts the most probable effort and time required to complete the project.  This post shows you how to use SLIM-Estimate’s probability curves to select the estimate solution and associated work plan that includes contingency amounts appropriate to your risk.

Begin with an unconstrained solution

The default solution method used for new estimates, whether you are using the Detailed Method or another solution option, is what we call an unconstrained solution.  Just as it sounds, no limits have been placed on the effort, schedule, or staffing SLIM-Estimate can predict.  It will calculate the resources required to build your product (size) with the capabilities of your team (PI).  Assuming you have configured SLIM-Estimate to model your life cycle and based your inputs on historical data, you have produced a reasonable, defensible estimate.  

Solution Panel

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SLIM-Control SLIM-Estimate