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Accurate Estimates are Important

December 28, 2010 2 comments

Accurate estimates are critical to successful development projects because overestimates and underestimates damage credibility and profitability. Ideally, the estimated cost and actual cost are found to be identical at project completion and optimal, meaning that we didn’t overpay. But what happens if we start with a bad estimate?

Overestimates become self-fulfilling prophecies because work expands to fill the budget. So one impact of an overestimate is a linear increase in cost. For every estimated unit over the optimal cost, we pay one additional unit in actual cost. Another possible outcome is that the project never gets funded or someone else gets the work because the estimate doesn’t provide the needed ROI. Even if a bloated project is funded, the downstream impact is bad because sloppy work habits become ingrained in the workforce leading to systemically poor productivity.

Underestimates are even worse than overestimates, because the impact is non-linear. Once it’s clear that the budget is broken the team is pushed into overdrive to meet the unrealistic goal, causing turnover and exacerbating the problem. If the estimate is bad enough the project is replanned, either by descoping or pushing the schedule. When that happens there is often a leadership change, which impacts the schedule as well. Changes to leadership, plan and personnel are multiplicative and cause cost to escalate rapidly. In the worst cases, the project is canceled completely.

The Standish Group is a respected industry analysis and research firm that regularly publishes a study, fittingly named CHAOS, documenting project failure rates (among other things). Since the inaugural study in 1994, project failure rates have dropped from 31% to 24%. That’s improvement, but still dismal. Inaccurate estimates are a key reason that projects fail – though certainly not the only one. I’ll be writing more on this subject going forward, including approaches that I’ve seen work.

An Inspiring Story about an Extraordinary Team and Culture

December 22, 2010 2 comments

We all aspire to work with great teams and I’ve had some amazing experiences in that regard. Several years ago I had the good fortune to manage a development team in Sweden. That team did many great things, but this story only involves them culturally. In fact, the best way to describe that team is to say that they’d get more satisfaction reading about the exploits of their countrymen than they would reading about themselves.

Let’s start by setting the stage. Our team was located in Skellefteå, a town of 35,000 in northern Sweden. And, when I say northern Sweden, think arctic circle, reindeer, midnight sun, connecting flights, prop-jets, etc…

Skellefteå has a small, efficient airport and travelers typically use the bus when getting to and fro. This is quite convenient because, in Skellefteå, the bus schedule isn’t independent, it’s built around the actual arrival and departure of planes. And, as I sat across the city square from my hotel drinking a beer with a colleague, I fully intended to begin my journey home with that bus.

So it was a bit concerning when I noticed a bus pulling away from my hotel after returning from the bar with another beverage. Was that my bus? Surely not I thought confidently as we drank our beers. After all, I was a seasoned traveler who knew the plane schedule well. Thirty minutes later, I meandered across the square and asked the hotel receptionist when my bus would arrive, so I could fly to Stockholm.

Sir! She said with alarm, your bus left 35 minutes ago! I was lost in thought, because that meant I would be spending the night and missing a host of other commitments. She was not lost in thought; she was rapidly speaking Swedish into the phone. Before my thoughts were complete, a car screeched to a halt outside reception and a very concerned driver bolted through the doors. He grabbed my 40 pound bag, threw it over his shoulder, ran to the car and threw it into the trunk, with me in tow and all the while imploring me to hurry. Obviously, she’d called me a car and, oops, I hadn’t settled the bill.

Once in the car we traveled the one lane roads at breakneck speed, which was odd, because the Swedes are notoriously law abiding. When not calmly speaking Swedish into his cell phone, my driver asked me a few particulars, like where I was going. And, when we arrived at the airport, he again grabbed my 40 pound bag, threw it over his shoulder and ran – this time into the terminal – where he threw it onto a moving conveyor belt.

Behind the desk, a smartly dressed luggage handler wrapped an already printed destination tag around my luggage handle as it disappeared up the belt, just as the clerk handed me an already printed boarding pass (how did that happen?) and briskly walked me to a waiting security checkpoint were I provided my fingerprint and breezed through. Finally, I was escorted by a flight attendant out to the tarmac, up the steps and onto the plane where the doors closed immediately behind me and we departed – on time. Ten minutes later we were airborne and, freshly provisioned with another beer, I reflected on the evening’s events.

The hotel, cab, airline and security personnel all worked for different companies. They all had jobs to do and rules to follow. But the chain of events that got me to Stockholm required that each of them modify their normal routine and coordinate across traditional boundaries in order to provide me with an extraordinary experience. The story ends when I next visited Sweden and described my experience to a cab driver who, with obvious pride, told me that travelers rarely missed flights in Skellefteå. Indeed.

Like our team, this driver was raised on the Scandinavian Jante Law, which downplays individual achievements and focuses on the group. I use this story occasionally because even though it celebrates the achievements of a small town in Sweden, it’s a global story. We all want to be part of a team that operates like that. We all want to do a great job and provide a great result. When leaders are at their best, they tap into that desire. You can’t extract performance like that, it needs to be given.

We Won’t Be Saying Goodbye to MS Office Anytime Soon

December 21, 2010 1 comment

I believe Rich Internet Applications (RIA) will eclipse and replace the desktop productivity applications we currently use, but we won’t be saying goodbye to MS Office anytime soon, and here’s why. In my previous post, I rebuilt a 512MB XP desktop. Now I had a working system and wanted to get some work done. This PC came with a trial version of Office and a full version of Works. So why am I using OpenOffice rather than GoogleDocs, MS Office or MS Works?

I’ve used the MS Office suite at work for over 15 years and frequently used it at home too because the corporate license included home usage for employees. However, corporate licenses are less liberal these days and product licensing is now enforced rigidly. In addition, the Office products use a lot of memory. Cost and memory made Office a non-starter for me on this machine.

I tried MS Works, but found that the feature set is not sufficient and the workflow seems designed to make substituting Works for Office impractical. If you want to exchange documents with the world you need Office formats and Works doesn’t easily store into Office format – the workflow is closer to import/export. I was surprised by the number of small compatibility issues. Documents created in Works often appear slightly different when opened in the corresponding Office product.

Google Docs is free to anyone with a gmail account and I reasoned it wouldn’t use lots of memory, being web-based. I didn’t expect gdocs to be feature rich or mature and wasn’t disappointed. It’s an interesting project but not yet ready for professional use. I had meaningful problems with memory consumption and reliability. Gdocs is a Rich Internet Application (RIA) and the browser sucks up memory as a result. When I left the application idle for long periods it became unstable and lost data. I also looked at Microsoft’s Office Live, a similar offering that felt less evolved and suffered from unusable performance. Overall, I’m intrigued by the possibilities, but my experience didn’t provide a compelling reason to manage documents in the cloud, though I believe that will happen. There’s a lot of basic product work remaining with this platform, but it’s pretty mechanical stuff – the answers are known. Once that’s resolved there will be a lot of invention required to make managing documents in the cloud compelling for end users and workable in a corporate environment.

I experimented with OpenOffice.org (OOo) previously and expected good things from this free Office alternative, based on that trajectory. Gotta say I was a little disappointed. OOo now sports a rich feature set, but the rate of progress has clearly slowed. Perhaps that’s due to Oracle acquiring Sun? Actually, I believe interest is drying up because developers expect RIA offerings to eclipse conventional desktop apps in the future. Despite that, I’ve chosen to use OOo because it’s complete, stable, has reasonable performance and easily manages Office compatible formats. There are some formatting irregularities and it lacks the finish that Microsoft has honed through years of user testing in the Office suite. Microsoft Office does a great job anticipating what you meant to do and what you will want to do next. The difference is really noticeable. Takeaways:

  1. I believe office productivity tools are headed to the cloud as RIA’s. Google Docs demonstrates that RIA is still pretty green, but that’s solvable. A tougher challenge (and bigger opportunity) is making office productivity tools more compelling as connected services than they are as desktop apps for both home and corporate users. When the platform matures and MS Office meets Facebook there’s going to be a revolution.
  2. I believe OOo is declining in relevance – why invest energy in defeating the past when you can build for the future instead? Without the threat of a free alternative, Microsoft may resort to predatory practices.
  3. Evaluating alternatives demonstrates just how good the Office products are. I don’t believe anyone can compete with Office as a pure desktop application. However, the Office team should take a lesson from the Windows team (previous post) in turn around. If Microsoft focuses on protecting the Office franchise they will be unlikely to win customers in the cloud. Office Live feels like it’s headed in the correct direction.

Microsoft has Improved Windows Reliability and Security

December 15, 2010 1 comment

Yes, it’s a journey, but I believe Microsoft is delivering on the promise of reliable and secure operating systems, and here’s why. I recently pulled a 512MB Compaq PC running XP out of the closet and put it to back to use. I purchased this unit ~5 years ago for the family and it served us well. But since then we’ve added a laptop, a Mac Book and a Mac Mini, meaning I could now have my own PC. Of course it wouldn’t be easy. The frugal, stubborn nature that prevents the obvious solution (spending a few hundred dollars on a new PC), also precludes spending any meaningful sum to upgrade the unit. So my goal was to create a workable, professional PC with an important constraint – don’t spend money. Anyhow, here’s a brief synopsis of the experience and some observations.

I needed to clean the beast up. The OS was pretty old and the family had added a few things I wouldn’t be needing, like malware, music sharing services and the like. The most malicious thing? A well known security product (Norton) that was so conspicuous and resource consuming it made the unit unusable. The constant pop-up reminders to upgrade my Norton subscription were really aggravating, so that went first. I’ve battled this product before and once needed the “Jaws of Life” to dislodge Norton’s grip. Thankfully, uninstall was sufficient this time. Then I went through the tedious process of patching the OS up to current standards (SP3). While it was time consuming, I must say that our friends in Redmond have figured out how to make patching work with Windows Update. As part of that process, I added Microsoft Security Essentials, which is a free, serviceable replacement for Norton. Takeaways:

  1. Microsoft & Symantec/Norton have reversed positions. Microsoft feels responsible for the security of home computers and they’re acting on it. Windows Update works well and Microsoft Security Essentials gets the job done without being intrusive. Symantec/Norton, on the other hand, has lost its way – at least with consumer products. The old Norton was pure genius. In contrast, Symantec offers the “Norton Removal Tool”, which promises to remove their software from your system.
  2. I’m not an expert on anti-virus, but wouldn’t recommend buying one or continuing a subscription. Corporations need broad, deep, deployable antivirus solutions but Microsoft has eliminated the need for 3rd party solutions in the home market. I removed Norton before patching the OS because that process was long enough without getting an overactive security product involved.
Categories: Microsoft Windows
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