Interview: Email notifications

“I forgot to put in my time.” This happens a lot; Standard Time® sends out email notifications to employees who need to add time to their timesheet.

Yep, happens a lot.

There are other reason to get email notifications from your project timesheet.  You’ll get one when you’re added to a new project, or if you have upcoming tasks, or tasks that are due.

So… your project schedule is now automatically reminding you to pay attention and keep up.  🙂

Actually, that’s not a bad thing.  Think of it as a little extra help… a little reminder… and a way to keep project tasks, and their expeditious completion, at the forefront of your mind.  That’s how projects get finished.

10 Best Teams – My Comments

Below is a short commentary on a fun article I recently read.  (See link below.)  The Online Business Degree put together a list of the best teams ever assembled.  I read through the list and agreed with most.  Some sounded a little contrived, but workable.  Here are my reactions.

I’ll take each team in order:

1. The Dream Team:
Yes, they were the finest basketball team ever assembled, but they were also professionals.  I thought the Olympics was supposed to be amateur.  I vaguely remembered a guy named Jim Thorpe losing his metals because he was accused of accepting gifts.  I’m behind the curve on this; maybe The Olympics has turned pro, and I missed it.  But the Dream Team always seemed odd to me.

2. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as fictional characters.  They weren’t real.  But they sure had some fun adventures, and the recent Hollywood film is pretty good.  Doyle presented them as pretty good team, I must admit.  Still… it’s hard to get behind them as a real team.

3. Rogers and Hammerstein:
Now here’s a great team!  Nothing fake about them.  This was some of the greatest music of the Twentieth Century.

4. SEAL Team Six:
Worthy of our worship (figuratively speaking).  Have you seen how SEAL teams are trained and formed?  Watch the documentary some time…  It’s amazing!!!

5. The Beatles:
Yep, I’d go with them too!  Millions of people around the world still listen to their music.  But “more famous than Jesus”?  I don’t think so.

6. 1985 Chicago Bears:
Don’t know much about sports, so I can’t comment much.  But hey… if they won a Super Bowl they had to be pretty good.

7. The Justice League:
Another fictional team.  Humm…  I’m not convinced fictional teams work for me.  It’s easy to write fiction because the characters don’t actually have to accomplish anything.  You can just write up a bunch of cool scenes and you’re done.  Can I learn anything from fiction?  Yes.  But generally, non-fiction is the most inspiring to me.

8. The Apollo 11 team:
Now here’s a real super hero team!  These guys went to the moon with less computing power then an iPod.  Pretty amazing when you think about it!

9. The Not Ready for Primetime Players:
Wonderful team of comedians!  I’ve always enjoyed them.

10. The Manhattan Project:
Yes!  Another great team of scientists that I can get behind.  Most people don’t know how great these guys actually were, and how they literally saved the world.  But sadly… most people don’t know history.

If I had created the list, I would have dropped the fictional teams.  Sure, they sound great, but it’s debatable how much they actually inspire.  For instance, Sherlock Holmes was a pretty smart character, but most people find it difficult to pattern their lives after a character in a novel.  It’s like trying to be more like Huck Finn or Indiana Jones.  It’s entertaining, but not inspiring.

Lastly, I would have liked to see “The 12 Disciples” listed as a team.  Jesus didn’t pick them for their skills and awesome speaking abilities, but in the end they changed the world.  That kind of power can’t be ignored, and they are men you can comfortably pattern your life after.

Overall… it was a fun article.  It was well thought out, and fun to read.

The Harmonious Project Management Trinity

Regardless of the role you play in company projects, you will likely see three primary personalities in the project management and executive teams.  In other words, if you are involved in engineering a product, or managing the development of a new product or service, holding the executive reins of a company with project management, you will likely see individuals with the following three personality drives.  These three primary issues drive their thinking.

1. The “On Time” Person
The time conscience “On Time” person primarily worries about project schedules.  When will each subsystem be finished?  Each milestone?  Each Phase?  And when will the project ship?  This person studies and observes all the team interaction with dates and times in mind.  Is the project going to be late?  If so, what can we do to fix that?  His first suggestions are to defer features for a later release, cut the scope to something more manageable, and to create a smaller, foundational release that can be improved upon later.  In other words, meet the agreed-upon ship dates at all cost, and defer more advanced things until later.

2. The “On Budget” Person
The cost conscience “On Budget” person thinks much like the On Timer.  He thinks primarily about project costs.  Blow the budget by a dollar, and he freaks out!  And since the biggest cost in most project is human resources and salaries, he’s thinking the same thing as the time conscience person, “get the project done on time so you don’t blow my budget.  And if you don’t think you can get it done on time, cut something so my budget isn’t wrecked.”  Time and budget go closely hand in hand.

3. The “Quality” Person
The quality conscience person primarily thinks about the consequences of releasing a bad product.  What will the marketplace say?  How will customers receive it?  And the Press?  It’s hard to recover from bad press or a mainstream revolt against your product.  You could lose millions of dollars just from a Facebook uprising.  It would be far better to spend an extra month getting right, or an extra $100K, than to suffer a marketplace meltdown.

So you see that these personalities can be in conflict from time to time – not exactly harmonious at all times.  The Quality person doesn’t want to witness a total user-base revolt because of a poor product.  The budget person doesn’t want to sink the company in debt.  And the schedule person doesn’t want customers to walk away all because the product took too long to deliver.

The best hope a company has is to recognize that these personalities can all exist in one project management team.  Recognizing each one for its merits goes a long way.  Sometimes people just want their input valued.  The next step is to work together toward mutually agreeable compromise that includes input from each driving force.  Hopefully, the result is a good quality product that doesn’t ruin the company in debt and unresponsiveness.

There are no big problems; there are just a lot of little problems.

There are no big problems; there are just a lot of little problems.

— Henry Ford

Henry Ford was the genius of the 20th Century assembly line.  He almost singlehandedly designed the Model T and Model A Fords.  Those two cars were the workhorses of the early 1900’s.  So when Henry speaks of “little problems” he’s talking about inventing the entire automobile industry.  But that’s big enough for anyone.

His point, though, is that in engineering you have dozens of little issues to deal with.  And they stay with you indefinitely.  In other words, engineering is a constant fight with little problems that you must work out with patience and perseverance.  If you don’t have the aptitude, don’t get into engineering!

1. One of the biggest problems engineering people have is balancing quality with cost.  Any engineer can tackle the myriad of little problems before them.  But can they do it cost effectively?  In other words, does it take forever to solve them, thus costing a fortune?  Or can they resolve each one rapidly and without expensive solutions.  The balance between polishing your work in a craftsmanship style, and pumping product after product out the door is a big, big problem that requires a lot of thought.

2. The next biggest problem engineers face is collateral damage from engineering fixes.  I.e. bugs.  Here’s an example: Say you are an electrical engineer designing a printed circuit board.  And in your haste to produce a cost effective product, you forget a circuit trace.  The manufacturing department is now forced to hand-wire that trace.  It now costs your company much more in the long run.  That’s a bug that must be retooled.  Things like that happen in every engineering discipline.  It’s definitely the next biggest problem you must face.

3. The final big problem engineers face is time estimates and project schedules.  Engineers do not think like other human beings.  They cannot estimate time with any degree of accuracy.  And they do not like being interrogated about how long their work will take.  You’ll just have to wait until it’s done, they’ll say.  I’m working as fast as I can.  Problem is, big money is riding on their engineering work.  Sometimes the company just can’t wait.  It the engineer that has to hurry up and product the product on the company’s timeline.  And that can lead to big battles.  So this is a fairly big problem facing engineering departments and company executives.

And then after those three, there are just a lot of little problems.  🙂

Epic Fail: Why Projects Go Off the Rails

Are you beginning to think your project may be a total wreck?  Is it way over budget?  And does anybody but you care about that?  Does it bother anybody that there’s no end in sight?  And feature-creep never seems to end?  If so, that’s a sign that your project has gone off the rails, and is doomed for failure.

Chances are you’re not the only one who’s noticed.

A dark cloud of failure sometimes descends upon project from time to time.  I’m not sure if anybody really knows why.  It just happens.  I suppose you could call it a “perfect storm” of incompetence, wrong choices, and apathy.  When those circumstances form up into that dark cloud over your project, forget it!  You’re done!

Epic Fail


This begs the question of whether there should be an assigned person whose responsibility it is to watch for telltale signs of failure.  Such a person should first of all have been involved in a few epic failures so he knows the signs.  Peering into the hazy fog doesn’t do anybody any good.

Here are some signs to look for:

Missing half your milestones
If your project is consistently blowing past half the milestones (evaluation points), then you clearly haven’t identified all the work required.  And if that’s the case, your project may last 2 – 3 times longer than expected.  Is that okay?  Can the budget hold that much water?

Cynical Team Members
Are your project team members gossiping about management?  Has water cooler talk all gone negative?  If so, the team may have lost its moral.  Employees can’t always pinpoint the problems, but they sure can gripe.  If that’s happening a lot, then you project may be in trouble.

No End In Sight
Can team members see the light at the end of the tunnel?  Are you making progress, or just spinning your wheels.  You had better see some progress or you might be in a death march.

The Death March
This is when overtime rises to 60 – 80 hours per week.  You’re working weekends to meet a vague deadline that has no obvious payoff.  And you get the distinct impression that you’re still climbing the hill rather than sledding down the other side.  Project leads say you’re just about finished, but you get the sense that that isn’t true.  Why else would the work keep piling up?

Pulling Out
As we said earlier, the only way to pull out of the situation like this is for a whistleblower to call it.  Do you have one on your team?  If so, chop the product into quarters.  Deliver what little you have done now.  Take a big break.  And then take up the monumental challenge of boiling the ocean.  Maybe your project is just four times bigger than you first imagined.

A Helpful Timesheet Product: Standard Time®
Here’s a link to YouTube video that could help.  This is a timesheet project that may have a few answers, and may impose some order to your project.  It’s worth a look.


Project Management Doesn’t Have to be Hardcore

When most people think of project management, they think of crusty PMI propeller-heads sitting in a back office analyzing complex columns of project metrics and arriving at lofty strategic conclusions.  (Did I pitch that nerdy enough?)  In other words, project management is out of most people’s realm of understanding.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Consider a simpler model, as demonstrated by the videos below.  The stuff I’m seeing here is simple – something any average manager can wrap their brains around.


How to Read a Gantt Chart:

Project Management:

Resource Allocation:


Really, this is pretty simple project management.  From what I see, you’ve got a simple hierarchy of tasks that employees can track time to.  For each task you set up an estimated duration that you think the task will take.  Then you release it to the wild for employees to enter time against.  When they do, it puts the actual work into the task so you can compare it with the estimates.  Pretty simple so far… no propeller beanies required.

Another video showed how you can give each task a starting date that tells when employees should work on the task.  Since you have a duration for each task, and you have a proposed starting date, you can then see how much work has piled up for any given employees.  After all, you are telling how long and when his work should occur.  The video shows a nice graph telling how much work is scheduled for each time period (week, month, or quarter).  It may have a fancy name (resource allocation) but it’s really pretty simple from my perspective.

Why not give these tools a try?  You don’t have to be a propeller-head to set up a few tasks and start tracking time to them.  You don’ t need a degree in project management or sit in a PMO office with all the bean counters.  To me, this looks like project management for the non-project managers.

You don’t have to be hardcore to manage a few tasks.  Give it a try!

Disconnect between Execs and Employees

In a recent CIO Insight survey (see link below), it was observed that executives and employees do not necessarily believe the same things.  They differ on values, communication, and culture.  Read the article below and let me know what you think.

In my opinion, this isn’t anything new.  Company executives have always had a difficult time relating to the common employee.  That’s one reason for the rise of labor unions in blue collar workplaces.  Employees simply do not believe management shares their values or even cares about them.

Actually, as a student of the American Civil War, I’ve read plenty of examples of the wide gap between officers and men in the ranks.  So we know this phenomenon has been going on for a long time.  One story was told of a Confederate private playing cards with his Federal friends until a colonel came along and threatened to take him prisoner.  Clearly, the rank and file held different beliefs about the war in progress.

I believe this belief gap stems from your role in the company.  Executives experience the company in completely different ways than employees.  Their beliefs are shaped by completely different experiences and input.  Of course, the common employees thinks he knows it all, and is usually pretty vocal about his beliefs, but they don’t always have all the information.  Sometimes company issues are just too hard to analyze from an employee perspective.  Executives may also hold similar ivory tower beliefs about their company.  After all, they sit at the top looking down on it all.  Surely they can see clearly from a strategic vantage point.

The fact is, employees and executives should swap places every so often, just to experience a different perspective.  A company I worked for tried this on a limited basis.  Software engineers were required to spend one day per quarter with tech support.  Support engineers were required to spend a day with the programmers.  This forced those employees to see things from a different perspective. 

Rifts are created when employees feel management is not listening to them, or is making bad strategic decisions.  The same is true when executives think employees are just in it for the benefits and money.  Without some mixing of the classes, this is what you get.

But in all my time, I’ve never seen employees running the company for a day, or executives on the assembly line.  Maybe this is not such a bad idea!

When to Re-baseline Your Project

Baselining is the act of recording your original project estimates so you can compare them to actual results at a later time.  It is also the platform from which the project is conducted.  In other words, the baseline contains schedule and cost numbers used by the project team throughout the entire process.  By baselining the project, you are laying the foundation on which the project will rise.  That’s a nice thing to have.  Employees want a good solid plan that doesn’t wander from whim to social whim.  They want a visible goal that isn’t ducking and weaving out of sight every week.  Such a goal offers reassurance and confidence for success.  A moving target is the worst motivation killer known to man.

But sometimes you just need to start over.

Yes, a moving target is a sure killer.  But there are times when the baseline is just crap.  The schedule has become irrelevant, costs are laughable, and the project team is floundering in a sea of mud.  Nothing is going as planned.  Designers are throwing in new requirements that were heretofore unheard of.  Executives are MIA.  And managers have you working 80 hour weeks to hit a target they have no clue of the purpose of.  Nobody’s admitting they’re stupid, but it’s obvious everybody is.  It’s only years later that everyone can look back and shake their heads at the calamity.  But while you’re in the midst of it, you just keep buggering on.

It is those times that executives, or maybe a strong-willed project manager needs to step in and call a hiatus.  But who’s got the guts for that.  Again, you’ve got to be a strong person to blow the whistle and wave your arms.  But if you can recognize the signals, a re-baselining during a mess like this may be your only option.

I was on a two-year software death-march like this.  It was a disaster.  Nobody knew the warning signs.  Nobody blew the whistle.  Nobody re-baselined.  The product failed six months after release, which was at that time a year overdue and marketplace irrelevant.  It was the worst project I was ever on.

Here is a good rule of thumb for knowing when to rebaseline:

Baseline the project if you have missed over half your scheduled targets in the last six months.

Have you missed a few end-to-end tests?  Missed a customer drop or two?  How about a major milestone?  Missed a target feature?  These are the warning signs.  Again, if you have missed over half your targets in the last six months, rebaseline.  Don’t try to figure it out, just baseline the project again.

In fact, in cases like that above I would suggest cutting the scope in half.  Cut the project into smaller phases.  Get the schedule down to visible goals.  And if anybody disputes them, cut them again.  And then again.  You must have realistic goals or you will fail every time.

I Quit!

I’ve decided to quit the software development and project management biz to get into the more lucrative, albeit illegal spam biz.  I could spend a billion spams a day!  If you’ve been following my blog, don’t dispair.  You’ll still hear from me, just in the form of men’s health emails.  (That’s a joke, folks!)

CIO Insight did a short piece on eleven reasons to quit your job.  See the full story here.  It’s so funny!

Do you have a trust fund?  That’s a good reason to quit.  What about if you are making too much money and don’t feel you deserve it.  Well then just quit!  Those are just a few good ones from the survey CIO Insight did.


CIO Insight

Actually, those are great reasons.  In fact, all the items on the list are great – for the employer, that is.  That’s because you don’t want a person like that on your team.  If they’ll quit because they can’t get up in the morning or there’s a must-see sporting event one day, then you can live without that person.  Reasons for quitting tell you a lot about a person.  It’s a window into their true character.

But wait a minute…  You want to know their character before you hire them.  Oh, yeah…

The time to test a person’s character is before you add them to your project team – during the interview and selection process.  That means you must either be a really good judge of character, or use a test to weed out the deadbeats.

During my career, employers have used multiple interviewers.  On “interview day” you go from office to office talking to a half dozen team members.  Those team members report back to the HR department with a score, and anecdotal feelings about your “team player” aptitude.  Of course, prospective employees are on their best behavior during such sessions, so you can’t get any dirt on them.  But if your team members are each good judges of character, you’ll have a good idea what you’re dealing with.

One employer put me in from of an impossible-to-finish test.  They said I had two hours to compete it, and that I should answer as many questions as I could.  Problem is, the test would take any normal person four hours to complete.  So what’s a guy to do?  Rush through it, scribbling down answers as fast ask you can?  Or take it slow and easy, answering only the ones you know you’ll get right?  Clearly this was a trick test to see how a person reacts when given too much work to complete in a given time period.  Will they make a big mess of the job by rushing?  Or are the smooth and level-headed.  A test like this will reveal their true character.

Another idea is to take them out to lunch and gang up on them.  See how they react in different settings.  What comes out of their mouth when they aren’t guarding it so closely?  Ask them to gossip about the worst boss they ever had.  Do they take the bait and spill their guts?  Or do they say all their bosses were saints?  You could ask them to rat out their worse coworker.  Same trick…  Do they partake in vicious gossip about their previous workplace?  If so, it tells you that they’ll do the same at your company.  They may even say similar things about you.  Or they may walk off the job to join a rock band!

YouTube Video: Consulting Software

This YouTube video for consulting software is pretty neat. It covers a lot of ground in five minutes, and is worth taking a look at. Amateur, but neat. The premise starts with a timesheet and closely related time log view where consulting hours are displayed. Of course, the timesheet is a typical Monday thru Friday grid with client projects on the left. Things got cooler with the time log ivew. The time log displays the same records as the time sheet, but in a top-to-bottom view.

Consultants will drool over this. Trust me.

For every time log record (which is also displayed in the timesheet) you get a client field, project, category, start and end times, actual work field, client rate, client cost, billable, and billed columns. There are other columns not shown that can be added to this view. Plus, you can filter that time log view to show only the work you did for a certain client or project, or only the work for a selected consultant. Or only work for a selected date range. That’s slick! You can also filter out the non-billable records and only see what is billable to the client.

But this is only where the app just begins…

The video goes on to show a glimpse of the billing rates window. (Wish it showed more.) It seems that you can set the billing rates for each consultant, and for each project they work on. So every consultant has his own rates for every project. And they only see the project they work on. Nice. But again, the video is brief, so you have to check this out for yourself – it’s just a five minute overview.

If time tracking is not enough, there is a menu item to show project revenue over a 12-month timeframe. This lets you see trends for the coming months and identify bad months that require attention. If only it also showed historical results for the last 12 months… That would be cool, but probably not as useful. Every project has its own win/loss percentage projections so it acts like a sales funnel. But all that’s a side issue that consulting companies get for free. Sure, you’ll use it, but the real stuff is logging billable hours.

The video sticks right to the point: client receivables and consultant utilization rates. That’s is the heart and soul of consulting. Get those wrong and you fail. So those reports let you see where your money is coming from, and what your effective billing rate really is. In other words, how much is your organization is billing for the work it does. Reports like this naturally raise the question, “How to increase your effective billing rate?” Edging out small increases is what consulting is all about. If you spend too much time on non-billable or in-house jobs, you die. If your effective billing rate is too low, you die. If you don’t book gigs, you die. If you don’t invoice billable hours, you die. This program seems to get that.

What is not mentioned in this video is equally valuable: expense tracking, client invoicing and QuickBooks integration. Yes, the product has those things, but the video fails to highlight them. Why? Not enough time, I suppose… I’m not sure. But it’s nice to know that there’s more to this product than the basics that can fit in a 5-minute video. Definitely worth a look.

Check it out: Consulting Software