Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Tale of Two....Web Based Project Management Tools

I think I've found my new purpose in life. Forget doing good in the world, raising healthy and happy children, making a positive impact in my community....I've become obsessed with project management tools. Granted I don't exactly have days, weeks and months of extra time to spend sampling all of them, and there are a LOT of them. But, I like that I've been able to work with a few and research many more.

It all started with Microsoft Project, as it probably does for most people. When I began to learn the ropes of project management I learned how to use MS Project to build my gantt chart, dependencies, durations, assign tasks, etc. It was ok for what I was trying to do with it, but I never really loved it. As time went on and I needed more from a project management tool, MS Project was lacking what I needed. I got frustrated when items would randomly gray out and become uneditable, tasks were held to single point durations, updating one task would shift everything else out of control, and worse yet, nobody else on my team could easily view or work with my project file because they didn't have project installed and weren't comfortable working with it anyway. I needed something simpler, something that cut out all the extra unnecessary stuff that I didn't need when I was managing web projects, and something that was highly collaborative.

In walked LiquidPlanner. I won't go into the details of how I started working with LiquidPlanner since I did that in a previous post, but needless to say it quickly met all of my project management needs and with each new feature release, it only gets better! In the process of getting my workplace to adopt LiquidPlanner, I did research on other project management tools (Daptiv, Fogbugz, WebResource, @task, Wrike, 5pmweb) and consistently found that LiquidPlanner was the most practical and feature rich, giving the most bang for the company's buck.

To the point of the post - my research comparing Basecamp to LiquidPlanner. I've been using LiquidPlanner for over a year now and Basecamp for about 6 months. So when I was asked to work on a detailed comparison of the two systems for LiquidPlanner, I had months of personal experience from my own use to go on. The company I've been working at for the last 6 months is pretty married to Basecamp because of the value it adds as a communication and collaboration tool, but I quickly found that it was lacking as a real project management system. Basecamp has no Gantt chart, and from what I hear they have no interest in adding one...ever. Their goal is to keep the tool 'simple', so anyone can use it. I respect that, but then when I need something that will really help me manage projects, Basecamp isn't my solution.

Basecamp will allow you to create a milestone, give it a date and assign it to a resource. But, there is no way to give the milestone a work duration, dependency or specific start date. The Basecamp milestones also will always exist in one big pile in the project, there is no easy way to group milestones together by phase. This might work for very simple projects, but for anything more complicated with many tasks and milestones, Basecamp will get very messy. Also, because there is no work duration attached to Basecamp milestones, there is absolutely no way to see how your project team us over or under-loaded. It is possible to see all of the milestones assigned to each resource, but no way to really tell how many hours of work each resource has and what deadlines are at risk because of overloaded resources.

LiquidPlanner, on the other hand, took all of the smart and useful features from MS Project (and more) and includes them in its task and scheduling system. You create a task, give it a low and high work estimate, give it a 'promise by' date, a 'don't start until' date, attach dependencies, notes and files with a rich text editing system, put it in a project folder/sub folder and task list, and (of course) assign it to someone. Once you hit "Go", LP will then do all the math for you, figuring out if your resource will be able complete this task given all other work already assigned to him/her and flagging the task if it is at risk of not being completed. Tasks can be easily prioritized for your resources with a slick drag and drop interface (hey Basecamp, ever heard of drag & drop?). LP has an excellent Gantt system, using your tasks that have been estimated in ranges (and it's ok to make single point estimates too, buy why would you want to?!) and plotting out probable finish dates for all tasks, project phases, and of course the entire project.

If you had a chance to read my previous post about why I fell in love with LiquidPlanner in the first place, you'll understand why I feel so strongly about making task estimates in ranges. I wasted hours with MS project trying to find a way to do this, with no luck. And of course Basecamp doesn't have this feature. So far I have not found any other project management tool with this important feature, except for LiquidPlanner.

But what about collaboration? Basecamp has a decent collaboration system, all email communication for a project can be passed through and stored on Basecamp. This can be handy I admit, and this is not something that LiquidPlanner offers at the moment. But, the problem with this is that if the email threads are not managed carefully it's very easy for important details to get lost in the clutter of communication. Basecamp does have a search feature but it's pretty basic and lacks filtering and sorting. LiquidPlanner has many different types of collaboration available. Files and links can be posted, detailed notes created (with a beautiful rich text editor), and Twitter-like commenting. All this is available for each task, on any project sub folder, or on the entire project. This will allow the team to more easily attach the important information to the project, rather than loose things in a flood of Basecamp email.

And there's even more great stuff happening. LiquidPlanner just released it's client portal system, making it even more valuable as a collaborating and showcase tool. I might need to do a part 2 of this comparison, but I think it's pretty clear from this post what tool is my favorite.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The story of my (never ending) love affair with LiquidPlanner

Don't worry, this post is appropriate for children...

It all began about a year and a half ago, when I got slammed by the boss for a web project that was about to enter the development phase and was being projected by the programmers to take about double the amount of time that it was originally estimated. I kept my head up and went back to look more closely at the original estimate and what we knew about scope at that time. Well, we knew very little, practically nothing. And, I remembered that the estimate was made months earlier and my client said to me "just give me a rough ballpark, we'll figure the rest out later". So, that's what I did. Well, I won't get into the details of how that drama continued, but what I will say is that the experience led me to start doing my own research on estimates and how to make them more accurate. I was stunned by the experience, by the idea that I was being held to a number that was calculated before any of us had any idea of what the project was really going to be. It was an estimate, a guess... a really rough guess.

My reading and research just backed up my position even more, that estimates made at the very beginning are subject to a high degree of error (anywhere from .25x lower to 4x higher). I got this and much more great information from a book by Steve McConnell, titled "Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art (2006)". I wrote about this idea, and the importance of presenting estimates in ranges on my company's blog. You can find the same post copied here, where I compare the uncertainty of software project tasks with the challenges of herding toddlers around in the morning.

From that point on I was on a crusade to make sure that all estimates my team produced were in ranges. It took a little while to get the programmers into that mode, after the Director of Technology read the same estimation book, he also helped me get the programmers to think of their estimates in terms of best case and worst case. Nobody wants to think that way at first, you always want to think that everything will go smoothly and nothing will be confusing or unclear, but the reality is that things are not always what they seem and we need to allow the extra room to figure things out sometimes.

So, by this point you're probably getting impatient and wondering where the juicy details about the love story with LiquidPlanner starts. It's coming very soon...I promise.

I don't remember the exact order of things, but I know I was pretty frustrated with Microsoft Project. I was a true believer in ranged estimates and I couldn't figure out any good way to get those worked into my MS project schedules. I experimented with new fields and was really unhappy with the lack of flexibility. I wanted to have a tool that showed my schedule in terms of best and worst case so that project stakeholders would have a range to work with and not expect a commitment to an exact date and exact number of hours of work (especially so early on).

Then, that one magical day, I was contacted by Liz Pearce from LiquidPlanner. She had read my blog post about including uncertainty in project estimates and wanted to tell me more about their web based project management tool. It was love at first sight, I was sold pretty quickly just based upon the fact that I could make my task estimates in ranges. Then, as I did more research I saw how LiquidPlanner was going to solve more of my problems. Our office was not using MS Project server so there was no central workspace for project plans, we all worked isolated on our own files and one project manager never knew when the other one needed her resource (yes, all project managers were women at that company at that time...go us!). By having the entire production team on Liquid Planner (for a much lower price than Project Server of course), we could easily see when a resource was overbooked. I also was thrilled to see a project management system that had such great collaboration tools, I was not going to have to rely on saving important emails to folders or logging the information in a shared file, we could all go to LiquidPlanner to see all important discussions and files related to our project. As I researched more about the company, I saw that Steve McConnell was on the advisory board. He is the author of the book I referenced above and many other great software project books that I have read since. One more reason I know LP was for me.

I've been using LiquidPlanner for about a year now, and have never thought of turning back. I recently moved to a new company and have brought LiquidPlanner with me. I've found that the scheduling system has proven an invaluable tool for my resource management challenges in my new workplace. And all this time, I've kept up the relationship with the good people at LiquidPlanner. I like them and believe in their mission so much, that I found myself bragging about their product on project management blogs and twitter posts, LinkedIn and other social media outlets.

After a few months of this, LiquidPlanner and I decided to make it official. I am now a part-time "Social Media Evangelist" (that's the best title I've heard so far, hope I live up to it!) for LiquidPlanner. So....if you see me out there listing off all the advantages to using LiquidPlanner to manage your projects, now you know why. I hope our relationship continues to thrive, and if you haven't checked them out....well, what are you waiting for?!