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?!


Vincent Birlouez said...

Nice story here. I have tried LiquidPlanner following a review on TechCrunch and I love the concept of range estimation and the "fussy logic" sort of approach to planning (unlike in traditional methods where a date is a date!).
I have not yet used LiquidPlanner extensively but as soon as I have the opportunity, I will.


Steve said...

Great story, and congrats on getting to tell the story more selling the message of LiquidPlanner! Steve Huson

Dina said...

Thanks Steve & Vincent!
Vincent, I hope you do get the opportunity to use it soon, it's a great tool and very refreshing in the flexibility it can give you.

Sam Barnes said...

Dina, great post as always. I was really hooked into reading the whole post by the story of being attacked by your boss in those circumstances - I think every PM out there can relate to that... (grrrr)

I have had a play with Liquid Planner and so far it looks good. I have to admit I'm a little unsure of the chart / schedule view so far, the projects I work with often have a day or two tasks and this makes the chart look confusing - but, and its a big but, it does flag up when someone is over resourced across multiple projects - THIS is the killer feature Ive been looking for and could only see in MS Project - so I plan to stubbornly press on and play with Liquid!

Thanks for the recommendation Dina!

Dina said...

Thanks Sam, glad you like the post! I feel like I could write many stories about nightmare PM situations (as like you say, many of us could)....but I feel like I should be careful what I write so as to protect the innocent and not point fingers too much at the guilty :)

The Gantt chart can get pretty filled up, so what I've found is helpful is to filter the view by specific projects or task owners, or anything in the "all items" drop-down. There are alot of useful filter criteria in that drop-down.

Joy Cattle Co. said...

Dina, have you used Primavera? I'd be interested in how LiquidPlanner stacks up against it. We use a combination of P6, SAP and Impress to generate most schedules and it is not always pretty.


Dina said...

@hookjoy that's crazy! (well, not to insult your process, but it sounds like alot of work to get the schedule together). Why THREE tools?

Bruce Benson said...


I love tools and because of that I always am suspect when someone is telling me about a tool they love!

To separate out the emotion from the facts ;-), I try to get them to give me some real life examples of where things worked.

So for estimation, what I look for is "we now use this GREAT tool" and then some stats such as "the customer now believes our schedules, because we've been delivering on time!"

Even better is something like, we averaged 6 weeks late, and now we are averaging half a week early!

Anybody have some good examples of where the tool or technique really made a difference?

Don't get me wrong, I strongly believe that most tools, used well, can make a huge difference. We just need more real examples others can learn from.

Bruce Benson