Pondering IT Project Management Issues

Lately I was reading another excellent blog post from Peter Thomas where he was discussing different metaphors for IT projects.  As Peter points out, it’s traditional to schedule IT projects is if they were standard real-world construction projects like building a skyscraper.  Peter writes in his blog:

Building tends to follow a waterfall project plan (as do many IT projects). Of course there may be some iterations, even many of them, but the idea is that the project is made up of discrete base-level tasks whose duration can be estimated with a degree of accuracy. Examples of such a task might include writing a functional specification, developing a specific code module, or performing integration testing between two sub-systems. Adding up all the base-level tasks and the rates of the people involved gets you a cost estimate. Working out the dependencies between the base-level tasks gets you an overall duration estimate.

Peter goes on to have some wise thoughts about why this model may not be appropriate for specific types of IT projects, but his description above got me thinking hard about an IT project management issue that I’ve had to grapple with during my career.  The problem is that the kind of planned project work that Peter is discussing above is only one type of work that your IT staff is engaged in.  Outside of the deliverables they’re responsible for in the project schedule, your IT workers also have routine recurring maintenance tasks that they must perform (monitoring logs, shuffling backup media, etc) as well as losing time to unplanned work and outages.  To stretch our construction analogy to its limits, it’s as if you were trying to build a skyscraper with a construction crew that moonlighted as janitors in the neighboring building and were also on-call 24×7 as the local volunteer fire department.  You were expecting the cement for the foundation to get poured on Thursday, but the crew was somewhere else putting out a fire and when they got done with that they had to polish the floors next door, so now your skyscraper project plan is slipping all over the place.

I’ve developed some strategies for dealing with these kinds of issues, but I don’t feel like I’ve discovered the “silver bullet” for creating predictability in my IT project schedules.  Certainly one important factor is driving down the amount of unplanned work in your IT environment.  Constant fire fighting is a recipe for failure in any IT organization, but how to fix this problem is a topic for another day. Another important strategy is to rotate your “on-call” position through the IT group so that only a fraction of your team is engaged in fire fighting activities at any given week.  When a person is on-call, I normally mark their resources as “unavailable” on my project schedule just as if they were out of the office, and then resource leveling allows you to more accurately predict the date for deliverables that they’re responsible for.

Finally, I recognize that IT workers almost never have 100% of their time available to work on IT projects, and I set their project staffing levels accordingly.  I may only be able to schedule 70% of Charlene’s time to project Whiz-Bang, because Charlene is our Backup Diva and loses 30% of her time on average to routine backup maintenance issues and/or being called in to resolve unplanned issues with the backup system.  And notice the qualifier “on average” there– some weeks Charlene may get caught up in dealing with a critical outage with the backup system and not be able to make any progress on her Project Whiz-Bang deliverables.  When weeks like this happen, you hope that Charlene’s deliverables aren’t on the critical path and that she can make up the time later in the project schedule– or you bring in other resources to pick up the slack.

Which brings me to another important piece of strategy I’ve picked up through the years: IT project slippage is inevitable, so you want to catch it as quickly as possible.  The worst thing that can happen is that you get to the milestone date for a multi-week deliverable only to discover that work on this segment of the project hasn’t even commenced.  This means you need to break your IT projects down into small deliverables that can be tracked individually and continuously.  I’m uncomfortable unless the lowest-level detail in my project schedule has durations of a few days or less.  Otherwise your project manager is almost guaranteed to be receiving some nasty surprises much too late to fix the problem.

These are some of the strategies I’ve come up with for managing IT projects, but I still admit to some large amount of trepidation when wrangling large IT efforts.  I’m curious to hear if any of you reading this blog have useful strategies that you’ve developed for managing IT projects in your environment?  Let’s discuss them in the comments!