How can I learn more about project management beyond to-do lists?
March 31, 2008 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm a web app programmer lacking good project/time management skills, and I'm not really in the best environment to pick them up. I'm OK at the lower-level tasks like daily to-do lists, but how can I learn to handle higher-level tasks like estimating time, prioritizing, and planning project life cycles?

I'm a web app programmer with a computer science education. My jobs have mainly been in education and non-profits; it's very fulfilling but they haven't been the best environment for picking up good industry practices.

My current job (small development team, mostly working alone on projects and doing all my own bugfixing/testing) requires a fair amount of independent project management, and I just don't feel that I have the training. I can maintain a daily to-do list and activity log just fine, but I am falling down on things like:
  • Figuring out how much time a project should take
  • Handling existing projects with deadlines AND incoming requests (ranging from "This would be nice" to "This is broken on Production FIX NOW")
  • Prioritizing when reporting to several project clients
  • Project life cycle planning
  • Effective project management tools
I feel like I'm having to research or invent a lot of this on the job, and that's not where I excel at all. I work best if I can learn from a class or if I can pattern myself on a role model (and that last option is not so applicable right now - mostly I work alone on these projects).

I'm not sure where to begin. I'm afraid that I will pick up a book and get completely lost in a world of baffling Gantt charts, workflows better suited for gigantic corporate projects, or outdated/discredited practices.

Are there courses, books, or online resources out there that might help? How can I learn more about practical project management from a macro point of view - the month-spanning project level, not the daily task level? This is actually freaking me out a bit lately - I am swamped with work and requests, and I just don't feel equipped to properly handle it all.
posted by cadge to Work & Money (10 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Fundamentals of Project Management by James Lewis is a decent introduction, cheap ($10), and quick (160 pages).
posted by djb at 9:53 AM on March 31, 2008

If you lack a good mentor, Berkun's The Art of Project Management is an excellent resource that blends theory and practice. It is out of print, so check it out from your local library rather than paying $75 for a used copy on Amazon. It is an incredible resource.
posted by rachelpapers at 9:55 AM on March 31, 2008

Yikes! Who let The Art of Project Management go out of print? Boo to that! Without question, it's the single most important book I've read with regard to my job.

That said, it looks like a new "edition" is out, but under a new title:

Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management

Assuming its a logical expansion of the previous edition, it's exactly what you're looking for.
posted by SpiffyRob at 10:26 AM on March 31, 2008

The truth is no one is good at estimating software project schedules. Ever. All those systems and gimmicks can be a little helpful in organizing stuff, but there's no substitute for good intuition and experience.

One useful trick is to be explicit about time estimates for tasks, then go back when it's done and look at what really happened. With this feedback you'll eventually get better at estimates.

The other useful trick is to never try to make a firm estimate more than two weeks out. Even more than one week is pretty uncertain.
posted by Nelson at 10:27 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the course I took, we used Wysocki's Effective Project Management (among others.) I thought it was a great book. It's thorough and complete, but easy to understand.
posted by sevenless at 10:27 AM on March 31, 2008

Do you track your time? At my company (which sounds like yours in terms of clients and project size) we have to file timesheets against broad categories: spec'ing, building, bug-fixing, etc. Then the programmers who are interested in this kind of thing try to draw trends from the reports.

They also calculate a "burn down" rate by looking at the amount of work remaining in a project vs. the amount of time spent, and constantly updating an "hours remaining" estimate. It's like your average software progress bar, and about as accurate.

(My technique is instead the time-honored "make shit up.")
posted by nev at 12:01 PM on March 31, 2008

One rule of thumb that may or may not be Berkun's is that estimates will slip by the same unit they are specified in. If you say something will take a number of weeks, it will slip in terms of weeks (and not days). Month-based estimates will slip by months, hourly by hours, and so forth. It may be helpful to think of the tasks as you're breaking them down into their subtasks (very important in estimating!) in terms of how you'd like them to slip (say 20 days instead of three weeks, for example). Then you want to practice telling people that tasks are slipping, because this is an integral part of keeping everybody on a project on the same page.
posted by rhizome at 1:27 PM on March 31, 2008

Thanks so much for your suggestions, everyone! This is really helpful and brings me a lot of hope. I think that between all these recommendations and the copy of Time Management for Systems Administrators that I'm making my way through right now, I should be able to get a better handle on things.
posted by cadge at 6:39 AM on April 1, 2008

Running a Web Site? Agile / SCRUM frameworks are likely your best bet.

Ken Schwaber, one of the best in the SCRUM business has a great site full of resources and he provides information in a very straight-forward manner including step-by-step plans on how to implement SCRUM.

If you would prefer to take a course, Agile University aggregates the Agile / SCRUM courses that are available - at least in the US, while Agile Alliance seems to be more internationally focused and are also a wealth of knowledge.

Once you learn the principles, Rally Software (not affiliated with them but know their work) provides a really cool SCRUM tracking tool as well as some great consultants to who could come in and help your organization get their priorities on track and train you along with your team (training management to prioritize is just as important as you getting trained).

And Chris Spagnuolo has been doing this a while and has some great first person experiences with getting a handle on projects using SCRUM and Agile.

That should get you started. A search on Google for "agile" or "SCRUM" will take you further.

Good Luck.
posted by lubricumlinguae at 2:31 PM on April 1, 2008

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