Planning, Estimating and Managing Government Software Projects

Academic papers in computer science and systems engineering as well as newspaper exposés frequently cite horrific examples of cost overruns on software projects. When I see a headline like, “GAO Highlights DoD Cost Overruns” I shrug and say to myself, “here we go again.” What got me going down this thought path today was a recent headline in our local, “Austin Business Journal” titled State lacks sufficient IT planning.

What followed in the article – sorry the full article requires a subscription – chronicles 48 technology projects undertaken by the State of Texas, of which 32 were late and/or over budget. You can read the report, “2010 Quality Assurance Team Annual Report” in its entirety, if you are so inclined. The article suggests that the blame for recurrent failures falls on the “state employees tasked with planning and budgeting new technology projects.” The implication being that if the state employees managing the projects just knew how to estimate software development cost and schedule, then the projects would successfully complete on time and within budget.

In my opinion, it is not that simple.

Software Cost Estimating Theory
Back in December 2010, I talked about Estimating Project Costs. In theory, a project manager uses customer requirements, resource availability and required milestones to construct a realistic project schedule and budget. In complex projects, components may be estimated separately and then the estimates are combined or rolled-up with integration estimates to produce cost and schedule for the total project. Sophisticated cost estimating tools help project managers construct a cost and schedule using parametric models and lessons learned from previous, similar projects.

Software Cost Estimating Reality
First, let me say that no one wants to know how much it will cost to get a software solution to meet their needs because the number will be too high. Senior management wants a software cost and schedule that allows them to win a competition based on lowest bidder. Government agencies want a solution that fits within the budget that was already proposed and approved before the RFP was announced.

Getting from point A to point B often involves a complex dance using multiple contractors, combinations of off-the-shelf and developed software and workers located anywhere around the world working for small or medium sized companies or as individual contractors. The set of vendors working together comprise the “project team” each of whom was pressured to commit to a cost and schedule that meets the target established by the customer.

 I live in a large state with a state government budget that rivals many countries. To meet budget shortfalls, most states – including mine — have gone to a state run outsourcing model that encourages independent contractors and staffing firms to deliver “lowest cost.” What is happening is that they are not getting the right skill set and there is no synergy or “team” concept in these IT programs. Instead of utilizing two or three firms, who specialize in a particular area, they are putting 10 to 20 independent contractors together and saying – here is the schedule, make it happen.

This situation is a project manager’s nightmare. I hate to say I see the same trend in corporations…. They have stopped using small, expert firms and have gone to a staffing model that brings in independent contractors to work individual positions and tasks. I am only glad I am not in charge of one of those projects! 

I would love to say that I have THE SOLUTION. However, I don’t. I applaud government agencies and companies that accept “Best Value” rather than lowest bid – that is a start. I would like to see professional support for government agencies in creating realistic RFPs for software procurements. In addition, I think that a procurement model that involves selecting a trusted contract manager or contractor and then incrementally creating requirements and development cycles, rather than all or nothing development, has merit. Then I would like to see teams made up of the right professionals – especially Project Managers. We have to start acknowledging that not all people are good at everything and a good team is not a collection of random consultants.

Your thoughts, experiences and suggestions are encouraged.

Career Planning Resources for Project Managers

People often think about where their project management career is going when they hit one of those “X0” birthday milestones (20, 30, 40, 50, and 60). Something about transitioning to the next decade in our life causes us to reflect on where we are and where we are going in the time we have left. David Pells, writing for PM World in August 2007 suggests that there are seven stages in a project management career that may loosely map to those milestone birthdays:

  • Learning
  • Contributing
  • Leading
  • Creating change
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Contributing to the professional
  • Advising and mentoring

His list reflects my thoughts and experience for those who enter and choose to remain in project management throughout their careers. As I mentioned last week, your life’s work has options that can apply your PM skills in creative ways such as teaching, working for non-profit organizations, and becoming an entrepreneur. All of which got me to thinking about resources that can help you reflect and plan your career in more effective ways.

Learn from the best:

  • Join PMI and take advantage of the extraordinary depth of written and presentation resources there. Attend their local and regional conferences. PMI’s credentials are recognized worldwide as a demonstration of commitment and professionalism. At the national and regional PMI sponsored meetings, you can make contacts useful to your career, learn from the best and most seasoned PMs, and perhaps forge some enduring friendships.
  • Review professional classified ads for project and program managers. I suggest this not as the first step in job hunting, but rather as a way to understand the expectations of hiring organizations in terms of skills, experience, and qualifications.
  • To get the 50,000ft view of management (as in project management), read biographies and autobiographies of significant business leaders and mangers. At the twilight of their careers, they often write about what they did, what worked and what did not, and share their insights. One of the more prolific writers is Jack Welsh, previously CEO of General Electric. Marcus Buckingham’s First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently is well-written and informative. Only the Paranoid Survive and High Output Management by Andy Grove are worth reading.
  • At a more practical level for project managers, I recommend Making Things Happen by Scott Berkun previously with Microsoft. And, Leading a Software Development Team: A developer’s guide to successfully leading people & projects by Richard Whitehead offers practical advice in a well-written package.
  • If you are primarily working in the software world, a couple classics that have withstood the test of time are Fred Brooks’, The Mythical Man-Month and Quality Software Management by Gerald Weinberg.

Get some help figuring out what you want to do
If reading about management and studying lessons has opened your mind to possibilities for your career, the next step is to look at yourself. There are several “what do you want to be when you grow up” tests on line. All I can say about this is BEWARE!

Read some books to get you thinking about your career.  What Color Is Your Parachute?  has been the best-selling job-hunting and career planning book in the world for more than three decades, in good times and bad, and it continues to be a fixture on best-seller lists. An interesting article, “Seven Rules about Taking Career Test” provides valid observations and thoughtful recommendations on this subject. Written by Richard Bolles, author of the classic “What Color is Your Parachute”, the summary points of the article are:

  • There is no one test that everyone loves.
  • There is no one test that always gives better results than others.
  • No test should necessarily be assumed to be accurate.
  • You should take several tests, rather than just one.
  • Always let your intuition be your guide.
  • Don’t let tests make you forget that you are absolutely unique on the face of the earth.
  • You are never finished with a test until you’ve done some good hard thinking about yourself.

And one last thought – one of the most useful resources for your career planning, in my experience, is having a coach—someone who has been there and done that. If you can find a coach or mentor interested in working with you as you consider your options and look for ways to make your dreams something more than pixie dust, that coach’s support and counsel is invaluable.  Relationships like this can be the best career guidance you have.  A good book on building relationships is “It’s Not Business, It’s Personal: The 9 Relationship Principles That Power Your Career” by Ronna Lichtenberg.  Many business authors speak from the perspective of their own experience in assessing human relationships. This excellent book expands that perspective to include the observations of many business, artistic, and athletic leaders into a series of nine principles.

I hope this post helps those of you who are looking at 2010 as a time to re-visit your career and make plans to take charge of it.  Please feel free to share thoughts, resources, experience, and advice with other project managers as they navigate the minefield of career planning by leaving a comment here.

Happy New Year 2010!

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