The Money Files

by
A blog that looks at all aspects of project and program finances from budgets and accounting to getting a pay rise and managing contracts.

About this Blog

RSS

Recent Posts

How To Deliver When Your Project Budget is Cut

5 Differences Between Project Accounting & Financial Accounting

How To Manage A Project Audit

Ask The Expert: Entrepreneurship at Work with Chris Cook

Book Review: Writing Proposals: A Handbook of What Makes Your Project Right for Funding

How Do You Use PM Tools (And How Much Do They Cost You)?

Categories: research, software

A recent survey by GetApp, an online research company, sheds a bit of light on what’s really going on with project management software tools – which regular readers will know is a topic close to my heart.

I found the results interesting and here I’ve picked out a few to comment on. Starting with…

More than half of respondents (57 percent) work at organisations with annual budgets of $2k or more for project management software.

12 percent of respondents said their company had $25k or more to spend on software annually. My thoughts here are that the survey doesn’t correlate this to company size. You’d imagine that the cost of cloud software goes up with the number of users, so knowing the budget without knowing what they get for it in terms of project management population signed up isn’t very helpful.

However, this next point is interesting…

91 percent of project managers are willing to spend more for project management software that includes the missing features they need.

I’ve looked at a lot of tools and I have to say that there are similarities between what project management software does. After all, there are only so many ways to record tasks and mark them as complete. What extra bells and whistles you get for dashboards, resource management and so on are all good, but a Gantt chart is a Gantt chart at the end of the day.

So paying more for software that differentiates itself by having something “extra” – well, for many companies I think that is a hard sell.

However, this survey looks like customers will pay for what’s missing. The things they report as missing from the products they are using currently are:

  • Task management
  • Collaboration
  • Budget management
  • Integrations
  • Idea management
  • Chat tool
  • And some others

No individual feature was reported missing by more than 12 percent of people, so there wasn’t a clear winner – if that’s the right term – for what is lacking in PM software. Rather, it’s a broad range of features that might not be in the tool you happen to be using.

The researchers draw an interesting conclusion from this, and I tend to agree: software hasn’t caught up with what project managers are actually expected to do these days.

It has been a while since the formal project manager was handed a fully-specified requirements document, and spent their days doing project scheduling, monitoring and control. Today we’re expected to handle a wide range of tasks from budgets to change management and everything in between.

And we need the tools that can deliver.

The amount people are prepared to spend on getting the features that matter to them is set out in the chart below. Most people don’t want to go more than 15 percent more and nearly 10 percent wouldn’t pay any more even if they got the extra features.

The challenge for software vendors is that every PM seems to have a slightly different set of requirements for what they need, at least in my experience. Even within my own business we use multiple tools because it’s easier and there isn’t one integrated product that does everything.

I’m used to it now, so I don’t see it as a problem. In itself that’s a problem! You can’t improve or look for efficiencies if you aren’t open to the idea that there might be some somewhere.

I’m not alone in using more than one tool, as the next survey result shows.

Almost three quarters (74 percent) of project managers surveyed use between two and five total tools for project management.

5 percent of survey respondents say they use over 10! I can’t imagine what they would be unless they have included software like Microsoft Word and email in their list. Perhaps they work with clients who use different products and as freelancers or contractors have to use multiple tools by default as every client has their own in-house specification.

Conclusions

This study seems to show that the situation for project managers today is that they don’t seem to be happy with the tools that are out there. With over 90 percent saying they’d pay for missing features and struggling along using multiple tools there sounds like plenty of demand for project management software vendors to step up.

However, I think that’s a sweeping conclusion to come to from this set of data points. I agree with the researchers that unless project managers have the right tools that help them do the job they are paid to do, we risk project failure (or at least not 100 percent success). But in my experience people are happy to talk about the things that aren’t going so great – and without access to the questions it’s hard to see if they were asked if there was nothing they felt was missing.

I’m naturally sceptical about surveys and I do think the data here is interesting. What do you think?

***

The survey was conducted with around 200 project managers in the US who use project management software for their day jobs. They came from a wide spread of industries but with a focus on IT and 49 percent of them had the job title Project Manager, with the others being slightly more junior or senior but still in PM-related roles. You can read the whole survey and see all the results here.

Posted on: January 02, 2017 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Cloud Storage: Cheap and Easy or Just Another PM Headache?

Categories: interviews, software

Do you manage your projects ‘in the cloud’? It’s the buzzword that has stopped being ‘buzz’ and is now a critical part of being able to operate successfully as a project manager – even if you don’t manage software projects.

Growing up in cold and rainy Hamburg, Mauricio Prinzlau had a semi-legitimate excuse for passing his time in front of the computer as a kid. After a degree in Business Communication Management, he joined the Cloudwards.net team as a managing editor and backup expert, where he's in charge of the cloud backup and storage reviews section.

I asked him what project managers need to know about cloud computing, starting with the really, really basic stuff.

Mauricio, what is 'the cloud'?

The cloud is obviously a very trending topic with a variety of definitions. The cloud leverages computing power and makes it available via the Internet so that businesses, organizations, and even individuals can use the cloud to solve business problems, upload photos, or host a website.

What else do people use it for?

Project managers use it for hosted project management collaboration tools but also other, non-project management apps that they are using in their day jobs or deploying to others.

For example, businesses use the cloud to make operations more efficient and leverage the computing power of servers to store and archive files cheaper and more secure. What used to be a complete on-site infrastructure that needed maintenance, security patches, and staff is now outsourced to cloud data centers that are off-site, thus reducing cost and risk for businesses and organizations.

Outside of work, you probably use the cloud on a daily basis without really noticing it. Facebook relies on cloud infrastructure, iCloud uses the cloud to backup people’s photos, Google Now helps us with day-to-day tasks. And there are many more examples we could come up with where the cloud plays a central role in people’s lives now.

So let’s say I need to back up all my project files. How do you choose the right cloud storage solution for your project?

How do you choose the right car? Just kidding, of course, it is very hard to give a general answer. What do you need the cloud for? Do you have a team of 5 people who need to collaborate and share files? Then you need to look at solutions such as Dropbox or Google Drive.

But what if security is a major concern? Then Dropbox and Google Drive are not an option. Project managers need to look at solutions such as Sync.com, who put security at the forefront of their business model.


Think about what your project teams and organization needs regarding features because it’s easy to overpay for a cloud service that you don’t need.

Mauricio Prinzlau


And what about the projects I might be delivering? Outside of file sharing and back up, what sort of things am I going to be hearing my tech architects talk about?

If you need virtual computers in the cloud to do calculations, then you you might hear them talk about Amazon Web Services because they offer great flexibility and scalability of computing power.

There are other options, of course, and what I would say is, there is no one-size-fits-all cloud. You need to compare features carefully, decide on your budget and then make an informed decision.

Can the cloud or online solutions be a cost-effective way to back up files?

In one word: yes. Online and cloud backup are terms used synonymously because there is not a real difference. Cloud (online) backups are one of the cheapest ways for businesses to get files off-site and protect them from disasters (theft, fires, flood etc.).

There are even services such as CrashPlan or Backblaze, who offer unlimited cloud backup, so they put no limit as to the amount of storage you can send.

Sounds great. Surely there are disadvantages we should know about?

There can be risks associated with cloud storage. That’s why I recommend my clients not to rely on one single cloud with all their data. Data loss can happen even to the best companies, so a fallback (ideally with a local backup) is always best.

Security is a concern if a cloud backup or storage company does not encrypt files before they are sent to the cloud (sometimes called end-to-end encryption). Always make sure you choose a service that supports this feature.

If your company has certain limitations as to the location of where the data is hosted then most companies have to be aware that the majority of cloud storage companies are located in the US. This is not ideal for most European businesses.

Yikes. So much of my project data is confidential. Is it safe to put stuff in the cloud?

It is safe if a) you encrypt files yourself before you send them, or b) a cloud storage service offers local encryption (or zero-knowledge privacy). I would personally recommend Sync.com, which is a Canada-based service, they work in the same way Dropbox does, but with zero-knowledge privacy.

I don’t even know what zero-knowledge means!

Oh, sorry! There’s a detailed explanation in this article but it’s too much to cover in this interview today, but it’s a way to store your data so that even the storage company can’t get into it.

OK, I’ll look at that later, thanks. How do you balance accessing work files on your work cloud and your personal stuff in your personal cloud, like Dropbox, for example?

Well, for one you could create two different accounts, one that you use for personal and one for business.

Dropbox and other cloud storage service offer business versions with enhanced privacy and collaborative features. For business collaboration, I tend to use Google Drive because my team and I can work together in real time on documents and spreadsheets, but I do not use the public clouds (Google, Dropbox) for very sensitive files like contracts. That’s where I would personally choose a zero-knowledge cloud.

Can you give me a short answer to what do managers need to know about the private/public cloud overlap and how best to manage it so that employees don't put confidential business records at risk?

That’s one of the major problems larger organizations face: the consumerization of the cloud. Employees use Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive to share business files. That’s why enterprises need to offer their employees a solution that is as easy to use as the public clouds. We have been working with Autotask Workplace as a solid solution for enterprises because it offers the same flexibility and ease-of-use as Dropbox, but without the security holes. Users can synchronize files (personal or business files) and managers can keep an eye on what gets in and out.

It sounds like an industry that is moving a lot. Where is next for cloud storage - what are the trends that you are seeing?

Cloud storage services do not focus on storage anymore, because, well, some argue that there is no money to be made with storage.

We clearly see a development into intelligent solutions for project and document management. Dropbox has hundreds of millions of users, all using their service in different ways, so in a couple of years, I believe we’ll be seeing a lot of artificial intelligence added to it, which helps us organize information automatically based on our specific business.

Thanks, Mauricio. Any final words?

I would say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, especially when using the cloud for backup. But also, think about what your project teams and organization needs regarding features because it’s easy to overpay for a cloud service that you don’t need.

Overall, I’m excited to be close to seeing the developments in this industry and am looking forward to more innovative features and services based on the cloud.

Thanks!

Posted on: August 01, 2016 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Make Interoperability Part of Your Project

Categories: software

With CRM being this month’s focus area, making all your systems interact with each other is a key part of being able to get the data you need to feed your CRM system. Your project, therefore, if it has anything to do with IT, systems or data, probably needs some kind of interoperability approach in order to make it possible to pull relevant bits of information out when they are needed.

Think about it for a moment. If you design and build something that is completely standalone that’s good for a short while. But when you need to create a single view of the truth – a single customer record or report showing various data points – you will have to merge data from that system with data held in other systems. Which one is the master data? Even something simple like a customer informing you of a change of address becomes a problem if the systems aren’t linked.

What is interoperability?

Interoperability is that link between systems. This includes things like programming languages. When you are designing a product, think about the environment in which it will operate, who needs to use it and how it will link to, provide data for or send data to other systems. It’s often easier to think about information or data flow rather than the systems themselves, as these can be mapped on afterwards.

Using common standards and programming languages for system builds can save money and make it easier to find technical team members to work on your projects. Using open source tools, for example, is one way to build interoperability into your systems, but of course this will only work if your other systems use the same protocols.

Why is it important to your project?

No project is really standalone. Including interoperability in your design specifications as a non-functional requirement builds in future proofing. It also simplifies making links with other projects and systems which is especially important if your project is being carried out as part of a programme.

How do you get it?

You can’t design in interoperability yourself, although it doesn’t hurt to know that you need it! Involve your firm’s technical architect or, if you are using commercial off the shelf packages, talk to the supplier. A business analyst can help map processes and explain how the business users will actually use the system, so they can be really helpful when it comes to showing where the data comes from and how individual records are used and updated.

The best advice is to look at the big picture from the start of the project. Consider how things connect and consider what might be asked of the system or the project in the future. Of course, you can’t always predict how your new IT package will be used, but you can have a good guess. And you may find that users are already suggesting technical and functional changes that you are having to put into a bucket called ‘Phase 2’ for assessment and analysis later. These features may give you a good idea about the sort of things users will be asking for in the future so you can build in (or at least not shut any doors) for them.

Interoperability is probably already in your company’s technical strategy, so that’s a good place to start if you are building up your project requirements or including constraints in your project initiation document.

It isn’t the most glamorous of project requirements, but if you want your product – be that CRM or something else – to be useful and to be used, then it is worth considering from the outset.

Posted on: March 05, 2014 05:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How to handle resource costs in Microsoft Project 2013

Categories: resources, software

Microsoft Project 2013 gives you a number of ways for handling resource costs including standard rate, overtime rate, cost per use and another field to let you accrue resources at a cost. Let’s take a look at these and see when you might want to use them.

Standard Rate

If you use resource costs in Microsoft Project at all, this is the cost field that you will find the most useful. It’s, as you would expect, the normal pay rate for someone or something over a time period. For people, Project will default to a per hourly rate but you can use a different unit of time if you want – just change the setting. Or you can work out their hourly rate based on their monthly or weekly rate and enter that if you want to keep everyone standard by calculating hourly rates for all your resources.

Non-people resources are not calculated on an hourly rate. Instead, they are worked out by price per unit. You’ll have to work out what units you want to use. Use the Material Label field to record what unit you have set. For example, if you are hiring a software testing lab at $1500 per day, you can use the Material Label field to record ‘daily lab fees’. Then Project does the calculation for you – quantity multiplied by standard rate.

Cost per use

Only use this if you have certain resources where you only pay each time you use the resource, and it’s a flat fee. An example would be a call out fee for a plumber for your new office conversion. Each time you call on the plumber, Project will calculate the hourly rate plus the call out fee. You can also use this for delivery charges.

Overtime Rate

Another field that does exactly what it says, but it doesn’t apply to non-people resources. Leave it blank unless you pay your team members overtime for hours worked above and beyond their contracted hours. If you do want to use the overtime function, you’ll have to assign overtime hours to the resource, otherwise Project will assume they are either salaried and don’t get any extra payments or that they earn the same amount regardless of how many hours they work.

Of course, you don’t have to use Project to calculate overtime payments for your team, and it can get quite complicated to keep on top of what’s an overtime hour assignment and what’s normal working time. But if you are expecting Project to calculate your total project budget for you, you’ll need to make time to record all this data otherwise your expense figures will be out.

Accrue At

This field is only useful if you are bothered about when the money is spent. On many projects, this won’t make any difference at all, as your project sponsor will only be interested in the overall budget and estimate to complete. But there might be times when you need to know if you’re paying out the money in advance or after the job is done.

You’ve got three choices here:

  1. Start
  2. Pro-rated
  3. End

They are pretty self-explanatory. ‘Start’ means the cost goes at the start of the task, so you’ve paid upfront. ‘Pro-rated’ means it is spread out across the duration of the task. And ‘End’ means you pay when the work is completed.

It’s fine to record this level of detail in your project plan for expense tracking purposes, but you’ll need to know how to read the reports to interpret it! That’s beyond the scope of this article. But hopefully this has given you a flavour of how to use the different resource cost settings in Microsoft Project and you can choose which ones (if any) are useful to you on your project.

Posted on: January 20, 2014 05:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Book review: Microsoft Project 2013: The Missing Manual

Categories: books, scheduling, software

In this book, Bonnie Biafore aims to share the basics of project management and how to achieve what you want to do in Microsoft Project 2013. That’s quite an ask for one book. Part 1 is a primer on project management and I was surprised that there was so much about this including project selection. It’s written as if it is aimed at a complete beginner – at least, the early bits are; the book gets technical pretty quickly – and there are nice boxes called     ‘reality check’ scattered throughout. They tell it how it really is, like this one (which you probably can’t read) titled ‘When Stakeholders Aren’t Supportive’.

 

Chartering the project

As part of the ‘how to do project management’ stuff, Biafore describes a project charter as a press release. This appeals to me as someone who writes press releases and I'd not thought about it like this before. She writes:

The project manager needs some publicity, too. Your authority comes from your project and its sponsor, not your position in the organisation, so people need to know how far your authority goes. The project charter is like a project's press release – it announces the project itself, as well as your responsibilities and authority as its manager.

There’s lots of practical advice like this, including the handy tip of not getting the most senior manager to send out the charter unless they actually know something about the project. You need authority, but you also need credibility, so choose someone who can give that to you, not any old senior manager in a suit.

"Like the pop-fly ball that drops to the ground as the third baseman and shortstop stare at each other, project work can fall between the cracks," she writes, whatever that means.

Getting technical: MS Project 2013

It's not until Part 2 that the book starts talking about MS Project. The biggest news since the product’s last release is that Project is now part of the Office 365 suite and there are easier to digest reports (which frankly wouldn’t be hard). In fact, there's a lot on reports which leads me to believe that getting them to look how you want could be tricky.

The book only covers the Standard and Professional editions, not Project Server. Some of the 365 suite features are covered but that software is evolving and the book is likely to get out of date quickly (and Biafore acknowledges that).

There are usability tips like collapsing the ribbon so you can see more of your plan on the screen and keyboard shortcuts. Biafore uses an example to create a basic project and then goes on to use another example to create a 'proper' schedule in a lot more detail.

She also includes tips on using other Microsoft products alongside Project, such as how to create a RACI matrix in Excel and importing resource names from your Outlook contacts.

The book is full of tips like how to create a resource and assign it to tasks at the same time, which are all aimed at getting you operational faster. I like the idea of downloadable worksheets for things like capital budget planning from the book's website and also links to MS templates online, which this book provides. They make the book more useful (and give it a longer shelf life) and the added resources will help you get your project on track more quickly. Having said that, I haven't downloaded any to try them out.

Check your schedule

There’s a lot about how calendars control resource and task scheduling with plenty of detail and screenshots about how to set up the correct variations of working time for your project.

As well as detailed walkthroughs and how to information, there is also practical advice for making the best possible schedule. For example, Biafore says you should be on the look out for these 8 things as you refine your schedule:

  1. Task dependencies that shouldn’t be there or should be a different type.
  2. Tasks with inflexible date constraints that they shouldn’t have.
  3. Manually scheduled tasks that should instead be auto-scheduled.
  4. Work or duration values that see too low or too high.
  5. Work packages/tasks without assigned resources.
  6. Summary tasks with assigned resources.
  7. Overallocated resources.
  8. Resource calendars that don’t represent people’s actual availability.

You can do some really advanced stuff, like setting work contours within an individual task to reflect how work is actually done – after all, resources don't work at the same pace for the entire duration of a task, especially if it lasts over several days. You could get really whizzy with your resource management using the advice in this book, but many of the features described will be far too much detail for the average project. While it's good to know what Project can do, it would be useful to have some sort of signpost in the book to say 'you can do without this feature if your project environment is not that mature or is relatively straightforward’. This would help new project managers work out which features they should use (like dependencies and baselines) and which ones they can leave and learn about another day (like creating an Excel form to display task information from Project and use it to get task updates from team members).

At over 800 pages the book covers a lot of ground. Much of that is screenshots, which are good and helpful. What surprised me was the breadth of the book, which covers everything from ‘what is a project’ to crunching some serious project calculations using data cubes. I don’t think you could read this knowing nothing about project management and turn into an expert by page 800, but if you need a detailed knowledge of MS Project 2013 then you certainly will get it from this informative and practical book.

Posted on: December 04, 2013 08:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)
ADVERTISEMENTS

Love can sweep you off your feet and carry you along in a way you've never known before. But the ride always ends, and you end up feeling lonely and bitter. Wait. It's not love I'm describing. I'm thinking of a monorail.

- Jack Handey

ADVERTISEMENT

Sponsors