Introduction to Software Engineering/Tools/Project Management
Project management software is a term covering many types of software, including estimation and planning, scheduling, cost control and budget management, resource allocation, collaboration software, communication, quality management and documentation or administration systems, which are used to deal with the complexity of large projects.
Tasks or activities of project management software
One of the most common purposes is to schedule a series of events or tasks and the complexity of the schedule can vary considerably depending on how the tool is used. Some common challenges include:
- Events which depend on one another in different ways or dependencies
- Scheduling people to work on, and resources required by, the various tasks, commonly termed resource scheduling
- Dealing with uncertainties in the estimates of the duration of each task
Project planning software can be expected to provide information to various people or stakeholders, and can be used to measure and justify the level of effort required to complete the project(s). Typical requirements might include:
- Tasks lists for people, and allocation schedules for resources
- Overview information on how long tasks will take to complete
- Early warning of any risks to the project
- Information on workload, for planning holidays
- Historical information on how projects have progressed, and in particular, how actual and planned performance are related
- Optimum utilization of available resource
Approaches to project management software
Project management software can be implemented as a program that runs on the desktop of each user. This typically gives the most responsive and graphically-intense style of interface.
Desktop applications typically store their data in a file, although some have the ability to collaborate with other users (see below), or to store their data in a central database. Even a file-based project plan can be shared between users if it's on a networked drive and only one user accesses it at a time.
Desktop applications can be written to run in a heterogeneous environment of multiple operating systems, although it's unusual.
Project management software can be implemented as a Web application, accessed through an intranet, or an extranet using a web browser.
This has all the usual advantages and disadvantages of web applications:
- Can be accessed from any type of computer without installing software on user's computer
- Ease of access-control
- Naturally multi-user
- Only one software version and installation to maintain
- Centralized data repository
- Typically slower to respond than desktop applications
- Project information not available when the user (or server) is offline (though some solutions allow the user to go offline with a copy of the data)
A personal project management application is one used at home, typically to manage lifestyle or home projects. There is considerable overlap with single user systems, although personal project management software typically involves simpler interfaces. See also non-specialised tools below.
A single-user system is programmed with the assumption that only one person will ever need to edit the project plan at once. This may be used in small companies, or ones where only a few people are involved in top-down project planning. Desktop applications generally fall into this category.
A collaborative system is designed to support multiple users modifying different sections of the plan at once; for example, updating the areas they personally are responsible for such that those estimates get integrated into the overall plan. Web-based tools, including extranets, generally fall into this category, but have the limitation that they can only be used when the user has live Internet access. To address this limitation, some software tools using client–server architecture provide a rich client that runs on users' desktop computer and replicate project and task information to other project team members through a central server when users connect periodically to the network. Some tools allow team members to check out their schedules (and others' as read only) to work on them while not on the network. When reconnecting to the database, all changes are synchronized with the other schedules.
An integrated system combines project management or project planning, with many other aspects of company life. For example, projects can have bug tracking issues assigned to each project, the list of project customers becomes a customer relationship management module, and each person on the project plan has their own task lists, calendars, and messaging functionality associated with their projects.
Similarly, specialised tools like SourceForge integrate project management software with source control (CVS) software and bug-tracking software, so that each piece of information can be integrated into the same system.
While specialised software may be common, and heavily promoted by each vendor, there are a vast range of other software (and non-software) tools used to plan and schedule projects.
- Calendaring software can often handle scheduling as easily as dedicated software
- Spreadsheets are very versatile, and can be used to calculate things not anticipated by the designers.
Criticisms of project management software
The following may apply in general, or to specific products, or to some specific functions within products.
- May not be derived from a sound project management method. For example, displaying the Gantt chart view by default encourages users to focus on timed task scheduling too early, rather than identifying objectives, deliverables and the imposed logical progress of events (dig the trench first to put in the drain pipe).
- May be inconsistent with the type of project management method. For example, traditional (e.g. Waterfall) vs. agile (e.g. Scrum).
- Focuses primarily on the planning phase and does not offer enough functionality for project tracking, control and in particular plan-adjustment. There may be excessive dependency on the first paper print-out of a project plan, which is simply a snapshot at one moment in time. The plan is dynamic; as the project progresses the plan must change to accommodate tasks that are completed early, late, re-sequenced, etc. Good management software should not only facilitate this, but assist with impact assessment and communication of plan changes.
- Does not make a clear distinction between the planning phase and post planning phase, leading to user confusion and frustration when the software does not behave as expected. For example, shortening the duration of a task when an additional human resource is assigned to it while the project is still being planned.
- Offer complicated features to meet the needs of project management or project scheduling professionals, which must be understood in order to effectively use the product. Additional features may be so complicated as to be of no use to anyone. Complex task prioritization and resource leveling algorithms for example can produce results that make no intuitive sense, and overallocation is often more simply resolved manually.
- Some people may achieve better results using simpler technique, (e.g. pen and paper), yet feel pressured into using project management software by company policy (discussion).
- Similar to PowerPoint, project management software might shield the manager from important interpersonal contact.
- New types of software are challenging the traditional definition of Project Management. Frequently, users of project management software are not actually managing a discrete project. For instance, managing the ongoing marketing for an already-released product is not a "project" in the traditional sense of the term; it does not involve management of discrete resources working on something with a discrete beginning/end. Groupware applications now add "project management" features that directly support this type of workflow-oriented project management. Classically-trained Project Managers may argue whether this is "sound project management." However, the end-users of such tools will refer to it as such, and the de-facto definition of the term Project Management may change.
- When there are multiple larger projects, project management software can be very useful. Nevertheless, one should probably not use management software if only a single small project is involved, as management software incurs a larger time-overhead than is worthwhile.