Going Agile

It has a very tough and busy year so far. I started studying Agile (specifically Scrum) as a possible methodology for us to transition to last fall. I had participated in a couple of Agile projects as a contributor and thought it showed promise. I tried reading half a dozen different books and my head was swimming trying to wrap my head around the concepts. Then I stumbled across The Elements of Scrum while on Thanksgiving vacation. That book changed everything. After reading it, all the other books made sense. The direction I needed to go was suddenly clear.

After returning from vacation, I ramped up my stealth experimental implementation with one particular project team and the results were very promising. I had planned to submit a proposal to the company in the late spring outlining how and why we should transition to an Agile team based shop. Well, like most plans it did not go quite as I expected. Instead I was asked to submit the proposal several weeks before I was planning on even starting it. Instead of having days to put it together, I had hours. Then when it was accepted with lightening speed I was expected to come up with a transition and training plan. All this while working towards a very tight deadline on a complicated project and studying for the PMI-ACP exam (which I’ll be taking later this month). Clearly I must be wicked because I’m getting no rest.

We built our first release today. While it is not perfect, it is beautiful. It is evident that there were five minds collaborating on how it should work rather than just one or two. I am actively looking forward to presenting it to the client on Monday and getting their feedback. My personal mission statement as a project manager the last few years has been to find the simplest solutions for making our clients jobs easier. I think this project accomplishes just that.

Watching the team progress through the forming and storming stages was amusing at times and heartwarming at others. We compounded our transitional process by added new programming languages to the mix, but it was past time to upgrade and it had to be done. We finally hit the performing stage this week and I’m starting to worry about having enough of the upcoming backlog groomed to keep up with the team.

The biggest change so far is the improvement of moral. Not just the moral of my team members and myself, but the moral of the rest of production. One R&D team has made the transition and really seems to love it. The other developers who have not transitioned yet keep stopping me to ask questions and are clearly excited about it. It has breathed new life and hope into our little part of the coding world. One of my team members mentioned that he had not seen the movie office space. I told him he should wait until he has a bad day at work then go home and watch it. His reply was that he no longer has bad days at work. That made me smile.

The transition is not easy. We’re still working on getting estimates down and figuring out what our velocity is. I don’t think we are doing proper unit testing yet, but it has been discussed as something we want to do more of. We’re having to learn and implement the agile tools and processes incrementally, but that’s what Agile is all about, continual improvement. I really think the pain of the transition will be worth it.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP, CSSGB


Don’t answer that – It’s Jamaica Calling

“Don’t answer that – it’s Jamaica Calling”. This is a phrase I hear very often when visiting Granny. She is 89 years old and has been plagued with calls from Jamaican area codes throughout the evenings and in the middle of the night for the past several years. It is so bad that she takes her phone off the hook when she goes to bed at night. Recently she switched phone numbers. The new one is unlisted and is on the do not call registry. Within a month, the calls from Jamaica resumed.

Late in the day on Christmas Eve I decided to answer the call coming in from Jamaica anyway. I happily babbled nonsense to the person on the other end and changing the direction of the conversation repeatedly. The guy on the other end was very busy trying to convince me that he was my agent. Phrases like “don’t you remember – you are supposed to wire money to me?” was said to me many times.

It is clear to me that some organization, newsletter, or group that Granny is signed up for that she believes legitimately needs her phone number has sold her information to “Jamaica” along with the fact that she is elderly. They call late in the evening and into the night hoping to catch someone sundowning. They try to convince their targets that they have already agreed to something. They hope that the elderly person on the other end will be too embarrassed about not remembering that they will follow their instructions.

In the IT field we are often working with client data. If it is patient data it is protected by HIPPA. If it is covered by FERPA. But don’t forget that if it is not either of those, it should still be protected by the project manager and by company policy. Only those directly working on the implementation of the project should access the client data.

Several times over the years I have been asked by someone higher up in my organization for the client data from a project. Even though they are higher up, I never just hand that data over. I ask the requester what they need the data for so that I can clear it with the client. Usually they are not after the client data itself but after some other measurement for which I can happily provide. If they are after the client data itself, I always clear it with the client if it is not directly involved with the implementation of the project.

I doubt that “Jamaica” got Granny’s number because a project manager was not diligent enough but it is a good reminder to us that not everyone is as ethical as we are. The client has entrusted us with our data. It is our ethical responsibility to guard that data.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP

Just buy the team pizza

I have heard this way too many times. Just ask the team to work overtime and buy them pizza. I am sorry but pizza does not fulfill the moral obligations of those in charge when they ask or demand that their team work overtime to meet a deadline.

Several years ago my manager was training me for her position. The point she stressed most was that the production crew was my team. As my team I had to look out for them, defend them, and ultimately protect them. Praise in public, criticize in private was a main topic. But she went beyond that. If there was a problem, I was to address it as soon as possible so that it could be fixed, not tattle to those I report to. Throwing people under the bus was a severe no no. I’ll be honest that one training session completely changed the way I looked at the role of leaders. I really think that is the right way to lead.

So, what do you as a PM do when you are behind on a deadline and asking the team to work overtime is off the table? Well, I have been researching that and I really think that in IT that the Agile software methodology is the way to go. Develop iteratively. Deliver often. Keep the customer or stakeholders engaged and get their constant feedback.

Most importantly Agile stresses that you should work at a sustainable pace. You can still make deadlines by cutting features that are lower priority to the stakeholders and keep both your team and your stakeholders happy. Besides that, software is not static. It is supposed to be organic and grow to meet new needs and technological advances. You can add those lower priority features in as an update after delivery.

In addition to not working overtime, you also cannot focus for a full 40 hours a week on one type of task and neither can your team. The work needs to be broken up into different types so that there is variety not only in tasks but also in skills that are being used. This also helps the team to grow professionally.

I am human. I have not always been able to look out for my team and coworkers the way they deserve. There have been times in the past that there was just so much on my plate that my only concern was staying afloat long enough to come in the next day when maybe I could fix things and do better. Thankfully I have finally reached that next day.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP

They call it data “BASE” for a reason


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Data structure and content is severely undervalued in IT projects. You can have the most beautiful comps in the world but if you don’t have the data to back them up then you simply can’t deliver the desired final results.

I am a very hands on project manager, especially when it comes to the data. I have to sift through the data like sand on the beach. It has to pass through my fingers. I have to know the data in order to know the project.

I need to know where the data is coming from, what type of actual content is in those data fields, and how it will be maintained going forward. Armed with my knowledge of the data, I can reasonably tell my stakeholders how their data will function in the comps they have painstakingly put together. If need be, I can reset their expectations or give them an opportunity to salvage any data issues before the project has even left the planning stages.

Catching data issues before the execution stage is critical. Data is the foundation (or base) of an IT project. Like any foundation, it cannot be easily altered or added onto after the project is underway. Any changes have rippling effects to all other components of the product. I have seen entire website projects have to be rebuilt from scratch in order to alter just a few little data elements.

My favorite question when I start a new project is “when can you have a timeline ready”. This question is usually asked before I have even received the data. Without the data in hand, the entire project is only a theory. Any WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) created is contingent on the assumptions you are making about the data being correct and every bit of planning will have to be re-examined after the data has arrived. If your team has started work on the project only to have to scrap it and start over, you risk frustration and burn out as well.

The most successful projects that I have worked on have had a consultant or a specialist such as an Information architect come in during the initiation phase. Taking the time to examine the data, the data flow, and the business needs at the start of the project puts them ahead of the curve. Their products are the ones that I can work magic with and make stunning. Those are also the ones that raise the benchmark to another level.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP

I knew because my iPhone told me

I was eating dinner with my daughter when my AP mobile app chirped at me from my iPhone. I pick it up and it tells me that Steve Jobs has died. Many of my friends posted similar stories about finding out about his death from their iPhone. That right there says something about his impact on the technology industry.

Technology is a large part of my life. I use FaceTime on my iPad every night for my daughter to call Grandmama to talk to her face to face. My iPhone, I would go crazy without my iPhone. It has my email and puts Google at my fingertips. Oh, Google…Google is a noun so powerful it became a verb. The Social Networking apps allow me to work full time, and still keep in touch with an extended number of family and friends. The Amazon app has completely changed my Christmas shopping experience. I read at least one chapter a night from my kindle app on my iPad. Technology is a large part of my life and it occurs to me that much of what I use to interface with all this technology can be associated with Steve Jobs.

There were many things that Steve Jobs did well. What impressed me the most was that he took responsibility for the complete user experience. He obsessed over all those little details that make the user experience a success. Ease of use is the largest factor for my purchasing decisions. If it is not easy to use, I abandon it. If it is easy to use, I embrace it with full gusto.

One person cannot change the face technology on their own, but one person with a vision and an eye for the details can lead and inspire a team to do change the world as we know it.

The challenge for the IT Project Manager is to have an eye for the details without losing the focus of the big picture. While the big picture gets the project completed, the details make a product successful. Rest in Peace Steve Jobs. You taught us well.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP

Google yourself…

Go on. I dare you. What will you find? Will it be good? Will it be bad? Or will you not show up at all?

As a project manager, communication is my job. First impressions set the tone for that communication. While you can recover from a bad first impression, it is more desirable to benefit from a good first impression. I dress appropriately. I think before I speak and I search for myself online periodically to make sure that nothing unintended shows up. So, what could I possibly be missing?

The answer came to me this past spring while I was prepping to call the primary stakeholder for a new project. I did my usual due diligence before the initial phone call. I checked LinkedIn and Facebook. I Googled her name and skimmed through the first couple of pages of the search results.

If I am lucky, I usually find a couple of profiles that give me an idea of the personality of the person I am about to work with as well as a vague assessment of their experience. If I am really lucky I can glean a common interest or two to help me build a rapport early on.

This time I found a beautifully crafted and polished web persona. There were multiple profiles and lots of participation in online discussions. I quickly assessed that she was an expert in her field. The few personal items I had found about her family and interest also made her feel approachable. I found myself actively looking forward to working with her.

Before this, I thought my web persona was ‘good enough’. This gave me a whole new standard to measure against. In this day and age of technology, many first impressions are made online. I had been taking steps to ensure that I did not make a bad impression online but the benefit of making a good first impression had somehow never occurred to me.

At this point most everyone knows that you can get fired, or get excluded from the interview list for that new job based on inappropriate things that might show up in an internet search, but preventing the bad from showing up is no longer good enough. Your online profile is your brand. You have to present yourself online the way you want to be perceived in your professional life.

What is the best way to do this? Be honest, be personable (which means it is OK to show a glimpse into your personal life or interests), but also be polished. Even when you are not looking for a job, you need to keep your profiles updated, participate in discussions, and be active in your profession online. If you want tips on how to better communicate or present yourself, I recommend listening to The Public Speaker Podcast.

This active participation in your profession online also keeps your head in the game. Day after day of only dealing with your own projects up close, you start to lose perspective. Online participation is a valid way to gain that perspective back. It also gives those you work with, or are about to start a project with an idea of who you are and what your strengths are. Projects are always on a tight deadline. If you can skip the process of convincing your stakeholders that you are an expert in your field before the project even begins, then you are ahead of the game…and ahead of schedule.

Once you have all this good stuff out there it is time to make sure you can be found. Maintaining a beautiful online presence is no good if you cannot be found. Use photos, job position, or location where appropriate to indicate to anyone doing searches that they have found the right person.

Present yourself to the world in your social network outlets as if you are marketing your brand because you are. Presentation is everything and perception is reality.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP

Mobile Projects: don’t just do the project right – do the right project


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Which should you do – a mobile version of your website or a mobile app?

Which should I do? is so last year. Should I do a Mobile App? is the question being asked this year. Your audience is increasingly turning to mobile devices for obtaining and consuming information. The simple truth today is if you want to be found on the web, mobile views of your website are a benchmark that you have to be meeting. Anything less is lost exposure. So, a mobile view of your website should be a given.

Should I do a mobile App?

Mobile Apps are sexy. Having one gives you bragging rights. But is that enough? A mobile app should be like any other project that you chose – it should have a clear correlation with your business objectives. It is highly unlikely that bragging rights alone will accomplish this.

Why should I the PM care?

The decision has already been made to do a mobile app. Why should I as the Project Manager concern myself with this question? Simple — stakeholder expectations. If you don’t know the answer, you cannot set those expectations.

Below are some useful questions that should be asked during the initiation phase of the project.

Who do you want to use this app?

It is important to determine your target audience so that you can build something that will be useful to them. Which leads us to another question — What will they use it for? If you are not filling a need that they have, then it will not be downloaded or worse it will be deleted and your reputation for quality or relevance could be damaged in the process.

How often to you anticipate your target audience to use it?

Your app should be something that will be used at least once every two weeks. More often is better. Something with limited use gets dropped in favor of space or because it was just plain forgettable. There are exceptions to this, but the usefulness to the end user becomes that much more important.

What platforms will you build for?

This is a moving target that will need to be examined at the time of the project consideration. Currently Apple and Android are the big players the market. Apple is a bit easier to develop. Android has more variants depending on the manufacturer and model, but it is still practical and their market share keeps growing. All the other platforms need to be considered carefully. They require a significantly larger investment and do not have as strong market share. You really need a good business case for building apps exclusively for those platforms.

How will this be maintained going forward?

Many people do not consider the operations stage for mobile devices and do not have a strategy for maintaining the app after launch. This means they have to come up with their strategy after the product has already been built or risk the app getting stale and ceasing to function correctly as the mobile platforms upgrade their OS. Figuring out that strategy beforehand allows it to be integrated with the initial product roll out and streamlined accordingly for easy maintenance during the operation stage of its life.

Can you accomplish the same goals with a mobile view of your website?

As the capabilities of the mobile views increases so does the importance of this question. If you can accomplish the same thing through a view — is there a strong business case for doing it through an app?

I hope you found this useful and if you have anything to add – please do! I’m particularly interested in where you anticipate the market going from here. These are exciting times to be in IT.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP, CSSGB

Not all certifications are equal


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There are two main reasons people do certifications.

  1. To learn the material.
  2. To prove to others that they have learned the material.

I study the material for both of those reasons, but I shell out the money because of the second reason. When the certification is easy to get without knowing the material, it is kind of disappointing.

I studied for the PMP certification until my wrist ached from writing and typing notes, and then I studied more. I ate, drank, slept, and dreamed about the material for weeks. The questions were not only difficult knowledge wise but also comprehension wise. Some may think it to be tricky, but so are clients. When I passed, I let out an exhale so loud that the proctor heard through the glass. The certification process was brutal, but it meant something.

The Six Sigma Green Belt Certification was not nearly as difficult. It was not because of subject matter. The subject matter was extensive and relevant. Anyone who has done both the PMP and the SSGB certifications know that there is a fair amount of overlap. What disappointed me was the tests. I don’t think that all certification tests have to be brutally difficult and proctored, but they could have at least tried a bit more.

I was dead tired the night I took and failed one of the chapter quizzes. Honestly, I should have called it a night but I was stubborn and wanted to do a chapter a night until I was done. I did not read the questions nor the multiple choice answers correctly. I knew the correct answers, I had simply been too tired to read correctly.

Despite being dead tired, I’m very stubborn sometimes, I redid the test. I really should not have, especially since I was expecting a new test with new questions that I would have to read correctly in my tired state. Instead the questions were the exact same as the test I had just failed. There was no penalty for having failed the first test. In fact someone could have copied the answers from the justifications very easily and passed without an issue. This really diminished the value of the certificate in my eyes. I am a very ethical person. I really did know the material, but there are many people out there that are not so ethical. So, in my eyes this certification does not prove to other people that I knew the material.

I have two more certifications that I am considering. The ITIL foundations certification – which is proctored, and the Google Analytics Individual Qualification which is online, but it is Google. I do not expect either to compete with the PMP for brutality and weight in the industry. I would like to not be disappointed though.

Elizabeth Ross Towles, PMP, CSSGB