Project Management

Ten quick tips on learning Microsoft Project

Microsoft Project is a proven tool for tracking and detailing tech projects but, unfortunately, many IT leaders don't have the time required to become an experienced user. Here are 10 quick tips to get you started.

Microsoft Project is a useful tool for any IT shop, regardless of size. And managers at any level, whether they’re in the boardroom or the tech shop, can benefit from Project’s efficient and effective features. For CIOs, it’s a great tool for managing IT projects and achieving goals.

Here are 10 tips to help IT leaders who are new to using Microsoft Project.

Tip 1: Use it. No shop is too small for Project
Even if you are a one-person shop, you can still use Project. If nothing else, it’s a great tool to identify all of the tasks required to complete a project and the order in which they must be completed. If you only print out the task sheet, it makes a great checklist to keep you on track.

Tip 2: Follow the money
The budget reports provided in Project will help you track spending on contractors. I usually don’t assign costs to my staff because we’re all salaried and as such a fixed cost. One neat trick is to set a resource for anything ordered—hardware, software, food, etc.—and then assign a cost to it. You can then use this to anticipate costs you will be incurring so your CFO can plan cash flow, budgets, etc.

Project includes a host of reports that apply to every aspect of the project. Frankly, I don’t use them much in my work, but they do come in handy when the boss starts hitting you up for project information. Keep in mind that the most common question is “How much is all of this going to cost when all is said and done?”

Tip 3: Manage by monitoring project status and workloads
You can insert Project files that pertain to several projects and manage your team schedule across several projects simultaneously. Scheduling conflicts between projects are more easily managed as well.

This feature came in handy recently when I had limited resources and three projects to complete at the same time. With Project you can create a master file for your total resource pool, then insert separate project files. I find this useful for dovetailing different projects—especially when a project is nearing completion. It also lets you manage preliminary planning for your next project. The application’s functionality lets projects (and assignments) overlap for the same people on two projects and thus helps you avoid scheduling conflicts.

Tip 4: Estimate time needed and actual time used
The application’s Gantt chart has a bar for each task representing the time at which the task will be done and how long it will take. If you grab the left edge of a bar and drag, you can indicate how far along you are. If you run into problems (gee, that never happens) and the task is going to take longer, you can grab the right edge and extend the time needed (see Figure A).

Figure A


Tip 5: Think big, then small
Start with the one task, Upgrade Accounting System in this case, and then begin adding items (see Figure B).

Figure B


After inserting more tasks and building detail, you can begin to assign tasks and set the amount of time you think it will take. Then assign who will be doing the work (see Figure C).

Figure C


This is where the resource sheet comes in handy. Enter the names of the people with whom you’ll be working. For consultants, you can also enter the billable rate for tracking (see Figure D).

Figure D


Project’s many features may overwhelm some new users. To be honest I can’t even use them all. The beauty is that you are not constrained in Project—you don’t have to use each feature to find benefit in the software. On small projects, I may typically use and refer to only a project Gantt chart.

Once you have a few basic tasks and your team entered, you can begin making sense of the steps needed and the order in which they need to be completed. I also add a few milestones, indicated by the black diamond in Figure E. I put a black diamond for the rollout and set Upgrade Accounting System as a predecessor. This pushes all tasks back so I can see how far out I really need to start. Also notice that after ordering the server, I put in a two-week lead time and a milestone for when I have to have the server here for the upgrade. The order in which things need to be done is as easy as dragging one blue bar to another.

Figure E


Tip 6: Organize workflow using the Gantt chart
Using the Gantt chart also makes scheduling easy. Tasks that must be done in order can be managed by dragging the time block of the first task to the next and so on. You can drag one task to many and many to one, or a combination of both depending on the need.

Project will configure timing based on the estimated time for each task as well as the Schedule From date. If you’re using Schedule From Project Start Date, Project will show you how far out the project will run. Likewise, if you use Schedule From Project Finish Date, Project will tell you the latest you can start and still hit the expected deadline. You can also balance workload. Normally, you have tasks that can be completed simultaneously. When you first enter them in Project, they tend to pile up in the same time frame. After setting the order of related tasks, you can easily see openings in the schedule for other tasks.

Tips 7 & 8: Add tasks after the fact and balance the workload
Along with tracking dates, tracking labor resources and balancing the workload are critical parts of any project. The two tasks are also related. Project’s resource graph helps track the workload of project members and highlights members who may be underworked or overworked.

When scheduling with the Gantt chart, you may have to stack several tasks that all require time from an individual. Depending on the loading (percentage of time of the task by a person) and length (time required), you may identify an individual who has 16 hours of work per day—obviously not a practical idea. A quick check of the resource graph will let you know when someone is overscheduled or underscheduled.

Because my projects are smaller in nature than those in most large corporate environments, I really only use this feature to spot-check the plan. This feature will be more useful in evening the load in a larger corporate environment where a number of people can perform the same job functions.

Tip 9: Hit the mark
From the moment a project is approved, the worries set in for everyone involved. Can the project be completed in time? How long will the project take? Use the schedule functionality to ease these worries.

How you set up the time calculations in Microsoft Project depends on the Schedule From option you choose in the project information dialog box.

Use the Schedule From The Project Start Date option for projects that must start immediately and be finished ASAP (see Figure F).

Figure F


Choose the Schedule Backwards option to start with the finish date for projects that can be launched at any time but must be completed by a designated date.

Tip 10: The more you do, the more you learn
As with any application, the more you work with it, the more comfortable and efficient you become with it. And just like most Microsoft applications, there are plenty of online resources to help. Here are just a few handy links:
  • Microsoft Project Users Group (MPUG-Global): This is the official international community (with over 2,100 members and 30 chapters worldwide) supporting Microsoft Project. The organization serves as an ongoing resource for members to improve their understanding of Microsoft Project and to help maintain their investment in the tool.
  • How-to articles: This comprehensive resource at Microsoft’s Project site covers everything from collaboration to formatting issues.
  • Microsoft Project newsgroups: As TechRepublic members know: The best and most useful advice often comes from users themselves, as demonstrated in these Project newsgroups.
  • Template Gallery: You can save time when you can grab a setup that fits your needs. These templates should provide helpful shortcuts for new users.
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