Project Management

Use Microsoft Project to plan your IT projects

Microsoft Project contains some great planning templates. In this Daily Drill Down, Brian Kennemer gives an overview of templates and the changes you can make to help you roll out Windows 2000, Exchange 2000, and other enterprise-wide projects.

Let’s face it: Microsoft Project is everywhere. Chances are your company owns it. However, it is just as likely that you don’t use it. Project management has gotten a bad rap in the IT world for being too bulky and time-consuming to be useful for the things IT does. This reputation is unfortunate in that most of the things IT does are naturals for being managed with standard project-management methods. In an August 2000 Strategic Analysis Report titled “The Project Office: Teams, Processes, and Tools,” The Gartner Group’s Matt Light made the following predictions:
  • “Through 2004, IS organizations that establish enterprise standards for project management, including a project office with suitable governance, will experience half the major project cost overruns, delays, and cancellations of those that fail to do so (0.7 probability).”
  • ”By 2003, most IS organizations will move from scheduling and closely tracking less than half of their total work to more than 75 percent (0.7 probability).”
  • “Through 2004, without significant changes to its project management processes, an AD organization of 100 developers can expect to spend more than $10 million on canceled software projects (0.8 probability).”

Not only is project management a useful tool for IT but it will also soon become central to the success of your department in its goal of supporting your company’s business.

Deployment of software is one area in particular that is a good fit with the tools and processes of project management. Not only is it a project in the classic definition but it is also a project that is probably of high importance and high visibility to your organization. A failure in this kind of project is something everybody sees and feels. If you’re currently not using project management to manage such endeavors because your Project Management 101 class made it seem too bulky and time-consuming, then you should know there are other ways to track and manage projects without getting so complex. While making and tracking a project plan is not complete project management, it is a key part of being able to communicate the status and needs of your project to the rest of your organization. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll demystify Microsoft Project and the area of project management that deals with planning and scheduling projects. I’ll show you how to use the excellent software-deployment templates Microsoft provides that can help you get a jump on your planning process.

Project 2000 templates: The basics
One great way to start off is to use templates. Several templates are available from Microsoft that can be wonderful tools for both new and experienced IT project managers. Project 2000 ships with several templates that are of interest to IT/IS shops. These templates can provide you with a jump-start on your project. Others can be downloaded from the various areas within the Microsoft Web site. They come in product-specific and more generic varieties.

Project 2000 ships with three product-specific deployment templates: Project 2000, Office 2000, and Windows 2000. These templates contain tasks that Microsoft feels are important to consider when deploying these products. There is nothing quite like being able to open a template and have most of your tasks laid out for you. A huge part of planning any new project is coming up with the list of tasks, determining the order in which they need to occur, and establishing duration and effort estimates. With templates like these, all this work is done for you. The templates contain a nearly complete listing of the tasks required to deploy the product, and they already have duration estimates for each of the tasks as well as the relationships between these tasks. You can access these templates from Project 2000 by choosing File | New. The resulting dialog box contains a tab called Project Templates.

The Exchange 2000 deployment template
One more product-specific template that is not included with Project 2000 but that you can download from the Microsoft site is the Exchange 2000 deployment template. This template differs from the other product-specific templates in that it also includes resource suggestions that represent the different types of skills that would be required to deploy Exchange. It not only includes the listing of resources but also assigns the different tasks in the project to these resources. This can be a great help for you in determining the kinds of team members you want and the level of effort needed to deploy Exchange 2000. Later in this Daily Drill Down, I’ll address how to substitute your own resources for these suggested resources.

Other templates
The other IT templates included with Project 2000 are not product-specific, but rather are general to a type of project. Infrastructure deployment, software development, and Microsoft Solutions Framework application development are the three generic templates that come with Project 2000. The infrastructure template contains tasks that would be needed to deploy network infrastructure, such as servers, switches, and the like. The software-development template covers the basic structure of a generic software project. The Microsoft Solutions Framework template covers software development using the Microsoft Solutions Framework. These generic templates all include the resource suggestions found in the Exchange 2000 template. These suggestions can be invaluable for the new project manager in determining the makeup of the deployment team.

Opening and customizing templates
In the next few sections, I’ll walk you through the opening and initial setup of the Exchange 2000 deployment template. When you first open this file, you’ll likely be asked to either enable or disable the macros contained in the template. The template will function without the macros. They are used to walk you through the initial setup and saving of the project plan, but you are not required to use them. For our example, I’ll assume you enabled the macros.

The first thing you’ll see is a small splash screen, asking if you want to proceed or exit. Click Proceed. Next, you’ll see a dialog box explaining the purpose of the template. Click OK. Then, a dialog box will ask you to enter summary information. This summary information can be valuable later when you’re searching for your plan. Click OK, enter the data requested in the Properties dialog box, and then click OK again. Next, you’ll enter a Start date for the project. Project will use this date to adjust the task dates within the template so that they occur in the future. The date you enter will only be a guideline, and you can change it later. Click OK, enter a date that is roughly the date you’d like to start your deployment project, and click OK again. Next, you’ll be asked to save your project plan. Click OK, then name your plan, pick a location, and click Save. You’ve now finished with the initial setup of the template. Click OK, and you’re ready to start editing and customizing the project.

Understanding tasks
The next step is to go through the plan. Read the task names and look at their dates and durations. It is important for you to understand the task list and how these tasks interrelate. If you’re familiar with software deployments and Exchange, these tasks will make sense to you. You should still look them over, however, and see how they equate to established processes within your organization.

In many cases, you’ll need to review the template to make sure all of the tasks are required for your use. Many times, some tasks in the templates won’t pertain to your organization or to a particular project. The task list is just a suggestion. One of the first things you should do when starting your project from a template is to remove the tasks that are not required. For example, many of these templates start out with a group of tasks called Vision or Scope. By the time you open the template to create your plan, you may have already finished this phase and moved into the Planning phase. If so, you can delete this first section because it is no longer required in your planning.

Modifying tasks
Another example of the need to modify the suggested tasks or durations can be found in Task ID 105 and 106 in the Exchange Deployment template, shown in Figure A. These tasks are called Identify Hardware Configurations For Server Types and Identify Optimal Network Configuration/Location. In many organizations, these configurations may already be specified in existing standards for servers. In that case, the tasks could be removed, shortened, or made into milestones (a task with zero duration used to mark a point in time).

Figure A
Modify Task IDs 105 and 106 from the Exchange 2000 template to suit your needs.

Another type of change you should evaluate when starting a new project from any kind of template concerns the durations and work values for the tasks. When you first open the Exchange 2000 template, you may be struck at first that the duration of the project reads 320.5 days. This, of course, does not mean that the project will actually take almost a year, though in some large organizations it could very well take longer for a full deployment. All this means is that if every single task in the template were carried out and all the durations and work values in the template were correct for your organization, then it would take 320.5 days.

The important thing to remember is that these are suggestions. It is highly unlikely that your organization needs to perform every task in the template. Likewise, it is unlikely that the duration estimates for every task are correct for your specific organization. They are only suggestions. This may seem obvious, but you might be surprised by how few IT organizations use these templates because they are intimidated by the structure of the plan and unsure of their own ability to customize the template to their own situation.

Modifying resources
After you have educated yourself on the structure of the plan and removed those tasks that don’t pertain to you, the next step is to get some real resources into your plan. To do this, go into the Resource Sheet view of Project. You can get there by clicking the Resource Sheet icon on the view bar down the left side of the screen or by clicking View | Resource Sheet. This view, shown in Figure B, gives you a listing of the resources assigned to work on this project.

Figure B
Use the Project Resource Sheet view for the Exchange template to assign resources.

At this point, the sheet contains the generic resource suggestions from Microsoft. In the first blank line after Sponsor, start entering the resources that will be working on your project. Keep in mind which of the listed generic roles each resource will be filling. When you’ve finished entering your resources, you can start replacing the generic roles with your real people.

Switch back to the Gantt chart view (View | Gantt Chart). Now, choose Edit | Select All to select all the tasks in the project. Then, click the plus sign in the corner of the table in the Gantt chart, as shown in Figure C, to select all the tasks in the project.

Figure C
Click the + sign in the corner of the Gantt chart to select all the tasks.

With all the tasks selected, click Tools | Resources | Assign Resources. Now pick a generic resource from the list shown in the dialog box. In our example, we’ll pick Project Manager (see Figure D).

Figure D
Choose a project to assign resources to.

Now click the Replace button. A second dialog box will appear. From the list, select the person who will be taking on the role of Project Manager for this project. (We’ll select Neil Page.) Click OK, and all tasks that were selected that had the resource called Project Manager assigned will now have Neil Page assigned instead, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E
Replace generic resources with your staff. In this case, Project Manager has been replaced by Neil Page.

You should repeat this process for each resource. Of course, unless you work for a large IT organization, you may not have someone to staff each of these generic roles. It is likely that, in our sample, Neil Page will be replacing several of the listed generic resources.

The next step consists of adjusting the Duration values for the tasks to match your own estimates. You have the knowledge of your organization and your resources. You can use the guidelines given by the template and adjust them to make them reflect how your organization works. For example, you know the task called Formulate Preliminary Cost/Benefit Analysis will take only one day for your team of Dell and Neil, so you’ll want to revise those figures. Figure F shows the template before adjusting these Duration values.

Figure F
The Project template contains durations that may not be accurate for your organization; you’ll want to adjust these task durations.

Changing the current one-week estimate to the more accurate estimate of one day is as easy as typing 1 day over the top of 1 wk (see Figure G). Not only does this make your plan more realistic but it also cuts four days off your schedule!

Figure G
Replace the template’s suggested task durations with values that reflect your experience and organizational knowledge.

In this Daily Drill Down, I’ve presented the initial steps required to use these templates. Once you’ve entered your own resources and estimates, you’re on your way to rolling out your project. This brief look, of course, is only the very beginning. In a best-case scenario, the steps explained here would be followed by a well-laid-out set of project-management steps that you and your team and management are familiar with. They would include standardized communication methods for such things as status reports and change requests. If your organization does not have an established set of project-management methods, you should look into setting up such standards. Below you’ll find links to resources that can help you set up your IT organization to better plan and execute its projects.
The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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