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Using Microsoft Project with Methodologies and Life Cycles

Almost all organizations have at least a small number of technology projects underway, so software development is an excellent example of the wide variety of project-scheduling approaches available to organizations. The types of projects range from simple to complex, short duration to multiyear, and projects that have clear goals to those that are open-ended research. The following examples discuss the associated software development life cycle (SDLC) and how Microsoft Project can be set up to support the life cycle. As you review the examples, you should also keep in mind that these projects should be planned and executed using the principles described in the previous sections on project standards (the PMBOK Guide and PRINCE2). While strict adherence to the standards is not required or necessary on every project, it is useful to remember that there are five major process groups to be managed on each project and that there are nine knowledge areas that should be considered throughout the project's life cycle.

Waterfall Development Process

Traditional software development is often described as a waterfall model because it is sequential in nature. The assumption with this model is that phases can be completed in order with little or no need to repeat the previous activities. Development is described as a waterfall, steadily falling down through traditional phases such as definition, preliminary design, detailed design, coding, testing, implementation, and transition to operations.

This method of development is used in many organizations today, especially those involved in multiyear programs. The phases can be lengthy and the work can be very exacting. Although the name suggests that all work from one phase is completed before moving into the next phase, these types of projects are often set up with overlapping phases so that design can begin on certain deliverables as soon as the definition of the work for those deliverables is completed. In addition, there is typically some level of iterative development involved in almost all projects but the term "waterfall" is still in common use today.

In this type of project, the tendency is to set up the project schedule in the same order as the major phase names. Instead, the project can be set up so that it is broken up into logical work packages that can be monitored and measured separately.

Iterative Development

Iterative development provides a strong framework for planning purposes and also flexibility for successive iterations of software development. The Rational Unified Process (RUP) and the Dynamic Systems Development Methods are two frameworks for this type of project life cycle. RUP is not only a methodology for software engineering project management, it also has a set of software tools for using the specific methodology that is the Rational Unified Process. Figure 3.3 depicts the RUP workflow.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 RUP workflow.

The goal for this type of software development life cycle (SDLC) is to allow the developers to learn through incremental development and the use of prototypes instead of trying to complete detailed requirements before the development work begins. Agile and XP can also be considered to be iterative methods.

Agile Development Process

Agile is a philosophy of project management that moves away from the classic project management methods and focuses less on planning and more on execution. In Agile, crucial decisions are made during the project execution phase, instead of the planning phase. As business and project environments become more fluid and dynamic, the amount of time for effective planning becomes less and less. This does not mean that planning will be ignored; rather the focus will shift to supporting decisions during project execution instead of finalizing all decisions during the planning stage.

Agile is not an all-or-nothing methodology either; it is possible to combine Agile with more classic project management ideas. While classic project management is comprehensive and will work in diverse situations, Agile can add various ideas for facing new and unique situations that can be found in creative, knowledge-based industries.

Here are some of the attributes of an Agile SDLC:

  • Short development cycles are used to produce working software in weeks rather than months.
  • Communication between the business users and the developers occurs daily.
  • Documentation of working functionality is captured after the software is completed; there is limited documentation of the requirements or design.
  • Timeboxing is used to force tough decisions early in the project.
  • Changes to requirements are expected; they are a result of early working prototypes and are a goal of the process.
  • The project manager for an Agile team is focused on ensuring excellent communication as the primary mechanism to maintain progress.

Agile development can be difficult for large organizations to embrace because it does not require a focus on formal planning of an entire project. The use of Agile should not be used as an excuse to avoid planning or managing a budget. The approach is meant to provide a lighter and faster method to reach a goal, but the goal is still required. The major difference is that the primary measurement of progress is frequent delivery of small amounts of working software. With a focus on feature delivery, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the overall picture, so strong project management must provide this clarity.

In this type of environment, a project team can still use Microsoft Project to support its goals. In an Agile environment, the tool is not used to develop a robust schedule with a beginning-to-end flow of tasks and resources. Its use in this case supports communication to management and ensures that changes are captured and the backlog of work is moved through each successive iteration of the project schedule. In the following example, the project manager has established a budget summary task to provide rollup of budget for management purposes. Successive sets of work are defined in small iterations while the overall timeframe and budget are obvious for all (see Figure 3.4). This approach allows the team to perform iterative planning while still meeting the business requirements of not exceeding a specific timeframe and budget. By establishing a project schedule with an overall goal, the needs of the team and their management can be met. Refer to Figure 3.4 for an example of a short project that is expected to complete within a target effort of 340 hours. The work is not fully defined at the beginning so that the team has the flexibility to decide what work will happen in what order. Management is still able to see overall metrics of planned work, actual work, and the current estimate of work remaining.

Figure 3.4

Figure 3.4 An Agile project showing overall budget, work, and timeframe with iterative development.

Agile is an extremely successful method of software development that is very well suited to an environment with self-motivated teams, open communications, and leadership that is comfortable with a prototyping approach to work. It does not fit all projects, but when it works, it works very well. The schedule created in Microsoft Project for this type of approach becomes a tool for communication, overall budget and time goals, and historical tracking purposes.

Extreme Programming

Extreme Programming, or XP, is another method within the Agile family that has become a simple and flexible way for developing software through the writing of tests. It is designed to be used by a group of two to ten programmers who are able to execute tests in a fraction of a day. It uses short cycles of phases, with early and continuing feedback during each cycle. This flexibility allows it to respond to changing business demands through the implementation of functionality. XP's use of automated tests, written by the programmers to scrutinize development, helps early detection of defects and also allows the cycle of phases to evolve as the project continues. These automated tests depend both on the short-term instincts of programmers and also on the long-term interests of the project. It also relies heavily on a system of oral communication, tests, and source code to help communicate the system structure and intent. These processes allow for the day-to-day programming of a feature, and then moving on to testing, implementation, design, and integration, all packed into each cycle.

The scheduling methods used in the preceding Agile example can again be adapted for XP.

Spiral Development Project

Spiral development was defined by Barry Boehm in 1985 and is often used in fairly large projects that take months to two years or more to complete. The initial focus may be on core functionality, and then the "bells and whistles" such as graphical user interfaces and reporting are added at a later time. This is sometimes considered to be another form of iterative development, but the structure of the plans and schedule focus on a robust core design in the early stages.

Research Project

A research project may be the most difficult type of project to tackle when it comes to identifying a project schedule. Often, there is no clear goal in mind and there may not even be an expectation of a specific end date or budget. On the other side, however, even research projects must be funded by someone and they must have a working staff, so there is typically some expectation of a result. In most cases, there is also an expectation that the funding is used responsibly, so there must be a process in place to track how the money has been spent.

Microsoft Project can once again be used to support this type of project as a tracking mechanism and a place to bring together the set of work that will be performed. The schedule will not require all of the advanced features of critical path analysis, resource-leveling, and predecessor/successor relationships, but it can be used as an easy method of historical support and a loose prediction of the work that is to be accomplished.

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