Last week we made the case for project management (PM) software. It might seem daunting and complex at first, but once you master the basics, you're less likely to lose track of resources, miss deadlines or get nasty surprises. You can easily visualize your tasks and the order in which they need to happen, and the total time a project will take.
Last week's article also focused on stand-alone desktop project management applications. Many such applications are great, but their utility dwindles as soon as you decide to share your information with stakeholders, other members of the team, or upper management. Sure, you can print a Gantt chart or task list, but that's about all.
In some cases, you can provide others access to your project if you purchase a server product and spend days configuring it for each project you manage. You need to import your project and set up access levels to define what groups of people can see which content. Microsoft has a product, but it's horrendously expensive and requires that everyone use Internet Explorer.
If you're thinking there must be a better way, you're right. Thanks to the boom in Web applications, alternatives do exist that enable a team to conduct PM activities completely online. This week we'll examine a few popular Web-based tools that address the key considerations of collaboration and progress reporting.
Web-based PM software goes beyond providing oversight access to external entities or making project management easier. The real benefit it confers is that it promotes collaboration. You can share files, have people update their own hours of availability, or even chat in real time. This can be accomplished with the complicated Microsoft product, and the accompanying, expensive server product, but it's much more elegant to just use a Web-based portal.
We certainly shouldn't lose any functionality if we elect a Web PM application. Unfortunately, some aren't quite ready yet. Fortunately, though, the basic functionality that most people are looking for exists in many Web-based solutions. There are free, not-so-free, and downright expensive commercial solutions available. A quick wish list of minimum requirements includes:
- Task lists, with deadlines and resource allocation abilities
- Gantt chart generation
- To-do lists
- Access controls
- Document sharing
- A progress or status dashboard that shows our status at-a-glance and notifies people of to-do items
That is a very short and simple list, and rest assured that most Web applications go far above and beyond the list. Some integrate with other systems, like source code repositories or bug tracking systems. Others focus heavily on collaboration, offering e-mail and instant messaging features. Let's take a look at a few of them.
Starting with an open source project management application, we can consider Redmine. Redmine is very flexible, and supports a number of collaboration mechanisms. Each project gets a wiki, forum, calendar, Gantt charts, source code repository, and an issue tracking system. Of course, the minimums are all met as well, because it is, after all, a usable project management application.
Like most open source software, it has all the features you'd want, and more, but the interface could be a bit more polished. Redmine is also heavily slanted toward software development, and the Gantt chart is more tied to bugs or "issues" than to a notion of tasks. It will work for all projects, but people trying to adapt it to non-software development projects will be frustrated.
Basecamp, from 37signals, is a better-rounded project management environment. It's hosted on their servers, and is not free. It does, however, have an extremely polished-looking and usable user interface. Basecamp provides collaboration in the form of chat, document storage, and full set of flexible project management features.
The bad parts of Basecamp are that it's not free, and it doesn't really support Gantt charts. Basecamp provides better task listings and milestone tracking than Redmine, but stops there. It assumes you're going to be working from the task list, not from a wonderful visualization tool, or the Gantt chart so many project managers are used to. Everything else, however, is well thought out and extremely simple to use.
Clarizen, on the other hand, is a complete Web-based project management solution, suitable for large and small projects alike. You can even import existing Microsoft Project files directly. The Web interface is by far the best we've seen, and includes many collaborative features and useful at-a-glance views of every aspect of your project. Clarizen is trying to grab some of the MS Project market share, so it's not surprising that the application operates the way you'd expect project management software to work. Tasks, resources, charts and roadmaps: it's all there, easy to see, and very easy to manipulate.
It's not cheap, but we feel the features are worth it. The latest version even fully supports Firefox.
Web application functionality has come a long way, and it's getting harder and harder to tell when you're running a Web application versus a desktop application. Well-designed Web applications are, in fact, more intuitive and easier to use than a clunky old desktop program. They also have the added benefit of quick bug fixes and updates that don't require the user to do anything.
The Web-based project management tools take it to the next level: easy collaboration, accessibility, and minimal setup requirements. Hosted solution like Clarizen and Basecamp are even more attractive, since somebody else worries about the servers. As widespread as Internet access is these days, there's really no reason to run your own project server product and require that everyone on the team install a desktop application. Your time is better-spent managing project and getting things done.
Charlie Schluting is the author of Network Ninja, a must-read for every network engineer.