Project management is something we all do in IT regardless of whether we want to, or if we even want to admit it. with the assistance of software, managing a project can be much simpler, especially for people lacking formal project management training. In this article we'll talk about how easy it can be to get organized, and note three popular desktop-based project management applications, which are, you guessed it: alternatives to Microsoft Project.
The benefit to using project management software to list out your tasks is that it's much easier to visualize. Not so surprisingly, most people input their initial data, generate a Gantt chart, and never use the project management application again throughout the project, unless they need a new Gantt chart for a status meeting. This isn't how it's supposed to work.
It may seem strange to say that people unfamiliar with project management techniques will benefit from software. Anyone who has used Microsoft Project knows that you must be pretty familiar with project management lingo. For example, you need to know what types of task dependencies to choose before you can model any types of relationships. It's mostly intuitive, but can get confusing. Truth be told, most tasks are finish-start related. That means you must finish one task before you can start another. You can model extremely complex projects with only that type of relationship. Therefore, most free or extremely inexpensive (comparatively) project management applications don't need to be overly complex.
Ideally, a project manager--meaning the person leading the efforts, regardless of title--will use a project management application daily to refine the data. This shouldn't be laborious, and may just involve input of notes about the budget or recording the fact that resources (people) are on vacation. Often we find out that a step, or task, will take one day longer than expected. In small projects it's easy to visualize how this change will impact other tasks, but it gets proportionally difficult as the task list grows.
Everyone says it, but we can't write an article about easy use of project management tools without reiterating: do not constrain tasks to dates. If you do, it will disable auto-adjustments that happen to the timeline, and then you end up managing completion dates for all tasks. The idea is to define how long a task takes, when it starts, and whether or not it can be worked on in parallel with other tasks. The application will tell you when tasks, and the entire project, will complete. Then, and only then, you have your deadline. Not the other way around.
The three project management applications we'd like to mention today are OmniPlan, Planner, and Project KickStart. One for each of three major operating systems: OmniPlan runs on OS X, Planner is a Linux application that comes with GNOME, and Project KickStart runs on Windows.
OmniPlan, true to its OS X roots, has a beautiful interface. It is not free, but at $149.95, it's hardly expensive either. It allows you to create projects fairly easily, and at the same time has more advanced functionality if you choose to enable it. The Omni Group is well-recognized for its easy-to-use software, and OmniPlan is no exception.
Taking it for a test drive, we found it very easy to get started. Define your tasks and you immediately have a Gantt chart. Grouping multiple tasks together enables you to auto-level or, put another way, schedule tasks automatically based on available resources. The interface is well thought out, easy to pick up but capable of advanced operations should you require more complexity, and overall a joyous experience. OmniPlan is a good example of software allowing you to use it rather than concentrate your efforts on learning it.
A tad more expensive than OmniPlan (depending on the edition you buy), Project KickStart is an excellent alternative for Windows users. It has an intuitive interface, and all the features you need. Trial versions are available, and after looking at Project Kickstart, we're confident it can meet most needs.
Project KickStart boasts a 6-step project-planning wizard, which is excellent. It asks the right questions, designed to get non-project management oriented people thinking about everything they need in order to plan their project. As Project KickStart points out, the easy-to-use solution don't assume you have a project plan ready to dump out into project software format, so it helps you develop the plan, while at the same time scheduling it properly.
GNOME Planner for Linux is also extremely easy to use. It's not as well refined as OmniPlan, but the basic functionality is there. There's currently no auto-leveling, but it does a fine job at recording resources and tasks and outputting a Gantt chart. It can even spit the chart out in HTML, so you can easily share it with others.
Regardless of which you choose, know that they can all help you organize better. Project management professionals are paid to be organized and ask the right questions. At the same time, IT is a project-driven profession, and even if it doesn't feel like it warrants a project manager, your multi-task deployment, installation, upgrade, or enhancement would certainly benefit from some organization. In that regard, we are all project managers, even if we aren't in a managerial role or sporting a professional project manager's certification.
Just try it out. See how easy it can be to input a few tasks. You're guaranteed to enjoy seeing a Gantt chart, allocating resources, and watching the whole schedule create itself. If that's the only feature you use, you're still better off than before. Come back next week when we explore some popular Web-based project management applications.