Interviews with the project managers

14 October 2007 | admin | 1 Comments

FullCodePress judge, and technical editor at SitePoint, Matt Magain interviewed Marla Mitelman and Thomas Scovell, projects managers for Team Australia and the CodeBlacks respectively. Here’s what they said.

Interview with Marla Mitelman:

Matthew Magain:
As a PM, you have ultimate responsibility for the success of the project. How hands-on were you in this project?
Marla Mitelman:
The solution was definitely a collaborative effort between the whole team and the client. I was hands-on with some of the production and content entry, and also defining the solution. But it was a team effort for the most part.
Matthew:
How did you find managing a team of people that you barely know?
Marla:
It was surprisingly easy, but I think that’s due to the team being comprised of such professionals. Everyone understood their primary area of delivery and were also happy to pitch in wherever required to get the job done.
Matthew:
How do you determine what falls in and out of scope in such a tight deadline?
Marla:
Asking the team “What’s left to do?”, “How much time do we have?” and making decisions based on the responses to those questions. We originally had wanted to include; a search, resolution-dependent style sheets, individual pull quotes for each page of the site and other things. We had to drop all of those to allow us to complete the site on time.
Matthew:
What tools did you use to stay organised?
Marla:
A white board and a note pad. That’s it.
Matthew:
What was the biggest hurdle for you personally, and how did you tackle this hurdle?
Marla:
Just staying alert and focussed for 24 hours was a challenge. The chocolate and caffeinated drinks definitely helped. The sleep deprivation was the hardest part of the whole challenge. Around 3am I started to wonder why I ever thought this would be a good way to spend a weekend. Then our clients came back down to see the site around 6am and their enthusiasm spurred me on.

Interview with Thomas Scovell:

Matthew Magain:
As a PM, you have ultimate responsibility for the success of the project. How hands-on were you in this project?
Thomas Scovell:

The term “hands-on” is an interesting one with regards to project management. I like to think of project management as being “facilitation” — that is, helping people get their jobs done and working together smoothly. We had such a great team that there was no “herding of cats” involved at all. It was just about tying the various roles together — keeping people talking and … fetching coffee!The interesting thing about this contest was that our initial thought, like that of most people, was: “A website in 24 hours? No chance!”. But if you crunch the numbers — 24 hours with 7 people — this actually gives us 168 person-hours of effort. At industry rates this is around $25,000 of professional labour — not an unfeasible budget at all for a project of this type.

The biggest hurdle was that all seven of us were working those 24 hours at the same time. For many in the industry a web project follows a “waterfall” approach — one activity conducted by a certain role taking place and then informing the next. Clearly that couldn’t work for this contest, or we’d have four hours of activity each, and be sitting on our hands waiting a lot!We had to approach this is a more agile fashion, and whilst we didn’t use any specific “big A” Agile methodology in our approach we certainly used a number of techniques that let us work closer together and make best use of the time. And as with Agile in general, it wasn’t just about making use of the time/budget best but also working together towards a better quality solution.

We had a tentative time-line sketched out which we took into the contest, and stuck to for the most part. We then time-boxed our activities within these allocations, working together so that everyone was working productively on things they could get on with while dependencies were satisfied. This was my biggest role — making sure that everyone had something useful to do and was having as much input as they could into the process. Because our team was a bunch of multi-skilled collaborators, not just a collection of individual role experts.

Matthew:
How did you find managing a team of people that you barely know?
Thomas:
I think one of our advantages as a team was the time we spent prior to the event getting to know each other. Whilst we spent some time planning how we might work together during the competition, what I think really worked for us was the time we spent together just shooting the breeze and understanding the dynamics of the team on a personal level.
Matthew:
How do you determine what falls in and out of scope in such a tight deadline?
Thomas:

By risking time up front to have the discussions with your client. With “only” 24 hours it would seem like every minute not spent actually building is a minute lost. But every minute spent with a client understanding their needs, their audience’s needs and the relative priorities of these, is well spent.

Out of that fell a planning session around how best to satisfy the requirements. While we did create a solution that seemed buildable within the hours remaining, we also made sure we established a road-map for how the site might evolve after launch. So any requirements that might have needed to be put on the “back burner” weren’t de-scoped entirely — a website is “never done”, as we say.

Matthew:
What tools did you use to stay organised?
Thomas:
Dialogue. We used more technology and tools in the pre-planning than during the contest itself. In the weeks before we used a wiki (pbwiki.com) for anyone interested in specifics) to plan the logistics of the contest, capture ideas and the like. This worked really well, but during the competition itself we knew that our greatest danger was that we would not talk and stay aligned. So we decided to eschew technology and just go with regular discussions. The difficulty there is balancing interrupting “the flow” and talking frequently enough. We mostly struck the right balance — there were only a few “Not nows!” barked.
Matthew:
What was the biggest hurdle for you personally, and how did you tackle this hurdle?
Matthew:
Managing risks is the biggest hurdle for any project, I find; balancing conservatism with pushing a project to its limits in terms of potential quality. With a team of people you aren’t entirely familiar with, you have to trust that they can do what they say they can do in the time given! As I said, we did have sufficient pre-planning sessions that I felt I could trust the team to deliver — and they sure did!

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