The Art of Project Management

Project Management skills from A to Z

Scott Berkun was a senior project manager at Microsoft who worked on the development of Internet Explorer, Windows XP, and MSN. These are his reflections on the philosophy and practice of project management, and on software development in particular. Three things immediately stand clear: he knows a lot about his subject from practical experience; he’s thought a lot about its underlying principles; and he expresses his ideas in a fluent manner.

The structure of the book is to take you through all stages of a software design project, from its first conception, through to testing and completion. There are lots of useful tips – such as his ‘rule of thirds’ in which the time devoted to any task of a project schedule is broken down into equal parts – one for designing or planning, another for implementation or programming, and a third for testing or troubleshooting.

He splits his exposition into admirably straightforward topics, such as ‘How to figure out what to do’, ‘Writing good specifications’, and ‘What to do when things go wrong’. His use of jargon is kept to a minimum and he explains any new terms the first time he uses them.

Much of the advice he offers involves nothing more than asking simple but deep questions about each stage of the project: ‘What is the product for?’ Who will use it? How will it be made? Who is responsible for design/testing/implementation?’ These might seem very obvious, but as he points out, many projects fail because nobody takes the trouble to ask them. He even provides a list of common bad ways to decide what to do.

He’s very good on the need for clear expression in all plans and documentation:

It should be understood that clear thought does not require many pages. The most effective leadership documents in the world are not very long. The US constitution, including the Bill of Rights, is a mere 7,000 words (about six pages). The 10 commandments are 300 words. The Magna Carta is 5,000.

Yet strangely enough he does not follow his own advice. His style is lose and conversational. It’s like someone talking to you in a bar. Although this makes for ease, it also extends the page count. This book could easily cover the same ground in a half of its length.

Next he shows what to do with ideas once you have got them, work gets under way, and the project starts to develop its own momentum. The answer to this problem is to use affinity diagrams. This is a fancy term for brainstorming, post-it notes, and putting ideas into logical groups or categories.

The next part of the book deals with the skills a good project manager needs: how to make good decisions; how to write clear specifications; how to develop good communication skills; and what to do when things go wrong (break the problem into small pieces).

The third part of the book deals with the psychological and political part of project management skills – building trust through commitment; getting things done by drawing up clear priorities and plans of work; and recognising that big deadlines are a series of smaller deadlines

Hitting deadlines is like landing airplanes: you need a long, slow approach. And you want to be ready to take off again quickly, without having to do major repairs.

Along the way there are many interesting anecdotes from his years at Microsoft, so the theory is backed up by real-life practical examples. For anybody engaged in projects, whether as manager or humble foot soldier, this offers a clear and reassuring account of the whole process.

© Roy Johnson 2005

Scott Berkun, The Art of Project Management, Sebastopol: CA, O’Reilly, 2005. pp.488. ISBN 0596007868

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