Having a plan

As a software developer, I quickly learnt that having a plan is essential for the successful realization of a project. Of course, there are projects which seem to run by themselves – either because no problems occur or because their solution is trivial. However, the larger the project, the tighter the deadlines, the more you need a plan to retain control over it. And it is particularly easy to lose control over a project if you not only manage it, but also participate in its implementation.

A project leader is responsible for the outcome of a project. They have to keep track of its goals, must know its current state and how far it progressed. You can, for example, constantly prescind from present actions and problems and check them in order to find out if they bring you closer to your objective or if you are getting side-tracked. Useful techniques are time boxes as in the Pomodoro techniques: For a fixed time, you concentrate on a problem, and afterwards, you recapitulate your results and, if necessary, adjust your approach. Yet, this is probably not enough to reveal how far your project advanced – and for this purpose you can employ a plan.

Such a plan can show you the exact condition of a project: It will tell you which milestones are already reached, where you are at the moment and which tasks have to be tackled next – and most importantly, it will tell you if you are in time. Basically, a plan is a monitoring tool for a project. By molding the project according to the plan, it is possible to see wether everything is alright, to expose potential pitfalls and, in the worst case, to recognize early if the project fails.

Moreover, a plan can also improve the communication related to the project. On the one hand, you will be able to brief your clients on the course of the project. Even better, if you can publish your progress regularly in a form allowing your clients to verify what you did so far, you will create a feedback loop that helps you to meet the clients’ demands. On the other hand, a plan will give you a handle to communicate with the people involved in the project realization. The knowledge about the state of the project is spreaded, which will permit you to spend less time talking about the required actions and more talking about the actual solution.

How to plan

Now, I want to enumerate a few hints for constructing a plan. First, even though a plan is crucial for a project, it is not necessary to develop the perfect plan right from the start, and it is presumably disadvantageous to stick with it at all costs. Instead, it is completely fine to launch the project following a rough draft; you can adapt it to your needs anytime.

Next, you should think about the unit of time you use to organize a project. If its life span amounts to a few weeks, it might be appropriate to plan single days, but in case it covers several months or even years, you should not bother to deduce the duties for the last month before starting the project. However, you should keep in mind that you may adjust the granularity arbitrarily: You can, for example, plan the first few days of a project in detail, while you sketch later actions in terms of weeks and months. In this step, it is also important to identify possible deadlines which have to be met.

Furthermore, you have to divide the project into sub-goals that are easier to operationalize. Just like with time units, you do not need to split your project into equally sized tasks, but upcoming issues should be specified in higher detail. At this point, you must also estimate the resources required to solve the issues; this could be as simple as time or money, but also something more specific as hardware or software. If you have tight deadlines, it is vital to check if there are tasks blocking other tasks: They cannot be parallelized and hence, the required resource is not just time, but rather calendar time.

Finally, even if you are managing a project, you are probably not alone – and you should exploit that circumstance extensively. When you know that there is someone who is able to perform a task more efficiently, you should delegate it. This is not restricted to the actual work in the project, but also includes management tasks such as the estimation of efforts. By this means, you will distribute the knowledge about the project to your team and facilitate the take-over of responsibility if it becomes necessary. In fact, perhaps the best way to successfully lead a project is to render oneself superfluous.

Don’t let the tools use you

In today’s software development we use many tools to help us doing our job. Many of them are indispensable. But don’t make yourself a slave of the tool.
When we create schedules based on our estimates we have a great way to communicate how much work we think needs to be done. But don’t let the schedule fool you: you made an estimate based on your knowledge before you began to work. Maybe you need to change the infrastructure, maybe the new change interferes with a past one, in short you gain knowledge on your way. This knowledge can lead you to adapt or even rework your schedule. Your usual approach for accounting unforeseen obstacles might be to include a risk “pad”. Why not use your new gained knowledge to communicate with your client? Maybe a small change to the planned feature is much easier to implement and the client doesn’t even need the extra flexibility. Or the feature is not that important or worth. Don’t try to hold the schedule at all costs. Estimates are a communication tool not a promise we need to fulfill. (related: read also a 37signals post on It’s not a promise it’s a guess)
Or take a look at your favorite editor or IDE: if you happen to use a new language, source code management system or another new tool, the chances are high that your IDE doesn’t support all features or any features at all. You may be tempted to adapt your way to what your IDE supports. If that suits you it’s definitely ok but don’t let the IDE determine how you make use of the features.
When you use software metrics to measure and control the quality of your code you get a lot of numbers and graphs and hints. Use them when you think they benefit you. Don’t just adhere to them, they are a guideline for you, not a law.