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The PM4Web blog was born as an outlet to return knowledge back to the web development community. My goal is to share my experiences as a project manager from over the years in a manner which helps you succeed with your own projects.

22 June, 2009

Surviving An Under-resourced Project

How to cut development time on web projects that have a tight budget.

In the competitive world of web development, it's not unusual to be handed a project where the resources available are not adequate enough to achieve the results expected by the client.

A common reason why an under-priced project has been approved in the first place is because someone was desperate to sell a solution to the client. The result is a tight budget where features must be culled and SDLC processes streamlined.

For the sake of illustration, let’s say a client is given a proposal stating that their project will cost $20,000 to build. The client then comes back saying "that’s too much, I have a budget of $16,000 at most." It's not unusual for the person who wrote the proposal to be told "adjust the quote so it comes out to $16,000. We want this work."

We now have a situation where the project has to be undertaken with less money than is ideal. A tight budget isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes a project can be so drastically under-priced that it is plainly a bad business decision to accept the project in the first place (i.e. a doomed project). There are boundaries where it just becomes ridiculous; if the client were to say "my budget is $4,000", then the company couldn’t possibly take on the project.

Is there any difference in managing a project with a tight budget vs. a amply funded one? The answer is yes. In an under-resourced project all tasks which aren’t absolutely necessary are jettisoned. A big reason for this is so the company has some chance of making a profit or breaking even. Because of these cut-backs, an under-resourced project is often in danger of suffering serious quality consequences.

Since there is no such thing as a project with unlimited resources , the question then becomes a matter of what are the indicators of an under-resourced project. Let’s take a look at some typical tell-tale signs:

  • Bare minimum amount of time allotted to QA
  • Overly bureaucratic process for change requests and off-spec work
  • Change request budget may be small or non-existent
  • Formalized processes get dropped to use time for development
  • No time for value-add QA like grammar or spell checking
  • No allowance for hallway usability testing
  • No on-site installation or support (phone or email support only)
  • No budget for writing user documentation
  • No face-to-face user training
  • Documentation which is out-dated
  • No technology research ('good enough' coding will have to do)
  • No time to produce a risk analysis document
  • Poor or barely existent project schedule
  • Coders don't track their actual time taken for tasks in the schedule
  • Company perks disappear (e.g. food, beverages, etc)
  • No down time - time sheets reflect 100% allocation to project work
  • Progress updates for clients become infrequent and rudimentary
  • Less time is spent understanding the business domain
  • Programmer have to work unpaid overtime
  • A project post-mortem isn't conducted (i.e. lessons learned )

You may notice many of the compromises are quite minor. And there is a reason for this. Under-resourced projects exists at the border line between a project not going ahead at all, and one just barely being ratified. If resources and processes were cut to an extreme level, then the project would be destined to fail no matter what (e.g. a project with no functional spec or project schedule isn’t under-resourced, it’s just plain old crazy).

For project managers finding themselves at the helm of an under-resourced project, there are a few strategies which can be used to not only deliver the project, but also maintain an acceptable level of quality:

Minimize iterations - the more it goes back to the client for feedback, the longer it takes. I know this flies in the face of modern Agile practices, but what I’m saying is to limit the feedback cycle, not abolish it. What does this mean in practical terms? It equates to establishing ground rules with the client early on (e.g. only allowing three iterations to get the wireframes correct). Could this be construed as under-servicing the client, perhaps. But it may also force the client to be decisive rather than relying on iterations.

Use informal sign-offs - use email as much as possible as a sign-off medium. For example; you may send the client a JPEG of their website design and ask them to reply with something along these lines: "I approve the design". It’s a simple time saving strategy because it always takes longer to get a physical signature from a client. Getting informal sign-offs also reduces iterations since the client knows they are officially locking in a decision.

Maintain a production checklist - on a smaller project involving just one or two people, time can be saved by using a production checklist rather than a full-fledged project schedule. A production checklist is just two items in an excel sheet; task and percentage complete. It says nothing about estimated hours. Couldn’t you just drop the production checklist completely and save even more time? Sure you could, but then the chances of missing something becomes a real danger. Back-tracking to include a forgotten task could take more time then the investment in making the production checklist in the first place.

Use passive reporting - instead of chasing programmers to ask where they're at with their tasks, get them to come to you. This can be achieved by asking team members to update their areas in the online project schedule twice a week. Another way is to get team members to email you when they have a deliverable to report (e.g. "the SSL certificate has been installed. I have a confirmation email from the hosting provider").

Propose staged development - if a client has a big project but not enough money to get it done, then suggest they break up the project into a number of stages. The initial or 'core' stage would include the most vital features which they simply couldn’t do without. Later stages would bring in the nice-to-haves and value-add features.

Use a bug tracking system - generally speaking, you should be using a bug tracking system anyway. But it becomes particularly important in under-resourced projects since all time expenditure needs to be allocated with great precision (i.e. there is little room for error).

Use mini-specs - once coding begins, chances are good new features will be requested at intermittent points during development. Rather than adding features during the main development cycle, gather them together into a mini-spec. The items in the mini-spec would be implemented after the originally scoped product is delivered (possibly taking it to version 1.1). By not adding features in drips and drabs, you are optimizing integration.

Do 'feature triage' - be harsh on what features really need to be included in the initial release of the product. It may be painful for a client to accept that they can’t have the world on a shoe-string budget, but something's got to give.

Trim unnecessary tasks - instead of doing two rounds of system testing, do one. Instead of allowing for two on-site visits to conduct user acceptance testing, do one visit and the rest via phone. Do you really need to spend an hour worth of travel for another face-to-face meeting with the client or will a phone call do? If you are observant, creative, and ruthless, you will see many opportunities where time can be trimmed. Of course, hacking away too much will mar the product’s quality and just require time be re-invested for fixes.

Dilbert - estimating project cost

A question which surely beckons attention is what impact a tight budget has on product quality. A client isn't going to accept an excessively buggy product in either a well funded project nor one with tight resources.

You can still attain a level of quality closely approaching a well-funded project. What it comes down to is things like how polished the system looks (e.g. amateurish icons vs. professionally designed ones). There could also be less relationship building with the client since there isn’t as much time for face-to-face meetings. A reduced QA cycle may uncover fewer errors, so the system gets launched with dormant bugs that surface later down the track. Successfully delivering a under-resourced project isn’t impossible, the trick is knowing what to trim and what to keep.

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