Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Secret Sauce of Project Management

I just got back from a 3-day seminar called Turning Knowledge into Performance - A Learning Simulation, which was put on by the Project Management Institute. The seminar was part discussion, part game, and full-time engagement. This was the first training I have ever attended where you were not looking at your watch or drinking caffeine to stay awake.

A Game? Tell me more!

A basic timeline and complete requirements were already created, so the first step was to set up a kickoff meeting with the customer and stakeholders. Even though this was a simulation, I experienced much of the same politics where everyone feels their perspective is "right" and that you should listen to only them. As the virtual project manager, I was in charge of everything on the project including:
  • Hiring and releasing team members
  • Scheduling team, stakeholder, customer, and sponsor meetings
  • Populating the work breakdown structure
  • Setting the timeline for all of the major tasks
  • Monitoring the budget and allocating money to one of dozens of line items
  • Praising and disciplining the team
  • Generating reports
  • Monitoring expected completion dates and critical paths
  • Putting out fires and make sure the project is moving forward
The simulation used a typical waterfall approach and I asked if it could be done with agile methodologies, but the instructor made it clear that agile will not work. I was hoping that we could be a little less rigid in our approach, but the application was not programmed to work how we wanted it to. Our team decided to use some parts of the waterfall methodology with a sprinkle of agile, and it really paid off for us.

The seminar was 20% classroom discussion and 80% running a computer-based simulation on the building of a web-based product. The project would include hardware, software, and a virtual team of 30 people. We had a $512,000 budget and 22 weeks to launch the application.

Who attended?

There were 14 people in the seminar, and the first day started out with introductions around the room. There were a lot of people who were project or program managers for large companies like FedEx and Lockheed Martin. Many of the people in the room had fancy titles and a lot of formal project management experience. Half of the attendees were existing Project Management Professionals (PMP) and were throwing out many acronyms that are the staples of how most traditional companies run projects.

I was on a team of 3 people, and we quickly realized that we would work well together given our personalities and background. I explained that Mozilla has traditionally work well with very little process, but growth and competition are driving us to adopt best practices. It was hard for most people in the seminar to come to terms that at Mozilla we don't have personal offices, they provide free food and drinks, pets are welcome, and that many of us love our jobs. All those things seemed very foreign to many in the room.

I did feel a little out-ranked, given that many of the attendees were corporate people with seasoned background and big titles. I was the odd person with my Mac, iPhone and jeans, since most other attendees had PCs, Blackberrys, and wore dress pants. Even though I have been doing project management for nearly a decade, I have worn many hats, and it was never my only role. I remember that I was once going down the corporate-world path, but my stint in higher education and now at Mozilla has gotten me back to where I think I can be most effective and happy. I traded in my Blackberry over a year ago and will never look back!

How did your team do?

At the start of the project, we decided on the following project standards based on feedback from executive management meetings:
  • Schedule: Fixed
  • Scope: Chosen
  • Cost: Adjustable
We got feedback from the CEO of the virtual organization that the schedule was extremely important due to a competitor releasing their product in the near future. We decided keep the scope somewhat in check and adjust the cost to make sure we hit the schedule on or before the 22-weeks.

To make the project even more challenging, the simulation was programmed to introduce to random major change to the project to see how we would adapt. During week 9, executive management asked us to move our launch date back two weeks to 20 weeks total. This was halfway through our project; we had to re-adjust many of our timelines, and non-critical paths now became critical.

After the 3-day simulation, our team did really well. Of the 4 teams, we finished further ahead of schedule than anyone else, had the lowest amount of defects, and had the highest team satisfaction. Our team was pretty happy and it was a great experience.

We finished simulation with the following project metrics:
  • 1 week ahead of schedule (including the 2 week schedule compression)
  • $9,800 over budget (less than 2% of the overall budget and we expected this)
  • 82 defects (100 defects was the maximum defects)
  • Team satisfaction: high
  • Client/customer/sponsor satisfaction: high
Why did your team rock?
  • Hired the best people for the team with the most appropriate qualifications for the task
  • Scheduled two scrum-like 1/2 hour meetings every other day to remove blockers and discuss quality or schedule
  • Praised people on any sign they were doing a good job or showing effort
  • Scheduled a two-day team building event after we hired most of the people on the team
  • Limited overtime to when schedule was behind on the critical path
  • Rewarded people with gifts when they went above and beyond
  • Asked a team member who put in their resignation and who was needed on a critical path task to work an extra 20 hours his last week. We felt slightly bad about this situation, but he pulled it off perfect and kept the project on track.
  • ...and the final element of our success: We had a pizza lunches every week for everyone on the team!
In conclusion, what worked for our team and project was to hire good people, keep team moral high, and ensured transparency and clear priorities. If you have good people on your team and they know what they should be working on, you only have to make minor adjustments to the project to keep it on track.

So, what is the secret sauce?

Great People + Good Environment + Clear Direction + Free Food

What have you found that works well to keep project teams successful? Please comment below and let me know your thoughts.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How a tragic celebrity death increased my web traffic by 2,000+%

Anyone that has known me for very long knows that I have this strange obsession with the number 27. I don't commit much time to do it anymore, but I still get comments and emails from people around the world. When I was a kid I started to notice the number 27 popping up more often in my life, pop culture, and science. At first I just ignored, but I later found out I was not the only crazy person that thought they saw more then a coincidence. For about a decade now, I have been cataloging anything I can find on the number 27. I used to ranked number one on Google for common searches that included the number 27, but I lost rank when I changed my sub domain. Google's Blogger does not allow any custom 301 redirects thus all the rank accumulated at the old URLs was lost.

Before the domain name change, I was receiving 300-400 daily visitors and now I only receive 30-40 daily visitors. The 27 visitors are an extreme sub-sub culture and many of these people's stories and emails were just mind blowing. Outside of collecting 27 information, it gave me great pleasure constantly to annoy my friends with additional "number 27" sightings. The more I annoyed my friends, the more I looked. It was a strange cycle, but it was in all good fun. :-)

When Amy Winehouse seemed to be losing herself to drugs and her music career was starting to fade, I made a comment that she will more likely fall into the same fate as other notable music stars who died at age 27. When the news broke on July 23rd that she was found dead in her apartment at age 27,  I expected an immediate increase in traffic to my 27 website. Some people are aware of the "27 Club" which is a mysterious coincidence where many famous musicians all died at the age of 27. A good book to check out is called "The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock and Roll", which documents the deaths of 34 rock stars who all died at age 27.

Notable 27 club members:
  • Jimi Hentrix
  • Janis Joplin
  • Jim Morrison
  • Kurt Cobain
  • Brian Jones
So, how did the death of Amy Winehouse affect my 27 website?

Visitor's increased 2,500%:

How were people finding my website?

What countries where most people coming from?

How were people finding the website? Search!

I then took the traffic a step farther and created two Google Ads to drive additional traffic, which costs me $100.00. My ads appeared on websites and Google search a half million times and drove an additional 2,500 people to the 27 website.

What did I learn with this short-live traffic increase?

If you are in charge of online advertising, keep a reserve of funds available for strategic advertisements and promotions during times when you can piggy back of another event. Just be aware of the backlash and perceptions of your organization if you do not seem genuine. Case in point: When a giant orange Tide detergent truck shows up immediately after a natural disaster. Be careful finding a balance between proving a service/information and self-promotion. The ads I created for the number 27 around Amy Winehouse's death was just an experiment to see if it works and if there would be any residual search engine rank increase over time.


My rank in Google did NOT change from pre-Winehouse news numbers. Stick to building rank organically through great content, SEO, and use online advertisements to complement regular search traffic. If you rely on advertisements only, you quickly spend more money then the return you will receive from the additional traffic. If you have a large advertising budget and have the money to burn, online advertisements are a quick and dirty way to drive web traffic.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Joining Mozilla Firefox

A New Chapter

I am now three months into my new job (much more then a "job") at Mozilla Firefox and it is pretty much a dream come true. I had an amazing three year stint at Penn State AgSci where we went from hundreds of disparate websites to a much more cohesive web presence. While it was hard to leave my old team and my home state, this was an opportunity I could not turn down. I have always been a fan of Mozilla from an innovative perspective and also their philosophical position on the "Open Web". Regardless if you use Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, or Safari, you have to give it to Mozilla for staying true to their roots and putting users first.

I am now based out of Palo Alto, California, which is thousands of miles away from Pennsylvania -- the only state I have previously lived in. While I will miss my friends and family, I already feel more connected to the community and culture than I ever did in Pennsylvania. I don't know if it is the weather, opportunities, free spirit, or all of the above, but everyone just seems happy here. Regardless if you are in the service industry, programming web applications, or running a company, everyone gives 100% and maintains a positive attitude. It is rock stars galore in Silicon Valley!

What Am I doing At Mozilla?

This is actually more complicated, because my title is not very explicit or well known. My official title is "Sr. Web Product Engineer", but let's break it down:
  • Sr: I've been around the block a few times....
  • Web: The Web will be the heart of all my projects.
  • Product: Everything I work will be made up of many pieces that are turned into a single deliverable.
  • Engineer: A methodical approach will be used ensure high success rates.
Still unclear? Basically, think about the word "engineer", but from a project perspective. I will be engineering technical projects to make sure I have the right people, good requirements, and a solid process to keep the ball rolling. Removing roadblocks, meeting with stakeholders, and keeping momentum behind multiple projects will be the core of this position. This is a pretty long explication, so I usually just say "I manage technical projects on Mozilla's WebDev team." and leave it at that. :-)

Want to learn more about the team and how we are going to manage Web projects? Check out Ryan Snyder's blog and video from our team's presentation on April 29th, 2011.

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