By Andrew Neitlich

Has project management gone out the window?

By Andrew Neitlich

I’m working with two very skilled development teams. Both do excellent development. Both come from world-class educational institutions, and have Fortune 500 and emerging venture experience.

But neither provides the type of project management I expect, which includes:

  • A project plan with dates
  • Success meeting deadlines
  • Frequent communication with me about progress, risks, issues (actually, this only applies to one of the two)
  • Ability to accurately estimated resources required
  • Builds released on time
  • Providing status reports on time
  • Asking me how I want to learn about project status and updates

I find this annoying and frustrating. I know that with trends like agile development, spiral development, and other forms of “build the bridge as you walk on it” development, accurately projecting project timelines and issues is difficult.


Still, communication is a KEY part of client relationship management. Many skilled IT professionals need to improve in this area. Otherwise, clients will not be as loyal to you as they otherwise could.

In project leadership you have to manage 4 things:

  1. Client expectations (making sure client has no unrealistic dreams about what the project will do).
  2. The process (classic project management 101).
  3. Results (making sure the client gets the results they expect, regardless of whether you do all the tasks you think you were hired to get).
  4. Relationships (building a long-term relationship with the client, beyond a single project).

I’ve met very few IT pros who handle all 4 of these.

  • myrdhrin

    Andrew, I’m surprised you mention agile development as lacking the communication. The projects I’m involved with and that are using Agile (most of them are SCRUM) put the customer in the middle of the process. The customer is KEY to the whole decision taking and scope (i.e. result).

  • aneitlich


    That’s good to hear! I am thinking that lots of developers are using the buzzword “agile development” without following the actual process.

    It’s perhaps like the re-engineering fad in the early 90’s. There was a way to do it right, and a way to just say you were doing it when you weren’t really doing it (a la Dilbert).

    In my case, the Agile-style projects require me to constantly nag at least one development team to stay in touch, show me something, and let me know when to expect the next module to review. I’d be much happier if they called me first.

    In fact, that’s a great rule of customer service: Always call the customer first, before they have to call you.

  • csull

    Andrew, I personally utilize project management practices in many aspects of my business. When developing a large website, application, or whatever, there are certain things that should not be avoided. Often these practices would include a charter, WBS, process flow charts, control meetings, etc.

    I think that project management is something that will continue to grow, but I also agree with you and believe that the web development community needs to take a more active approach regarding project management operations. I also hope this is the case, as projects are so much smoother with that extra layer of control.

    With the restructuring of the PMP certification exam in September, I will be suprised if the number of PMP certified developers you meet increases. For those that don’t know, the test, passing score and more will be revamped in September (mid-month I believe) so if you’re interested, now is the time to get in and take the exam.

  • myrdhrin

    Hum… Then they are not doing something very agile… altough it’s not part of the agile manifesto in itself I have (from a source I can’t remember) what’s called the 10 keys to agility posted on my desk… key 1 and 2 would apply directly to feedback, some other to project management (dealines and such)… anyway.. I’ll post them all (if someone finds the source I’d really appreciate).

    so here they go

    10 Keys to Agility

    1. Deliver working software in small iterations, early and often.
    2. Gather frequent feedback, hold retrospectives, learn and adjust.
    3. Work in colocated, collaborative, multi-discipline teams.
    4. Empower your teams with shared vision and responsibility.
    5. Use direct, immediate communication (talk a lot).
    6. Break work in to small tasks, performed just-in-time.
    7. Maintain high quality and good design – avoid “debt.”
    8. Strive for simple and minimal solutions.
    9. Work with a sustainable, predictable pace.
    10. Have fun!

  • comfixit

    Andrew, I often suspect the problem is that these individuals/companies are pricing their services in such a way that they do not leave themselves room for proper project management.

    If you think about it producing a proper plan, documentation, training, constant communication, meetings etc… can take up a significant percentage of the developers time, perhaps as much as 50% in some cases depending on the size of the project.

    The question then becomes “If I take the time to do all the extra’s will that make my quote more or less competitive?”. As the price for services goes down, or remains stable and cost of living increases those are sometimes the corners that get cut.

    If there are enough companies out there that would say were willing to pay twice as much as the current market average to get the job done right then I think things might change more to your liking. But most developers these days seem to be looking to make their money via volume of business rather then taking on a few premium priced projects and devoting more time and attention to them.

  • Agile development requires a project schedule (including deliverables, meetings and reviews) just as much as traditional development methods.

    Stating you’re using an agile route is not an open invitation to just do whatever you want, whenever you want – that’s simply bad project planning no matter what road you take.

    Don’t blame the method for your frustrations, blame the company you’re working with and their lack of good PM skills.


  • Ahh, this is an interesting topic. We bid project mgmt into the total cost of our project. It is so important that we stay on top of things as well as keeping the client informed. This often makes us the highest bid. However, we rarely adjust our cost as our past client let potential clients know of our great communciation. It really puts clients at ease when they are kept informed about the projects status. They feel that they are invovled and not just “sitting on the sidelines”. Every now and then when someone questions cost, we tell them that the cost includes PM. If they do not understand we try to inform the the difference between good PM and bad or no PM. If they do not understand that then we move on and wish them the best of luck as they are looking for a low ball figure.

  • aneitlich

    And interestingly enough in this case, I took sitepoint readers’ advice and did not go with lowball, or even particularly low. I had thought pm was included in quote, but…

  • I find this similar complaint when working with different clients. “Our current web developer this” or “Our current web developer that”. To me, this has nothing to do with web development but just plain, good old fashioned business skills. You could even link it to “mom’s taught common courtesy”. Taking a consultive approach to web marketing had really helped differentiate ourselves from the competition.

    I have listed some steps below that we follow when dealing with a client (new or old). Keep in mind these are just quick thoughts and not every step but you will get the point. It is all about good communication.

    1. Set up client meeting
    2. Confirm meeting the day before with e-mail
    3. Meet with client
    4. Send thank you e-mail to client for meeting (the good thing about Pocket PC phones)
    5. Write thank you letter for meeting
    6. Write proposal

    Now follow steps 1-6

    7. Project begins
    8. Keep client updated through phone calls and e-mail. This should be daily or every other day. Know your client though… they may not want to be contacted every day but DO NOT LET A WEEK PASS WITH NO COMMUNICATION
    9. Complete project
    10. Write thank you letter
    11. Follow up with client (phone calls, lunch, newsletter, etc)
    12. Get more work from client without the “expensive” sells process

  • jright

    Keeping the client informed on deadlines, milestones, and to do lists can be tricky and time consuming if not done properly. I don’t want to sound like a salesman because I have nothing to do with this company, but we use basecamp from a company called 37signals. It allows us to communicate through message boards, set up milestones/to-dos, upload files, all while allowing the client(s) access to the project as well. This allows us to bid competitively while still offering great service. Anyone else use software like this?

  • aneitlich

    Agreed. And, just email from time to time to say:

    Are you satisfied?

    Intuit asks one question when it does customer surveys: Would you recommend us to someone else?

    Why not ask one question throughout project: Are you satisfied with progress?

  • Etnu

    Maybe I’m the exception rather than the rule, but I haven’t worked on a software project in the last 7 years that didn’t have a decent amount of project management going on. Some places totally overdid it (I’ve actually seen projects where they ‘spec out’ a system by providing the entire database schema!), and others under-did it (typically when the managers had no technical background). Both situations lead to projects taking a lot longer than they should.

  • MickoZ

    This is always a hot topics. Even been slashdotted recently somehow. I think the problem is that there is a lot of misunderstanding in the nature of programming (or in the nature of good developper). Sometime it takes creativity, etc.

    Not all people are all-star programmers too, that is to get the job done.

    Not all project are realistic, clearly defined, etc.

    But like you say it, one part of it, if manage the client expectation, but sometime that is not that easy. Sometime you do something fast and client expect the next thing to be more fast because it is just “…”, it should be easy. It is easy to make something nearly working. But make something really work, i.e. correctly work, take sometime more time. Even really big compagnie like Microsoft, Nintendo, etc. don’t follow exactly their deadline. They should at less be more organized, don’t? ;-)

    Sometime it is easy to estimate too, sometime it is less. That is why I talk of the nature of the project.

    You may also not be technically knowledgeable for the challenge you take (that make you have to study, do your research, think a lot) — and that will make you feel insecure to give good estimate.

    You may not have time (or don’t take the time) to sit down.

    You may have no clue to solve all problem. Developer are problem solver. The good developer are usually good problem solver. But sometime we are still stuck. It happen to the brightess people.

    Like now, I just typed a lot of thing. But see, I have not planned what I would express there, I typed a lot of misc thing, it probably reflect that my text get confusing, etc. I should maybe just think, break it down, make it simpler, explain it better, and in the end… I will feel a better understanding of what I want to express and you will feel the same. I will do that next time *grin*

  • I agree with jright that web development teams need to use a web-based software system to track projects and centralize follow-up. My firm was building 6-10 web sites at a time and we now have about 130. The reason for the increase in productivity and the improvement in our follow-up is due to the system we use. We built ours instead of using Basecamp, SugarCRM, MS Project, or Salesforce.com because none of them worked as we wanted them to. Its evolved to the point that we are going to offer it as a hosted product soon. Here is a screen capture of a portion of the project management screen:

    This gives you an idea of how we manage follow-up, communication, and files.

  • Verskidev

    Perhaps Mr. Neitlich is not up to the task of being involved with this vsd team.

  • Pingback: effective web projects » Project Management is dead - long live project management()

  • The reason why “web design companies/agencies/one-man-bands” don’t “do” project management is because:
    – They think they can do it all in their head
    – The more time they spend on the project “management” is less time actually doing the project
    – The time spent actually project managing has to be billed for
    – Fear that the customer will say no if they see too much paperwork
    – Fear that the customer will say no if they left waiting for “pieces of paper”
    – Fear that p/mg will put their price too high
    – Its easier to say ‘yes I can do it’ now to close the deal rather than waiting for somebody to say ‘yes, but it’ll take 2-3 working days to come up with a project plan’.
    – Fear that p/management will become a monster which they can’t control
    – There is no time

    I think project management is very important – just because it shows the customer you’re thinking about the problem professionally. Obviousily you don’t spend ages doing p/management if the client is only wanting a 5-page website, but it is still important to do it — the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

  • myrdhrin

    worchyld, I would add to you list …

    – They don’t know what project management is

  • whatproject?

    Millions of £’s of of tax payers money has been wated in the UK on badly managed IT projects.

    I think the IT industry could learn a thing or two about project management from the offshore engineering industry.

  • MickoZ

    There is millions of cash wasted everywhere in IT project due to different reason (e.g. Lack of skill, lack of planning, client doesn’t want to accept the real answer).

    Sure you have to be a man and take the responsability. But there is time where people won’t accept the real answer and that can also influence a project’s quality. Of course that goes into managing client expectation skill ;-) I have got very good client and I have also faced people (at day job or as client) who wanted the time they expected as the result. No matter what the reality was. They just wanted “in 2 days” without knowing exactly what they wanted. Maybe it is in human nature too sometime. ;-)

    But more I advance, more I recognize that what made my success in the past and what should make my success as of now, it is to do it right even if you explain that it is gonna cost more if you take the easy fast path, sometime you have to protect your own self in long term and expect that or at less you have to be very clear if you take shortcut.

  • kenzsa

    Project Management is an essential tool for all web projects. Regardless of the process you use, planning and customer communication/buy-in is the key to your success.

    For those that say project management takes too long and is too costly, maybe have not practiced it often enough to see the benefit. You see the value most readily when you come up against a problem that should have easily been identified before it happened, or when your client starts to change your scope half way through your work, but the value is still there when you start out the project and it sets up the project for success from the start.

    Even small projects benefit from Project Management principles. A 5 page website is a perfect example. Why do people think project management on such a project takes too long? Project management is about repitition! performing the same tasks over and over again on every project you do, ensures a greater level of success than those that are thrown together at the last moment. As this is the case, setup some project plans templates for a small, medium and large project. Determine which one fits a job and then modify it for its individual needs. Presto!!! a project that is easily planned, has taken very little time and utilises all of the project management principles – at very little cost during the planning cycle.

  • MickoZ

    Kenzsa, yeah you are very right. Every project can benefit from GOOD project management.

    But that is not only about “project management”. Project Management encourage to think well of the project for most people. Personally I consider myself in the top ones (because of my logic, etc.) when developing something. I may not be good to sell why it takes more time or why the task I attack are the most difficult one (and the one other don’t want to attack). But the reason my solution have very low functionnal problem (i.e. almost no bugs) is because I at less plan well the thing I have to do to make it perfect.

    I am not that good at plan WHEN I will do it because I don’t practice myself enough probably to do this. But I am good to at less cover all the thing that need to be done to do a fully functionnal product (which is not what I can say of most people I have seen in IT, School, etc.–Thinking about all its needs– it just seems a skill they lack).

    So if you put project management to good use, it forces you to think well about the problem you will attack. Break thing in small piece, make all those pieces interact well together.

    That is why I talk about efficient project management (and not just throwing number, time and guess). That is not easy to do completely and people want them done completely (all task, all time, etc.). But if you ask that but cannot even broke thing in correct task, then your project management is flawed.

    Anything you want to achieve, you gotta start from the base. The basic need to work in your project, your idea amd your project management. ;-)

    [as you can see, I have not planned well the redaction of this text :D — but I hope you get a grasp of some idea I throw up there, they may sound confusing, but they might be very important for you in the long run.]

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