Problems with software projects

One way of deciding what ought to be covered in 'software project management' is to consider what problems need to be addressed.

Traditionally, management has been seen as the preserve of a distinct class within the organization. As technology has made the tasks undertaken by an organization more sophisticated, many management tasks seem to have become dispersed throughout the organization: there are management systems rather than managers. Nevertheless, the successful project will normally have one person who is responsible for its success. Such people are likely to be concerned with the key areas that are most likely to prevent success - they are primarily trouble-shooters and their job is likely to be moulded by the problems that confront the project. A survey of managers published by Thayer, Pyster and Wood identified the following commonly experienced problems:

• poor estimates and plans;

• lack of quality standards and measures;

• lack of guidance about making organizational decisions;

• lack of techniques to make progress visible;

• poor role definition - who does what?

• incorrect success criteria.

The above list looks at the project from the manager's point of view. What about the staff who make up the members of the project team? Below is a list of the problems identified by a number of students on a degree course in Computing and Information Systems who had just completed a year's industrial placement:

• inadequate specification of work;

• management ignorance of IT;

• lack of knowledge of application area;

Further details of the survey can be found in 'Major issues in software engineering project management' in IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, Volume 7, pp 333-342.

• lack of up-to-date documentation;

Stephen Flower's Software Failure, Management Failure, Wiley & Sons, 1996, is an interesting survey of failed computer projects preceding activities not completed on time - including late delivery of equipment;

lack of communication between users and technicians; lack of communication leading to duplication of work;

lack of commitment - especially when a project is tied to one person who then moves;

narrow scope of technical expertise; changing statutory requirements; changing software environment; deadline pressure; lack of quality control; remote management; lack of training.

Note how many of the problems identified by the students stemmed from poor communications. Another common problem identified by this and other groups of students is the wide range of IT specialisms - an organization may be made up of lots of individuals or groups who will be expert in one set of software techniques and tools but ignorant of those used by their colleagues. Communication problems are therefore bound to arise.

What about the problems faced by the customers of the products of computer projects? Here are some recent stories in the press:

• the United States Internal Revenue System was to abandon its tax system modernization programme after having spent $4 billion;

• the state of California spent $1 billion on its non-functional welfare database system;

• the £339 million United Kingdom air traffic control system was reported as being two years behind schedule;

• a discount stock brokerage company had 50 people working 14 hours or more a day to correct three months of records clerically—the report commented that the new system had been rushed into operation without adequate testing;

• in the United Kingdom, a Home Office immigration service computerization project was reported as having missed two deadlines and was nine months late;

• the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom blamed software bugs and management errors for £12 million of project costs in relation to an implementation of a Ministry of Agriculture computer system to administer farm subsidies.

Most of the stories above relate to public sector organizations. This may be misleading—private sector organizations tend to conceal their disasters and in any case many of the public projects above were actually being carried out by private sector contractors. Any lingering faith by users in the innate ability of IT people to plan ahead properly will have been removed by consideration of the 'millennium bug', a purely self-inflicted IT problem. On balance it might be a good idea not to survey users about their problems with IT projects!

Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

What you need to know about… Project Management Made Easy! Project management consists of more than just a large building project and can encompass small projects as well. No matter what the size of your project, you need to have some sort of project management. How you manage your project has everything to do with its outcome.

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