Archive for category Proj Mgt

In the “duh, why didn’t I ask that?” category…

One of the sites that I program manage, Sun Forums, is one of the most widely used of all Sun community sites (more than 800k users who have posted nearly 4 million messages).

While the site has served as a useful communication conduit, it’s had plenty of struggles — many around community management. To help mend some fences, the core team created a “News and Updates Forum” where any of the users have direct access to the core team. Via the forum, we’ve taken some rightful beatings, but it’s proven to be a place where we can gather amazingly rich, well thought out suggestions from our power users and a few new users — a place where we fully open our ears, pull up our sleeves and DO SOMETHING with the feedback. We’re a very small team, but we’re making progress and are committed to continue to do so.

One of the downsides to the News and Updates forum is a large volume of off-topic posts. The team of users and forums core team members have implemented a few tweaks and processes to help redirect off-topic posters to a more appropriate forum. These changes have helped, but the off-topic posts continue (a few per day).

Today, one of our power users posted the following in response to an off-topic poster:

“Could you explain how you came to post your query in this topic? For some reason people keep doing this. It’s a fairly obscure topic name and section, so there’s a bug (real or usability related) that causes people to do this. This thread will be deleted in a minute, but if you could explain how it got here first that might be helpful.”

Gee, why didn’t I think to ask that? Excellent Question, Dave! 🙂

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Great Meeting Ice Breaker – “Would you rather…?”

We purchased the board game “Would you rather…?” a while ago and love the concept so much that we often make up our own questions randomly. We’re sometimes a corny family.

Anyway, I recently co-hosted a 2-day face-to-face planning session with people who are in different organizations, but work in a common space. One of the primary objectives of the planning session was to form critical business relationships. During the session introductions, we had each person introduce themselves then answer a “Would you rather…?” question. Examples:

Would you rather be drowned or burned to death?

Would you rather fight Mike Tyson or talk like him?

Would you rather be eaten to death by ants or or killed by a lion?

Would you rather go on a date with bad breath or body odor?


It proved to be a fun way to lighten the mood and get to know a little more about one another.

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Inside Sun’s Usability Lab…

usabilityI observed a usability study today in Sun’s usability lab. Martin’s group is conducting a usability study on a number of new sun.com search ideas that are being kicked around. I began program managing sun.com’s search a few months ago, so I figured this was a great opportunity to not only learn more about the science of search (a LOT to learn), but also learn more about usability studies and user input on search. I’ve initiated a number of usability studies on various projects, but never watched them real-time.

The study consists of several one hour sessions with a single interviewer asking a single interviewee scripted questions. The types of questions depend on the type of study (branding, functionality ease of use, new concepts, etc.). In this case we are interested in gathering ease of use information for existing functionality as well as input on some new concepts that are not yet deployed.

The person conducting the interview is a non-Sun person and clearly states this to the users up front. The idea is they’ll feel comfortable stating their honest opinions vs stating what they think we want to hear. She did a great job of drilling down on responses to ensure the users comments were clearly understood, but avoided influencing their opinions with repetitive or leading questions like they do in the movies until some poor sucker finally confesses to a murder s/he didn’t commit.

The lab is a lot like what you see in the movies during an interrogation scene – bright room with the interviewer/interviewee on one side separated by a sound-proof one-way mirror with observers sitting in a dark room on the other side. Once I got over the “Wow this is cool! What does this do?” phase of getting familiar with the lab and began focusing on the test in-progress, I found the user responses quite interesting, surprising and at times rather humorous. For the most part, the validation of ideas was good, but I found the negative responses far more intriguing.

One of the specific points this study validated was users often abandon site navigation if search results are present. The study also validated that a few features of sun.com’s search that we suspect are ambiguous are in fact so and via the study we were able to gather a few ideas on how to improve them.

Overall, observing a live usability study was an enlightening experience. It was good to observe a non-Sun person using our stuff and nice to see search meeting the expected needs for the most part.

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Smaller is Better

When it comes to web application releases, smaller is definitely better. I’m a huge fan of a monthly release cycle with routine development, code freeze, QA, UAT (user acceptance testing), and maintenance window milestones.

Aligning team efforts with monthly release milestones is usually not terribly difficult (depending on the team and application size) unless there are workflow dependencies that trump the release efforts by rightfully limiting or freezing change in development, test, production, etc. environments on an occasional or routine basis.

The trick is advanced prioritization, scheduling, and clear definition of deliverables comprising a release. Of couse, bigger deliverables have longer development & test cycles, but should still be scheduled to launch with a monthly release further out during a routine maintenance window.

Having automated regression test scripts is a must have. If feasible and possible, in addition to testing as much core functionality as possible they should also include test cases for new functionality.

Advanced reminders to the users who perform UAT and clearly documented UAT test instructions help the UAT phase run smoothly. Consistent use of a bug tracking system is also a must have.

The routine maintenance window is nice, because end users know, for example that on the last Tuesday of every month between 5-8PM PT, the system may be restarted and they may lose their session, new changes will be implemented, etc. It’s also a good time to perform (non-release) infrastructure (hardware changes, OS patching, etc.) maintenance work. Although I may scheduled release deployment and infrastructure work during the same maintenance window, they usually don’t happen concurrently and if possible and necessary, it’s not a bad idea to run regression test scripts in between. This way, if something does go “ass up” (a borrowed phrase from one of my favorite engineers), you can isolate the suspected cause.

And of course, since monthly release cycles result in smaller more manageable releases, risk and quality issues usually are also smaller. The idea is the above benefits far outweigh the overhead required for a release.

One last point, if your environments policy, process, whatever, prevents you from delivering as frequently as is reasonable, it’s time to punt the policy yourself (if you have the means and authority) or be the catalyst for change by shining the light on the disadvantage incurred as a result of not being able to delivery quickly and efficiently.

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Project Manager-Topia

In the things that make project managers overjoyed category:

1. Of course #1 is cliche, but true: Projects that deliver early, under budget AND meet or positively exceed the defined needs. Emphasizing positively (as opposed to negatively) exceeding the needs…there is a painful difference.

2. A geographically distributed engineering team. I’m feeling the benefits of this one today and tomorrow as we race against time. Thanks to all that is holy and I’m not sure how holy he is, but more specifically thanks to Chris M. (rock star engineer in the UK) and the US-based portion of the team, we’re squeezing the juice out of a 17 hour (UK + US timezones) work day on a project where every minute counts.

3. And this one can be somewhat rare, but is quite common at Sun (based on my 11ish years of software development program mgt…5ish at Sun): An engineer who has SDOCD (Software Development Obsessive Complusive Disorder)…a lucky find!

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Off to PM another couple very cool programs…

My two loyal blog readers may have noticed my blogging activities have been rather abysmal lately. This is because I’m transitioning off of my current program and taking on two others.

For the last couple years I’ve been lucky enough to program manage Starlight (sun.com‘s content management system) and be a part of a stellar team who consistently raises the delivery bar while having fun.

The two new programs that I am now lucky enough to manage are sun.com search aaaaand blogs.sun.com. How lucky am I?! Here is why this is so cool:

1. I get to PM programs that I can easily and openly blog about.
2. I get to work with some rock star engineers who I’ve come to know by being in Will’s organization, but I’ve never got to work with on a common program.
3. Both programs have been managed by solid program managers: DiTucci on Search and Klarissa on Blogs. So, there’s already a lot of good program management stuff in place.

Woo-hoo! 😀

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Inside the mind of a neurotic project manager…

I’m not talking about the overly certified project manager (been there, done that). I’m talking about the natural born project manager…the kind of PM that as s/he navigates a task, is scanning, scanning, scanning the surroundings for opportunities to sweep up the low hanging fruit without losing a beat on the task at hand.

Tonight…I think I’ve come close to my home being project manager grade utopia…the *real* PMs out there will gasp when they hear that statement.

I think…I have almost every personal belonging in its designated position.

That’s right…at this moment…every article of clothing that my three member family owns is either a) cleaned and stored neatly in drawers or closets or b) on one of said family members bodies.

Every small appliance, dish, pan, and utensil is clean and in it’s appropriate position.

Every pet is fed and watered.

Child’s homework complete and in backpack.

Child is clean and nestled comfortably in bed.

Husband: clean and watching the news on fresh linens.

Dog: nails clipped and resting at the foot of the child’s bed.

Cats: ok, I don’t know where the hell the cats are, but come on now…who can control cats?

Remote controls: in their easy access position.

Email: Read and responded to (both work and personal).

Cell phone: charged and ready for early morning action.

Blog: updated with a link directing traffic back to employers website.

Note to self: you’re freaking me out…perhaps it’s time for a vacation.

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