Free, Easy Project Management Templates for Excel

by demtron on Tuesday, February 10, 2009 09:15 AM
One project in which I’m involved requires a small amount of project management for a team of 3 resources plus an outsourced software development group.  The project lead is the owner of the company and needed a high-level project plan with a simple interface for maintaining items in the work breakdown structure.  Sounds like we could use MS Project, right?

The owner uses a Mac, for which MS Project is not available, and has no experience with PM software to boot.  MS Project would probably be overkill, but the project is of sufficient scope and duration that a basic project management tool is needed.  In the interest of keeping things moving forward and finding a low- or no-cost PM tool, I began hunting for simple templates.  Why reinvent the wheel if someone else has already created something that works OK?

In general, all the templates I found offered at least one, but not all of the following:

  • Simple task dependency tracking (start-to-finish)
  • Gantt chart generation from a WBS
  • Rollups
  • Color coding of task status
  • Budgeting
  • Tracking by the hour


In the interest of meeting the tight time deadline, I decided that we needed one that could create a simple Gantt chart (no dependencies needed) and handle start/finish dates, percent completion and resource assignments.  I found a great set of them at http://www.hyperthot.com/pm_excel_gantt.htm .  I picked the Gantt chart with auto-bars version.

Here's an example of what the Gantt chart looks like with some tasks filled in:

We’ll see how this works.


IT Consultants and 5 Things They Won’t Tell Clients

by demtron on Friday, November 14, 2008 11:02 AM

Over the years, I've heard a number of stories from clients about their challenges with their IT consultants.  The stories range from the mundane, such as checking stock prices online dozens of times a day, to involving legal liabilities, such as operating a personal auction site on the company's Web server.  Most issues fall somewhere between but have the potential to cause problems for business owners if they're not rooted out.

As I am working with a client to pick of the pieces from another consultant's departure, I began thinking about what consultants don't tell their clients about their expertise, accounting for their time on the job, and how they structure the results of their work.  Here are a few that came to mind right away.

Knowledge Inflation: Some of the worst problems I've seen come from consultants who take on a project that's beyond their area of knowledge hoping to "wing it" and look like a rock star.  This can be very dangerous for a client on a number of levels.

Underestimation of Effort: Many tasks in IT, especially those surrounding programming or data analysis, look easy on the surface but quickly become very involved as the details are uncovered.  A consultant eager to please the client may give a low estimate on the work involved only to find that the task is taking days or weeks instead of hours to complete.

Technology is a Distraction: Social networking, text messaging, on-line gaming, and mindless Web surfing are a part of practically all IT workers lives, especially those under 40 years old.  In moderation, these activities can be useful for stress relief and may keep them in touch with family and friends when working varying shifts.  However, there's a fine line between utility and draining productivity.

Something Isn't Working Right: It's hard for anyone for admit mistakes or problems, but it's especially hard when IT systems have underlying problems due to an oversight, lack of knowledge, or lack of testing.  These problems are often swept under the rug because the clients don't have access to the reports, administrative tools and logging systems that would otherwise uncover the problems.

I Am Not a Coding Machine: Programmers are especially prone to this one.  Some of the best coding, useful business ideas and best practices come out of spending time to reflect a problem and using "down time" to solve problems.  Poor consultants will crank out code or check off tasks to create the appearance of productivity at the expense of considering efficiency and developing better approaches to their work.

After reading these, one may think that IT consultants should be viewed with suspicion.  It's important to note that these concerns exist in all professions and with employees and consultants alike.  Unlike most workers, IT consultants are less likely to be discovered for a number or reasons, such as:


  • The IT consultant might control the logging, auditing, and reporting of issues and reports
  • The client doesn't have a clear sense of reasonable expectations from its consultants
  • IT worker activities seem cryptic and foreign to clients, so it's better to just leave well enough alone

Whether hiring a new consultant, reviewing the work of an existing consultant or auditing the costs and efforts put into a project, it's important to keep these issues in mind and be aware of the many issues that surround a realistic evaluation of a consultant's work, abilities and habits.


Should Your Small Business Work with a Moonlighting IT Consultant?

by demtron on Monday, November 10, 2008 02:38 PM
Small businesses depend on numerous facets of technology to improve productivity, facilitate communication with clients and vendors, and promote their products.  For many business owners, hiring an outside consultant to handle web site design, web marketing, networking, software setup and telephone systems are a must.  Small businesses, in particular, often use moonlighting consultants to help them with their IT needs but may not consider the numerous pitfalls to such an arrangement.  How can one determine whether hiring a moonlighter is the right fit?

One of the greatest appeals is the consultant’s fees.  Many times, the consultant is employed elsewhere at a full-time job.  Since he doesn’t depend on the income from the sideline work, he can charge a lower rate than a full-time independent consultant.  Small businesses may find that a moonlighter charges fees of at least 30% less than full-timers – certainly worth considering, especially for a business with a tight budget or a long-term project.

What about the downsides?  Depending on the nature of the work and its time sensitivity, there could be a lot at stake.  Here are some of the questions that must be answered to make an informed decision.

On-site or off-site consulting?

Any work that can be done off-site is a better fit for a moonlighter.  Web design and custom programming are good fits for off-site work.  Remote connectivity tools such as Terminal Services, PC Anywhere, and VNC can allow a consultant to access resources while off-site.  Also, the consultant may prefer to use his own tools and equipment and may be more productive if working in his own environment.

Networking, computer setup and maintenance of other office equipment usually requires on-site work.  If the consultant has a full-time job during regular working hours, he may need access to the office environment after-hours.  Are you willing to give him keys and access codes to allow him to work alone?  If not, are you willing to stay at the office after-hours for as long as he’s there and during the times that he’s available?

How Long Can You Wait for Help?

A part-time moonlighter will likely be available when his time permits.  IT professionals are often required to work 45 to 50 hours per week or more, be available on-call during evenings and weekends, and handle maintenance tasks during late hours.  Juggling these demands with a family and personal schedule can be a big chore, especially for staff that supports mission-critical applications and services.

One of the biggest concerns I hear working out in field is moonlighters who can’t help their clients in a timely manner.  Problems don’t just happen after hours – from my experience, they tend to happen at the worst times right in the middle of a big project with a looming deadline.  Depending on the nature of the consultant’s full-time job, he may not be available to help you when you need it, even by phone.  If his day job is as a consultant for a consulting company, he may risk his job by helping you while he’s providing billable services to his employer’s client.  For that reason, it’s important to know what you can expect for his availability and responsiveness.

What If Big Problems Occur?

There’s peace-of-mind in knowing that your business has a knowledgeable resource available to fix big problems.  Sometimes, these problems take several hours or days to fix.  If your computer network fails at 4:45 PM and your moonlighter works a full-time day job in IT, he might be able to come over after work to help out.  What happens if the problem requires a 5-hour backup, reinstallation, and testing process?  Will your consultant be agreeable to work until midnight to help you get back up and running the next morning?  If not, would you be willing to go without your network for a whole day until he can come back the next night.

Collaboration among Multiple Consultants

As a business grows, it will likely need more than one consultant to handle different disciplines.  For micro-sized businesses in the range of 1 to 10 employees, one consultant may be able to handle networking, computer setup, office machine repair, basic programming and applications support.  This will change as soon as you introduce new specialized technologies to support your expanding business.  For my clients that have 10-100 employees, they use 5 or more consultants to cover their needs.

There’s often a need for one consultant to discuss configuration, processes and system architecture questions with the other in order to complete a given project.  A moonlighter who’s not available for this interaction on a project may delay its completion and force another consultant to make on-the-fly decisions as a critical juncture that create unforeseen consequences later on.  At minimum, each consultant should know the availability and areas of expertise of the others to help them plan their efforts and minimize complications for you.

What If Your Moonlighter Leaves?

When a reputable consultant decides to leave the marketplace, he’ll often create an exit strategy to turn over his clients to another consultant or help them find another consultant.  It’s a decision that’s been considered over a period of time and there are likely numerous other consultants that able and willing to step in.

With a moonlighter, it may not be so simple.  In my experience, the onset of apathy and disinterest is a common situation.  The consultant may slowly become less responsive, acquire additional responsibilities at his full-time employment and discover that he has decreasing time to devote to his after-hours clients.  If you’re not in constant contact with your consulting resource, his decreased availability may not be apparent until you have an urgent need, which is probably the worst time to find out.

So, you decide to seek out another moonlighter.  Can you assess the skill set that’s needed to fill the role?  Will another consultant be willing to work at the same rate or pay?  Are you able to keep your business systems running for weeks or months without a reliable resource?  For some of my clients, this was not an easy transition.

Conclusion

Choosing a moonlighting IT consultant can be a great fit that’s easy on the pocketbook.  Before jumping in and hiring one, be sure to honestly discuss these questions with your candidates.  Balancing your needs with your consultant’s availability is crucial to forging a relationship that works.

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