Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review of Liquid Planner (www.liquidplanner.com)

Review by Alistair Davidson, Partner, Eclicktick Consulting

Strategic planning is not project planning. But strategic planning often requires project planning and dealing with high levels of uncertainty. There is, as a result, no single good way of managing execution that will apply to everyone’s situation. LiquidPlanner, an online project management software package, priced at $25 per user per month, is a simple package that includes an important element in project planning and project portfolio management – the difficulty of estimating how much work is required to complete a task.

Uncertainty about the length of time required to complete a task has numerous consequences. First, team members may pad their estimates of the work required to complete a task. Second, downstream tasks dependent upon the padded estimate will look even worse than they should. Put together too many padded estimates and projects may become impossible to sell internally. Restructuring of projects and resources become even more difficult than if better estimates were available. Even worse, arbitrary decisions about what is realistic and what is not may lead to top-down decisions by a senior manager or project manager—resulting it forecasts that are equally as erroneous and arbitrary.

LiquidPlanner’s solution is straightforward. Tasks are estimated as taking a range of time, e.g. from 2-4 hours or 1-4 days. The Gant charts (horizontal bar charts) that lay out the steps in a project show the most likely completion time for the task, the earliest possible date for the task and worse case for delivery. Promised or delivery dates now become easier to understand and more likely to be accurate.

LiquidPlanner is very much a child of 2010. The application comes with a portal where portions of the project can be shared with external participants (e.g. suppliers, customers, sub-contractors, partners, etc.). Messaging between participants is exposable through the portal. And an excellent series of video tutorials gets users up to speed quickly.

Adding in Monte Carlo or stochastic modeling to regular project management software is an option in many software packages, But usage of more probabilistic project management is still quite rare. LiquidPlanner is an easy to use and attractive tool for managing projects and small portfolios of time-based activities. Unlike many more complicated tools for Monte Carlo modeling, it keeps things simple.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Raising Notebooks From the Dead

Don’t get me wrong. While I ran a software company for many years, I am not someone who likes to spend time delving into the innards of computers. And that perhaps makes this article more significant.

I had a problem, one that many households and small businesses share --lots of old notebooks sitting around that are essentially unusable – problems with drivers, old operating systems, slow speed, too little RAM. I am strategic and business development consultant who works with clients that always seem to be in crisis, so my time is more valuable that playing around with old computers.

But last week, I decided I had a quiet time in August. It was time to clean up. As an experiment, I downloaded Ubuntu from ubuntu.com, burned an installation disk and tried it out. Now there are four ways you can try out Ubuntu as an operating system.

1. Run it from the CD which makes no changes to the computer.
2. Install it so that when you boot your computer, you can choose which operating system to boot.
3. Install it as a window that runs within MS-Windows using for example the free VMPlayer from vmware.com.
4. Replace your old operating system with Ubuntu.

One of my notebooks would not let me dual boot the system but it is a machine that needs to have its Windows reinstalled. But I succeeded with practically no effort in setting up Ubuntu and VMPlayer on my desktop and latest notebook. And I converted an older notebook to a Ubuntu notebook that runs better and faster that it did with Windows, a fact that would be of no surprise to Unix/Linux enthusiasts.

Score 1 for easy installation for Ubuntu.
Score 2 for VMWare player.

But what about usability? The Macintosh (which is based upon UNIX) and Windows set the standard for ease of use. How does Ubuntu stack up? To my surprise, I would have to rate it acceptable verging on good for a normal, relatively unskilled user. Ubuntu comes with most of the applications a normal person needs in their daily computer usage, e.g. Firefox for browsing, Evolution, an Outlook like email client, Open Office, an open source equivalent of MS-Office, music playing software, video playing software and a convenient application center where you can download programs like GIMP, a Photoshop (TM Adobe) like application. All of this with a reasonable easy to use windowing environment (GNOME) which is easy to master.

Now, I have no personal interest in becoming a LINUX geek, but my “take away” from this small project is that Ubuntu and the supported software provides an inexpensive way of turning an older machine with the performance of a boat anchor, one with performance and driver problems into something useful. Given that buying a decent netbook might cost you $400, Ubuntu can save you money and provide an inexpensive way of making a second or third computer usable for “commodity” tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, small databases, music, video and photography.

The bottom line: Ubuntu does not require as much hardware as Windows and the level of driver support, installation ease make it usable by just about anyone who can burn a disk in Windows. In fact, on my desktop, Ubuntu recognized a sound card and used it when Windows is currently failing to do so -- pretty impressive.

And did I mention that all the software mentioned - the Ubuntu operating system, the applications and VMPlayer from VMWare are all free?