Ready to dig in: Program management
Good project managers measure their success and focus on results and satisfied customers
- By Nick Wakeman
- Jun 26, 2008
project had already
been years in the
making when it was
awarded to IBM Corp.
Its goal was clear ?
facilitate the trade
process, said Woody
Hall, who at the time
was chief information
officer at the Customs
Service, as Customs
and Border Protection
was called then.
"In the beginning, [Customs Modernization] was more
about speeding up and improving the process for clearing
goods through customs and making sure the appropriate
duties were charged and collected," said Hall, now vice president
of information technology strategy and CIO of General
Dynamics Corp.'s IT sector.
But then came the 2001 terrorist attacks,
and the mission of the project changed as
counterterrorism became its primary focus.
"It still had to do those other things, but
there was a greater focus on targeting high-risk
shipments," Hall said. "There was more
interest around where it was coming from
and who was shipping it and receiving it.
Had it been through the proper security
That the project survived and even
thrived after such a shift is a testament to
the project management processes and procedures
that were there from the beginning,
"Obviously, things had to change, and that
costs money and takes time?. Those are
things that would often break a program,
but it didn't break that program," he said.PILLARS OF STRENGTH
Good project management is built around
people, process and technology.
Processes are needed for scheduling and
tracking work, estimating costs, and identifying
and mitigating risks, among other
tasks. A variety of technologies are available
to help run those processes and in some
cases automate them.
The people portion is particularly crucial
in the IT world because much of the work,
such as writing code or bringing disparate
stakeholders together, requires a human
Many company executives and other
experts interviewed for this story said a
good project manager needs to be a political
animal. Not political in the sense of party
affiliation but someone who can work with
his subordinates, customers, company and
sometimes his customers' customers to
build a consensus.
"The project manager needs the ability to
take the different constituencies that are
affected by the project and build consensus,"
said Rick Lowrey, executive vice president of
products and strategy at Deltek Inc.
The project manager also needs to work
within the context of the customer's statement
of work, Lowrey said. "You have to
ask, 'What does it really mean? What is the
end state? What is the vision?'" he said.
With that in mind, project managers
know what to manage, what information to
collect and, probably most important, what
information the customer needs.
"Effective communications is probably the
cornerstone of what is going to make your
project successful," said Jim Cockle, a project
manager at Science Applications
Effective communications can take several
forms. One of the most basic elements is
giving reports to customers in a form they
can understand, Cockle said.
"In its essence, a project plan is
a communications vehicle," said
Doug Clark, chief executive officer
at Metier Ltd., an Arlington,
Va., provider of project mangement
software and services. "It is
supposed to tell people what you
are doing, when you are going to
do it and what you are trying to
Program and project managers
need to communicate with their
leadership and corporate support
elements, such as contract offices,
accounts payable and receivable,
and human resources.
Customers are looking for
progress reports, schedule and
cost updates, and performance
metrics, Cockle said.
"One of our goals is no surprises for management,"
he said.GETTING STARTED
One of the primary goals of project management
is to keep a project under control and
look for early warning signs that it might be
getting off track.
The start of a project is often the most
critical moment, and to get it off to a good
start, the focus needs to be on the goal of
"The rule of thumb is that if a project is
going to go off the tracks, it is going to be in
the first 90 days," said Linda Allan, executive
vice president at NCI Information
Systems Inc., of Reston, Va. "You really need to engage and understand what your customer
Most failed projects can be tracked back
to poor development of requirements,
"The ability to craft the solution is rarely
ever the problem. The problem is not getting
a clear agreement upfront on what it is
you are trying to do," Hall said.
"You need to
know what the end
looks like," said Jim
Rogers, vice president
sector. "You need to
build a plan. It
takes time to do
that, but it is worth
what the end
state should be,
there is no way to
said Gary Hobbs, vice president and managing
partner of defense and advanced programs
and operations at Unisys Corp.'s federal
"You won't know where you are or where
you are going," he said.
One of the reasons projects fail to meet
their goals is that project managers often
aren't brought into the process early
"As soon as a need or an opportunity is
identified, the project manager ought to be
assigned," said Keith Kerr, managing director
of the practice development group at
Robbins-Gioia LLC, a project management
consulting company in Alexandria, Va.
A good project manager can be a critical
part of the design phase of a project by
working with stakeholders, developing
staffing and cost plans, and helping with the
technical analysis, he said.
A project manager can identify the people
needed for a project, determine when they
are available and have them ready to go to
work as soon as a contract is won, said
Sandra Richardson, chief operating officer
at Metier. "Resource management is a key
part of project management," she said.DATA TRACKERS
Information gathering also starts early.
Stoplight charts are one of the tools NCI
project managers use to spot trouble
"We use a metrics-based project-reporting
system," Allan said.
To complete their monthly reports, project
managers answer a series of questions.
Depending on the answers, the stoplight
chart turns green, yellow or red. For yellows
and reds, project managers complete a onepage
PowerPoint slide that has four sections
? one to explain what went wrong; a second
for how they are going to correct it; a
third for when they expect it to be corrected;
and finally, when they will report on the
The stoplights are an aid to general managers,
who may be overseeing as many as 60
projects. "They see all these reports coming,
so this way they can focus just on the yellows
and the reds," Allan said.
Fast access to information about problems,
delays or other issues is especially
important for government contractors, who
often operate on small margins, said Francis
Craig, president and CEO at Unanet
Technologies, which develops software for
real-time project management.
Managers need to determine how big a
project is and how many tasks there will be.
No one task should be more than two weeks
long, she said. "You need granularity, particularly
for large projects."
Attention to detail allows contractors to
track the number of hours a task needs for
completion, and tools from companies such
as Deltek and Unanet can pull information
on hourly costs, billing rates and salaries.
Much of that data is critical to meeting
requirements for earned value management
systems that agencies are asking for to
determine if they are getting a return on
"The government wants automated
reports and automated metrics. Requiring
that you have transparency and high visibility
into those things requires that you have
automated tools," Hall said.DISCIPLINED APPROACH
Many contractors now hold Six Sigma,
International Organization for
Standardization 9001 and Capability
Maturity Model Integration certifications.
Many of these certifications focus on the
repeatability of processes and work hand-inglove
with good project management principles,
"Most companies codify their project
management into a series of practices and
procedures. When I did the work for our
ISO-9001 certification, we included project
management," Allan said.
The push for processes and procedures is
as much for flexibility as for repeatability of
The Customs Modernization project
changed drastically in midstream. Recently,
Hall heard the CIO who replaced his
replacement speak about the project's
The project management structure was in
place to help the thought process for the
shift to a counterterrorism mission. Hall
said the right questions were asked: What
data is needed? What needs to change?
Whom does it affect? What are the new
"I'm two generations removed now, but it
felt pretty good to hear him say the program
is viewed as having fundamentally delivered
on its commitments," Hall said.Nick Wakeman (email@example.com) is
editor-in-chief at Washington Technology.