Thursday, May 08, 2008

Ramblings!

I am rereading this after about an hour of writing and must apologize for the track this post has taken.  It is more of a description of how I got into project management and my career in general.  I am going to finish it just to complete the story, but I won't be bothered if it doesn't get read.  Mea culpa.  I have made this blog about me as little as possible and more about the things that I have discovered.  I hope the 700 people that have visited this month excuse my indulgence.

More later...about mpFx!

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The Microsoft Project Fx (mpFx) initiative is moving along, albeit slowly.  We are all busy and I understand that.  I was prepared to go it alone originally so any help I get is a bonus for me.  I registered the mpFx.org domain last night, which forwards to www.codeplex.com/mpFx for now.   Check it out if you get a moment.

In a nutshell, mpFx version 1.0 is a project intended to create a wrapping and extending class library around the Microsoft Office Project Server Interface (PSI).  Beyond 1.0, mpFx will house the team's creative output as it relates to increasing developer productivity for those developers tasked with building or support solutions built using Microsoft Project, both server and client. 

Over the past few days I have had the occasion to introduce myself to strangers who have asked me, regarding mpFx, why are you doing this?  I thought I would spend a few minutes tonight addressing this question.

I have been in the project management industry for a long time, relative to my short career.  Back in the mid 90's, I worked at a small company in Redmond, Washington, called Critical Path Technical Services, Inc (CPTS).  CPTS specialized in custom solutions built using the early versions of Microsoft Project.   I, on the other hand, was not involved with CPTS's Microsoft Project business.  The company was expanding its business to include general software development, something I did for a few years on contract to Microsoft.

Ironically, it was Microsoft Project and the project management industry that opened up the door to full time employment (blue-badge, as they say) at Microsoft.  The irony was that in spite of CPTS effort to keep me out of the Microsoft Project business, the same management team accidentally lost their "cub programmer" to Microsoft by sending me to a meeting on campus regarding Microsoft Project.

The Northwest can be beautiful in the spring.  The week I ended up squarely in the project management software industry was an exceptional example of how the dreariness of a watery winter can suddenly be lifted from the greater Seattle area.  One of the principles at CPTS had a new BMW motorcycle and really wanted to get out and ride.  So, when the Planning Business Unit (the name of the group within Microsoft that housed Microsoft Project and Team Manager) called asking for some consultative assistance in a meeting between Microsoft and Deloitte & Touche, I was served up to go in his stead.   I was a 23 year-old programmer who wore shorts and had long hair (at the time, now I wear khakis and have a shaved head) and Microsoft's culture at the time was really quite okay with that, but nonetheless I dug up a shirt with a collar and went off to be a "consultant" on a client call with Microsoft.

The year was 1998 and web conferencing was just a spectacle in the eye of its future market makers, but Microsoft was cutting edge.  They had dedicated technology for this sort of thing, and walking into the meeting room was a bit heady for me, what with the big video screen and fancy telephonic gadgets spread out across the conference table.  I am sure the woman from D&T felt like she was under a microscope as a room full of Microsofties piled in to talk to just her.   

As I soon discovered, the call was really a top-level sales call.  The marketing group from the Planning Business Unit was looking to D&T to be an early adopter of Microsoft Project 98 (which hadn't released yet).  I was there to "answer any technical questions" that came up.  I sat there quietly and listened to the team discuss the upcoming 98 release and the benefits D&T would gain from getting involved early.  

It was apparent to me that we (Microsoft really) was losing this woman.  Years later, after having sat through countless meetings of this nature, I too would be lost; but at that point, I was just getting frustrated.

My job at CPTS was to be an almost totally self-sufficient business unit.  With the principle's help, I would gather requirements, meet with clients, write the software, and deploy it--and all of it was built on the Microsoft stack.  Here we were talking about Microsoft Project when we really need to talk about how Microsoft Project could be a front-facing business system sitting atop and integrating with the entire Microsoft stack (which was a great deal smaller back then).   Microsoft SQL Server (the 98 release supported saving projects to SQL and Oracle), Exchange, Office, IIS...the works.  As I was sitting there quietly I realized I was adding no value whatsoever unless I chimed in...

So, I asked if I could say something.  I just about raised my hand before I spoke.  Jennifer Cioffi, the group marketing manager at the time, gave me the floor.  I can't remember exactly what I said but it was about how looking at Microsoft as an applications vendor was missing the point.  Microsoft Project (98) plus the Exchange (I was big on Exchange back then) plus SQL and Office really gave you the basic platform components to build an enterprise project management system.  Granted, it was naive, but I was and am passionate helping organizations realize meaningful benefits from their technology investment.

We finished up the meeting--I don't know and I would never find out if I had any impact on D&T--and started to clear the room.  Jennifer approached me and, jokingly I thought, said "you need to come work for me."  I laughed it off and headed back to our small office on the other side of Redmond.

By the time I returned, there was an email from Jennifer reaffirming her offer.  Now, at the time I had no intention of leaving CPTS because they were my first company and we were in it together.  I thought about it, hard.  If you read the "cub programmer" post mentioned at the beginning of this post, you will see that I had always wanted to work for Microsoft.  I had done some very interesting jobs as a contractor and one of my best friends who worked there got me a job interview for a developer job in the IIS team.  I bombed it.  Flat bombed it.  I was so nervous.

To make a long story shorter, a couple weeks later I was a full time Microsoft employee working in the Planning Business Unit as the technical product manager for Microsoft Project and Team Manager.  I continued moonlighting for CPTS to get my developer fix and earn a little extra money, but I spent my days managing the Microsoft Project Partner Program and building little applications to show off Microsoft Project 98's extensibility features.

My job required a ton of travel, customer meetings, partner meetings, and conferences.  I grew up fast and I learned a great deal about business, Microsoft, technology, and how influential and important Microsoft is to partners across the planet.  I also learned that Microsoft Project 98 was far from being an enterprise-grade project management tool.  Years later I would also learn about the iterative, evolutionary nature of software development but at the time, I was just getting hammered by partners and customers about how Microsoft Project 98 wasn't up to snuff.

One partner, Pacific Edge Software, really had something going on and they were familiar to me, both personally and professionally.  A key developer from CPTS was now their chief software developer and he was also the guy who guided me as I learned the craft of software development.  The principles invited me to their office for a demo of a product they called Project Office.  I was floored. 

Pacific Edge had prototyped exactly what I heard from clients time and time again:  give me a "bigger, more integrated" picture of how my project fits in the business ecology, help me make informed portfolio-oriented decisions, and by the way, give me web-based time and expense features with a small cost footprint.   I am a sucker for great design and to top it off, Pacific Edge's product looked beautiful.

Meantime, I had gotten the developer itch like you wouldn't believe.  I started my career writing code and wanted to do it again, but unbeknownst to me when I signed up at Microsoft, going from technical product manager to SDE (software development engineer) was hard--once in marketing, always suspect.   1999 was also the height of the start-up fever that had investors practically shoveling money at companies that had ideas, good or bad.  Later, Pacific Edge would secure 38M in venture capital from none other than Don Valentine's Sequoia Capital (you know, Apple, Google, EA, PayPal, YouTube--that Sequoia!).  I wanted to take what I had learned crisscrossing the country and the planet talking to customers about building project management software and get something done with it.

Again, to make a long story shorter, I left Microsoft to head up Pacific Edge's development team, along with Ken Inglis of CPTS (also a former Microsoft employee).  We spent just over a year blasting away on a product that was fun to build, easy to use, and really well liked by our customers (and investors).  That company and the product is now part of Serena.

I wanted to work and I wanted to work hard, so I did.  Pacific Edge had a window of opportunity and some angel funding so we needed to crank.  I woke before dark and returned well after dark and loved every minute of it.  At 25 years old, I was living my dream.

I was also working myself to death and draining my brain.  In addition to leading the development team (some times by instant messenger), I was writing huge swaths of code including the plug-in architecture for the Windows client, the security subsystem, the licensing subsystem, and the server-side setup programs.   Most of the server stuff was implemented as straight C DLL's designed to interop with our Visual Basic user interface.  We had a good time, built a great product, released, and then had a huge party.

Shortly after the release I was promoted to chief software architect and was tasked with thinking up the roadmap for future releases, recruiting a new team to spin off to develop other products, and manage the Project Management XML Working Group.   Life was good but I was getting restless.  I was actually getting tired of software, at least as it pertained to the project management world.  I started working with Donna Fitzgerald, Jim Tisch, Scott Fuller, and some other pundits on project management methodologies and fast became fascinated with project management, not just the enabling software.

Working with the team, I concluded that successful project management meant discovering the sweet spot where enabling software, useful and light-weight processes, and skilled people coalesce to produce an effective project management system--a system of people, processes, and tools (this phrase would come to dominate my life for about four years).  Well, of course you say!  I can tell you that looking at the project management space from behind a keyboard for so many years meant that I had to break the mental habit of jumping to writing code to fix all the world's project management woes. 

I have to admit that I was also burnt out.  The year of writing code sometimes 15 hours a day (a couple of times I left the office at around 4:00 AM after having been there since 6:00 AM), eating fast food, and thinking of nothing but code had taken a toll on me. I had gotten to the point where I would do something in the physical universe (like writing something down on paper) that needed undoing, and I would reach for CTRL + Z...that's pretty bad.

Scott Fuller, one of the owners of PacEdge, gave me plenty of leeway the summer after we shipped because he knew I put everything I had into his company.  I spent time at home raising a little puppy and learning about software architectures.  I built up a big library, spent a lot of time writing, and just thinking about project management in general.  We dubbed our effort "Progressive Project Management", which has the same ancestry as many of the agile movements you find so popular today--we didn't start anything big like that, but we were thinking about it pretty hard.  We developed an extension to the theory of constraints the expanded and balanced the notion to include the softer side of project management.

As time passed, I found myself thinking about things further and further from software and more about project management methods, education, and dissemination--how do we raise project management to a core business function?

About once a year, a good friend of mine from Washington DC, Eric Gioia, would ask me to come work for him and his father at Robbins-Gioia (RG).  RG is a boutique project and program management consulting firm servicing both government and industry, and has been doing it for over twenty years.  Eric, and his father John, were also risk-takers and forwarding thinking about how the web would come into play in the project management market.  In 1997, they started PM Boulevard, one of the first commercial portals targeting project managers.  PM Boulevard was to be the go-to place for all things project management: templates, expert advice, community, software products, and specialized consulting and education.

When Eric made his yearly call he had just finished a Harvard program designed to fast-track participants through Harvard's case-based MBA program.  He was practically bristling with ideas.  Eric is very smart, charismatic and inspires loyalty in his friends and colleagues like I have never seen before.    More importantly, I liked Eric and John, the company, and what they were selling: project management rooted in a solid, time-tested model:  People, Processes, and Tools.  This line of thinking was exactly where I was at with my own research and development so Eric's yearly call really hit me.

Also, I hadn't gone from traveling all the time while at Microsoft to just doing a few conferences here and there while at Pacific Edge.  I wanted to get out there again and meet with clients, see the country, and experience a different culture from that of the just barely post-bubble world of Redmond in late 2001.   August of 2001, to be specific.

I took a trip out DC, which is a city I have always loved.  In 8th grade I took a school trip to DC and upon my return, I told my mother that someday I would live in DC.  Aside from the deeply humid and hot summers, DC is an absolutely beautiful city.  I met with Eric and John and really got excited when they offered me the job of president of PM Boulevard.  PM Boulevard was the perfect stage from which to launch my vision of progressive project management, a vision that held project management both at the center of successful business and a tool to be used by everyone to make the world better.   I really believed that, and to this day I believe it but with a bit more mature stance.

And then the world started falling apart around us.  Just weeks after returning from beautiful DC, I woke to discover that New York and DC were under attack.  I was scheduled to start work at PM Boulevard in early October, so there was just enough time for the anthrax attacks and the talking heads on television to pretty much paralyze the country.  Friends asked me "are you really going to move there? What if somebody pops a nuke in DC?"  Seriously.

I made the move anyway.  My view was that I had to life my life or they had won already.  Plus, I felt that going to DC and spreading my unique brand of project management (or so I thought at the time) would help more than sitting around in Redmond trying to figure out what startup to join next--or whether or not to follow Pacific Edge now that management had been replaced by the investors.

Easy choice.

But boy, I am telling you that I was in for a culture shock.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

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I'm kinda paranoid about losing everything I've worked hard
on. Any recommendations?


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