Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A sprint or a marathon?

As they complete work on the new student accommodation interface, Laura Hallett and Kathryn Woodroof provide an insight into their project management style.

Replacing a key enterprise system in any organisation comes with a fair number of challenges. You're faced with a stakeholder group reaching almost 100 who each have their own individual view on life "in the new world", existing enterprise systems to integrate with in a sophisticated manner, and project staff who have their day jobs to manage alongside successful implementation. The project to replace our student accommodation system started in September 2013. It should go live to our returning students applying for accommodation on campus, in November.

There comes a point in any project when you have to knuckle down and get on with the work of developing the product. We talked and consulted, planned and then planned some more, and then KxStudent was installed. Right, time to start moulding it to our requirements. But what's the best way of developing one of the University's essential business systems? How and where do you keep track of all of the detail and the decisions? These were questions that we hoped to answer during the project.

The University moved to Google Apps for Education in 2011. It's fair to say that most people on this project are now Googlephiles. The project team is made up of busy people from five very busy departments. Calendars being what they are, it's not always easy to get everyone together. In order to make the most of our face-to-face time, we have to communicate efficiently in-between meetings. Google Apps has enabled us to do this. The project documentation is saved on our Google Drive. Google Docs can be edited simultaneously, with a full revision history, and you can make comments or chat to your colleagues whilst editing. You can make yourself available for quick questions on Google Hangouts if colleagues are doing a testing session and you can’t make it. Google Calendar gives you an at-a-glance overview of the team’s availability and allows you to schedule repeat meetings easily.

OK, not this sort of scrum.
Scrum by David - used under a Creative Commons license
When you do get together, it's important to be efficient - never more so than in our meetings about the interface between KxStudent and SITS. The interface development has been iterative - we're on our eighth version of the specification - it can be easy to lose focus and motivation. Many technical readers will be familiar with the Scrum framework, which is used for complex product development. Whilst we have not consciously adopted the Scrum methodology for this project we do find ourselves using some of the processes sub-consciously. Our interface meetings are a bit like a Daily Scrum. We review what has been accomplished since the last meeting, discuss any blockers and agree what will be done before the next meeting. The development work itself is done between meetings (using Google Apps, of course) in what might be called Sprints. Although sometimes they feel like marathons!

The interface will be completed and signed off soon. But whilst it's the end of this phase of the project, I'm sure it won't be the end of dynamic and collaborative working. We'll take our favoured approaches and the lessons that we have learnt and apply them to the next phase - web development.

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