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Project98 puts project management within reach

Every organization comprises a multitude of projects. More than just the products and services sold, companies have in-house activities happening all the time. "For profit" products will generally have a project manager assigned to ensure success. Obviously these projects have a need for good project management software.

Microsoft Project98
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
425 882-8080

There are, however, "other" projects to consider as well, the short-term, not for profit, behind the scene types of projects -- the ones that keep an organization functioning from day to day. For example, moving to a new site, upgrading computer systems, building maintenance and even organizing the holiday hoopla.

Understandably, it is the revenue-generating products that find themselves in a company's spotlight. They require sophisticated charts, scheduling and tracking. All projects, however, require time, resources and a schedule. Even the most simplistic projects can be better organized using project management software. The beauty of a package like Microsoft Project98 is that you do not have to be an experienced project manager to use it.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Whether you are a novice or an expert in project management, Project98 has something to offer. Following suit with Microsoft Office standards, it has a superb graphical interface. If you are comfortable with other Microsoft Office products, Project98 will seem familiar.The menu layout is intuitive, the toolbars can be customized to the user's liking, the color contrasting is easy on the eye, and the project windows have sliders to allow for maximum screen usage. The product is consistent with what the industry has grown to expect from Microsoft.

Quite simply, the online documentation/help system is excellent. For the novice, there are step-by-step guides to creating a new project. Microsoft took the time to explain the elements involved in project management, when and where they should be defined, and how they should be maintained.

Let's take a closer look at creating a project, from the point of view of the Help system. First, it details each aspect of the project, beginning with defining the start date. The user then defines a series of tasks, subtasks if needed, and their durations. Next, you assign resources needed to perform the defined tasks. Lastly, you link tasks together and define how they are dependent. For example, before you would want to hang a picture, you would have to build and paint the wall. The scheduling portion of Project98 interprets the dependencies and determines the schedule time line accordingly.

Of course, this is an over simplified example, but it contains all of the components needed to complete a bare bones project. The schedule is automatically calculated as changes are made to the project. This makes playing the "what if" game a little more fun.

Project98 supports numerous graphical views of the same data, including Gantt Charts, Pert Charts, Task Usage Charts, a variety of Resource Graph Charts and Milestone Charts, just to mention a few. The user can customize the formatting of the Gantt bars and the task list to emphasize areas of interest. For example, if the user wants to focus on the critical path of a project, he or she can change the format of the text for those tasks. The format can also be configured to emphasize just one task. Perhaps you want to draw attention to the completion date of a task that has already slipped schedule.

A Gantt Chart Wizard is provided with Project98. It brings up a series of interactive dialog boxes that allow the user to format the Gantt chart to suit his or her needs. The Wizard allows selection of the type of information to be displayed in the chart, like standard, critical path or baseline. Again, there is a listbox of possible choices. The Wizard also allows the user to define whether or not resource and date information should be displayed with the Gantt bars.

STAYING WITHIN THE OUTLINE

One of the nicest features of Project98 is its ability to maintain complex outlines. The user can define tasks and subtasks using indentation, making the charts easier to follow. The subtasks can be collapsed into the parent task, just like a directory tree in Windows Explorer. Project98 has some fantastic sorting abilities as well.

The menu layout of Microsoft's Project98 is intuitive, the toolbars can be customized to the user's liking, the color contrasting is easy on the eye and the project windows have sliders to allow for maximum screen usage.
The user can sort in a variety of ways, including date, cost and id. The sort logic can be nested up to three levels deep. For example, you may wish to sort first by id, then by cost, then by percentage of work complete. Each level of the sort can be defined in ascending or descending order. This feature would be very useful for large projects. Being able to customize the sorting abilities allows the user to focus on the exact area of interest without dragging along details about the entire project.

The reporting system provided by Project98 is very inclusive. There are six main categories in the reporting system, each containing a variety of reports to be generated. The overview category generates project summary, critical tasks and milestone reports. The costs category generates cash flow, earned value and budget reports.

The workload category generates task usage and resource usage reports. There is also a custom report category for generating reports that are organized by the user. Print Preview options can be used to view the reports before they are actually printed, allowing you to change your mind before engaging the
printer.

TWO LINKS TO PROJECTS

Project98 provides two ways to link projects. The first is OLE (object linking and embedding); the second is by establishing a link between project files. For example, if one project relies on a task being completed or a resource being free in another project, you can use cross-project links to create the dependency. Start and finish dates of the linked task are automatically reflected in the successor task in the project. You can also share fields of information between projects by using a Paste Special command. For example, job descriptions and pay rates can be shared and synchronized across projects.

Hyperlinking is also built into Project98. Using a simple dialog, you enter a path to the document to be linked. It can be an Internet address or a document from your hard drive or network. You can also command the link to jump to a specific location like a bookmark or a database object.

There are provisions for modifying hyperlinks as well. For example, you can change the destination, set the base address, edit the hyperlink text or change the appearance of the hyperlink text. You may want to distinguish the hyperlink text from other text using color or underlining.

To further customize graphs or charts, Project98 allows you to insert objects or drawings. The appropriate drawing tools or dialogs are automatically invoked so you can design or load your drawing. You can choose from bitmaps, Excel charts, Word documents, video clips and Paintbrush pictures, just to mention a few. You can change the look of each individual component on the Gantt chart by double clicking the bar. You can choose color, shape and endpoints of a bar to isolate particular areas of interest.

Project98 is completely point and click aware. Each of the views expands into detail about an object when it is clicked. This is particularly helpful since a lot of information is associated with each object on a graph.

There are numerous levels of zooming available to the user that could cause a graph to be a bit congested. Being able to isolate a task and view its details is essential.

MUCH MORE TO OFFER

There are many more features available to Project98. Overall, Project98 certainly meets the mark for a desktop project management package. Although we did not conduct a performance or benchmark evaluation, my understanding is that Project98 is dominantly a memory resident product.

There is one area of caution to anyone whose needs go beyond a desktop system. We are talking about those of you whose projects have very long durations, consisting of more than just a couple of hundred tasks and resources, needing to be linked with many sister projects. Projects of this magnitude could bring Project98 to a crawl. You may need more than a desktop package. For the rest of you, Project98 looks great.

About the Author

Cynthia L. Paxson works for the National Software Testing Laboratories in Conshohocken, Pa.

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