Project managers get a powerful tool

The latest version of FastTrack makes it easy to see cause and effect

|GCN Lab Reviewer's Choice|

Performance: A-

Features: A-

Value: A

Price: $349

Reviewer's comments: FastTrack Schedule 9 is easy to learn, but the key to getting its real advantages is keeping all the data up-to-date. The benefit is overall efficiency across multiple projects.

Contact: AEC Software Inc., Sterling, Va., (800) 346-9413
www.aecsoftware.com

Even the longest journey begins with a first step. The same can be said for agency IT projects. But you need to make sure you're taking that step in the right direction.

FastTrack Schedule 9 from AEC Software can help by breaking down projects in terms of the human and financial resources, as well as time, needed to complete different stages. Some projects simply can't be achieved with the available resources without sacrificing somewhere else; FastTrack can accurately point this out.

Once a project is programmed into FastTrack, you can see at a glance if you're likely to complete it by deadline, and whether your proposal will affect other projects in the works. Although it can take some time to program every aspect of a project, that upfront attention to detail will pay off in the long run.

Ideally, the person using FastTrack will be a professional project manager. However, the interface is surprisingly simple, so even someone untrained or doing part-time project management can pick it up. We were consistently pleased with how the program could think ahead and alert us to planning conflicts as they arose.

Although most of our testing with FastTrack was on a PC-compatible system, the files it generated also work on a Mac. They can even interface with the Mac's iCalendar tool.

You also can convert FastTrack files to work with Microsoft Project, the program's main competitor, which is helpful if you have both programs or need to share data with contractors who may not have the same software.

When you start a project, you begin at the main window, which looks a bit like an Excel spreadsheet. There are buttons that take you to the Schedule, Calendar or Resource view. If you've been using FastTrack for a while, these views will be populated with data about existing projects and people your project will pull from. There are also several templates you can load to help streamline the process, including several designed specifically for government agencies.

Overall project scheduling takes a traditional, horizontal timeline view, but everything in FastTrack is dynamic, so if you prefer a standard calendar, you can switch over to the Calendar view. Changes will replicate throughout the project.

Real advantages

You start to see real advantages to FastTrack 9 when you start assigning resources to a project. You can see at a glance if all your IT workers are on deadline completing a separate project, or if a department head will be away at a conference the week of an important briefing. You can use FastTrack to find holes in existing schedules, or to ensure your teams don't get unrealistic deadlines.

The dynamic nature of the program is the most impressive thing about it. Say you need a certain contractor but he's busy on something else. If he suddenly becomes available, you can see that in the program. Then you can drag and drop that human resource assignment into the time slot you want. The program then makes any needed adjustments to your budget and timetable.

To prevent information overload, you can set FastTrack to collapse or summarize all the data when you're not examining it. From the overview screen, it's easy to see red bars representing areas where some type of conflict or problem exists. Then you can zoom in to work out a solution.

Even though FastTrack has a simple interface, agencies will want to assign a dedicated person to learn all its nuances. More important, only a project manager can constantly monitor the program and the changing variables.

On large, complex projects (the company sent us an incredibly detailed sample project for building missiles), FastTrack 9 is a powerful tool. It may be overkill for smaller projects, but even in those cases, there's nothing wrong with working smarter.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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