Rein in projects with the right software

Rein in projects with the right software

Of three packages, Microsoft Project 98 earns Reviewer's Choice for fulfilling managers' needs best

By David Jackson
Special to GCN

Choosing project management software is a project in itself. Managers who prefer to diagram every step will choose differently from those who focus more on the tasks to assign to different workers.

''I looked at three popular desktop packages: Microsoft Project 98, Kidasa Software's Milestones Etc. 5.0 and AEC Software's FastTrack Schedule 6.0. For overall functionality, Project 98 earns a Reviewer's Choice designation, even though it costs twice as much as the other two.

''Though far from perfect, Project 98 relates best to the project manager's work. Like any application that strives to be comprehensive, it is unwieldy. It reminds me of the Microsoft Access database manager, and of course it fits in well with the Microsoft Office suite.

''At first glance, Milestones Etc. appears the most accessible of the three. It focuses on drawing timelines and entering explanatory text. The tools have visual cues to show progress and status.

''FastTrack falls somewhere between the two. Its main focus is activity listing, like Project 98, and it does timeline editing, like Milestones. But FastTrack lacks Milestones' color options and Project 98's table options.

''To evaluate the applications, I designed a simple Web page, linked tasks and subtasks by dependency, then edited their data and produced reports. Because all three applications can output reports in Hypertext Markup Language, I looked at their HTML performance.

''All three packages were fairly easy to install. I chose the typical or standard installation in each case. Project 98 required a reboot to finish installation. FastTrack put icons on the Start menu, on the desktop and under the program files information. Milestones asked only one installation question: Standard or custom?

''Project 98's initial data entry was in the timeline format known as a Gantt chart, which calls for assigning start and finish dates and calculating the time allotted to each task. FastTrack also used the Gantt format. New lines could be inserted below the task, whereas Project 98 inserted them above the task. I prefer FastTrack's method, because the cursor could be positioned at the main activity and lines for the subtasks inserted below.

''Milestones set up a separate text box for subactivities that the user would drag and drop onto the timeline. Symbols and connectors made the timeline bars represent similar tasks. New tasks could be inserted by right-clicking on a task to create a new line below.

Task tussles

''Both Project 98 and FastTrack indented tasks to denote a hierarchy. Subtasks could be linked by dragging a task's timeline bar and connecting it to another. Milestones listed subtasks under a task but did not indent them.'' When it came to editing the project data, Project 98 frustrated me. As each task and subtask was added or edited, associated timelines disappeared and the task reverted back to the default'the current day's date. All previously scheduled information had to be re-entered.

''Milestones text could be edited by clicking on the task's date to open a new window for data. But Milestones was frustrating, too, because a mouse click on the timeline made another data point instead of editing one. There was no way to edit the connecting bar colors, so the timeline bar had to be deleted and recreated in the new color and format. Task dependencies could be assigned by right-clicking the menu over the main task.

''FastTrack was a bit simpler. An activity's information could be retyped, and start and end dates changed, without changing data for other tasks.

''The timeline bars also could move to shift the time.

Fall into place

''When a main task was deleted, all three software packages reclassified the subtasks as main tasks.

''And when the end point of an independent task was moved, the start points for dependent tasks all cascaded to correspond with the new end point. Spell-check was available in all packages.

''Presentation is where a project manager really needs to shine, diagramming the entire project in an understandable way.

''Milestones had two views: calendar and Gantt. FastTrack gave a Gantt view with total-day allocation below. Project 98 made more comprehensive views including Gantt and resource graphs, variations on resource usage tracking graphs with Gantt formats and a calendar view.

''All three packages could easily publish to the Web. Each could save a file as an HTML document, and each had some way to save schedules in a graphical format.

''Project 98's analysis features were more advanced than the others', especially the Open Database Connectivity support for transferring files to various databases. Project 98 also tracked resource allocation, workload and labor costs as an integrated function. Milestones could include numerical data as a part of its charting, but analysis of the data was impossible.

''FastTrack did workload tracking as a part of the standard schedule, but labor costs were not presented, nor was there a way to allocate resources. Milestones and FastTrack both have telephone and e-mail support.

''Microsoft gives standard telephone support with a charge for after-hours calls, and it has a Web interface for posting questions online.

''FastTrack provides a tutorial, help topics and an online frequently asked questions list. Project 98 includes the standard help topics, three tutorials and a series of links to Microsoft Web sites. On their respective Web sites, FastTrack maintains a FAQ page; Milestones provides a Q&A page for installation and a Top 10 support questions list; and Project 98 has links to a FAQ list as well as the online support form.

''Overall, Milestones is more a documentation tool than a project management tool. It reminds me of flowchart applications.

''Without a database engine, Milestones can do little more than a colorful spreadsheet.

''FastTrack would be adequate for small projects requiring documentation, but it lacks enough color options to make charts dynamic. Also, FastTrack needs a database structure for analyzing project development. The schedule layout can be formatted to present different lists, but not much else.

''Project 98, though powerful, suffers from land mines. The data relationships are never quite clear, so that when a task is edited or a new task inserted, there is no telling what bomb will explode elsewhere in the project. The program rules lack clarity. But Project 98 says, Bring it on, anything you have.'' After some initial fumbling through its maze of rules, a manager can track projects with many tasks, dependencies and resources. Its approach best mirrors a real project environment. n

''David Jackson is a San Francisco free-lance writer who has managed several projects for online service providers.



Choosing project management software is a project in itself. Managers who prefer to diagram every step will choose differently from those who focus more on the tasks to assign to different workers.

''I looked at three popular desktop packages: Microsoft Project 98, Kidasa Software's Milestones Etc. 5.0 and AEC Software's FastTrack Schedule 6.0. For overall functionality, Project 98 earns a Reviewer's Choice designation, even though it costs twice as much as the other two.

''Though far from perfect, Project 98 relates best to the project manager's work. Like any application that strives to be comprehensive, it is unwieldy. It reminds me of the Microsoft Access database manager, and of course it fits in well with the Microsoft Office suite.

''At first glance, Milestones Etc. appears the most accessible of the three. It focuses on drawing timelines and entering explanatory text. The tools have visual cues to show progress and status.

''FastTrack falls somewhere between the two. Its main focus is activity listing, like Project 98, and it does timeline editing, like Milestones. But FastTrack lacks Milestones' color options and Project 98's table options.

''To evaluate the applications, I designed a simple Web page, linked tasks and subtasks by dependency, then edited their data and produced reports. Because all three applications can output reports in Hypertext Markup Language, I looked at their HTML performance.

''All three packages were fairly easy to install. I chose the typical or standard installation in each case. Project 98 required a reboot to finish installation. FastTrack put icons on the Start menu, on the desktop and under the program files information. Milestones asked only one installation question: Standard or custom?

''Project 98's initial data entry was in the timeline format known as a Gantt chart, which calls for assigning start and finish dates and calculating the time allotted to each task. FastTrack also used the Gantt format. New lines could be inserted below the task, whereas Project 98 inserted them above the task. I prefer FastTrack's method, because the cursor could be positioned at the main activity and lines for the subtasks inserted below.

''Milestones set up a separate text box for subactivities that the user would drag and drop onto the timeline. Symbols and connectors made the timeline bars represent similar tasks. New tasks could be inserted by right-clicking on a task to create a new line below.

Task tussles

''Both Project 98 and FastTrack indented tasks to denote a hierarchy. Subtasks could be linked by dragging a task's timeline bar and connecting it to another. Milestones listed subtasks under a task but did not indent them.'' When it came to editing the project data, Project 98 frustrated me. As each task and subtask was added or edited, associated timelines disappeared and the task reverted back to the default'the current day's date. All previously scheduled information had to be re-entered.

''Milestones text could be edited by clicking on the task's date to open a new window for data. But Milestones was frustrating, too, because a mouse click on the timeline made another data point instead of editing one. There was no way to edit the connecting bar colors, so the timeline bar had to be deleted and recreated in the new color and format. Task dependencies could be assigned by right-clicking the menu over the main task.

''FastTrack was a bit simpler. An activity's information could be retyped, and start and end dates changed, without changing data for other tasks.

''The timeline bars also could move to shift the time.

Fall into place

''When a main task was deleted, all three software packages reclassified the subtasks as main tasks.

''And when the end point of an independent task was moved, the start points for dependent tasks all cascaded to correspond with the new end point. Spell-check was available in all packages.

''Presentation is where a project manager really needs to shine, diagramming the entire project in an understandable way.

''Milestones had two views: calendar and Gantt. FastTrack gave a Gantt view with total-day allocation below. Project 98 made more comprehensive views including Gantt and resource graphs, variations on resource usage tracking graphs with Gantt formats and a calendar view.

''All three packages could easily publish to the Web. Each could save a file as an HTML document, and each had some way to save schedules in a graphical format.

''Project 98's analysis features were more advanced than the others', especially the Open Database Connectivity support for transferring files to various databases. Project 98 also tracked resource allocation, workload and labor costs as an integrated function. Milestones could include numerical data as a part of its charting, but analysis of the data was impossible.

''FastTrack did workload tracking as a part of the standard schedule, but labor costs were not presented, nor was there a way to allocate resources. Milestones and FastTrack both have telephone and e-mail support.

''Microsoft gives standard telephone support with a charge for after-hours calls, and it has a Web interface for posting questions online.

''FastTrack provides a tutorial, help topics and an online frequently asked questions list. Project 98 includes the standard help topics, three tutorials and a series of links to Microsoft Web sites. On their respective Web sites, FastTrack maintains a FAQ page; Milestones provides a Q&A page for installation and a Top 10 support questions list; and Project 98 has links to a FAQ list as well as the online support form.

''Overall, Milestones is more a documentation tool than a project management tool. It reminds me of flowchart applications.

''Without a database engine, Milestones can do little more than a colorful spreadsheet.

''FastTrack would be adequate for small projects requiring documentation, but it lacks enough color options to make charts dynamic. Also, FastTrack needs a database structure for analyzing project development. The schedule layout can be formatted to present different lists, but not much else.

''Project 98, though powerful, suffers from land mines. The data relationships are never quite clear, so that when a task is edited or a new task inserted, there is no telling what bomb will explode elsewhere in the project. The program rules lack clarity. But Project 98 says, Bring it on, anything you have.'' After some initial fumbling through its maze of rules, a manager can track projects with many tasks, dependencies and resources. Its approach best mirrors a real project environment.

''David Jackson is a San Francisco free-lance writer who has managed several projects for online service providers.

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