Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Practical Method for Determining Project % Complete

How many times do you ask this question of one of your vendors and receive an answer that you don’t believe? What percentage of the project is complete? This is a simple question that allows you to compare this figure against the percent budget spent to see how likely it is that this project will finish on budget. Your vendors will make up all sorts of reasons for you to believe their statistics that show how complete the project is. Wouldn’t you like an objective calculation that gives you this number exactly?

I have been using a simple technique that allows me to plan projects, forecast their costs and communicate their weekly status with complete accuracy. My clients are always happy with the information they receive. This is not to say my projects always come in under budget. My projects are plagued with the same uncertainties any other projects face, some causing budget overruns. The difference is that I communicate these overruns weekly, honestly, can pinpoint the causes and allow my clients to make business decisions based on them. I don’t wait until the project is 75% complete and all the money is spent to ask for more money.

There is no magic behind the technique. The federal government mandates that projects run for them use a technique known as Earned Value Project Management to report time against task.  But not many laymen understand it without some intensive training in the technique. Everyone understands what it means when a project is 2 weeks behind schedule, but most would be confused if told it is $10,000 behind schedule.

It is possible, however, to salvage some of the official earned value calculations to generate two numbers that are meaningful to customers: Percentage of the project that is complete and percentage of the budget that has been spent.
Below is an excerpt from a status report that shows these two numbers in the budget portion:
So how do I generate and then justify these numbers?

The Planning Phase

I plan each project in front of the clients,

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lighting up Africa off the grid

Just as Africa skipped the wired phone technology and moved to wireless, there are opportunities to move directly to off-the-grid electricity. One of the biggest problems in the poor regions of Africa is that, once the sun sets for about twelve hours, there is no light to study by. This hampers education.

Kerosene is expensive, difficult to transport and causes breathing problems. But some inventors are coming up with ways to resolve these problems.
The SociaLite lamp, designed by students at Cooper Union in New York and Wa Palytechnic University in Ghana.
According to a recent NY Times article, the socialite is a central solar charging panel that would be owned by one person or a group. They could gather sunlight and use it to charge these large batteries which then give off light at night. They could pay for the light charging by asking people to pay to have their cell-phones charged.

Another neat idea invented by four Harvard women is the sOckett. A soccer ball that stores energy imparted by being kicked and then allows a lamp to be plugged into it at night. Check out the cool video:

But light at night is not the only problem. People living squeezed together in shanty-towns around the world lack light in the day. To the rescue comes the coolest idea yet.

Take an empty 1 liter soda bottle, fill it with water and a little chlorine and stick it through the roof of your home. This gathers light from outside and distributes it into the building. Watch this amazing video for how to build one for next to nothing. It only costs one free empty soda bottle, a small piece of roofing, some rubber cement and a few drops of chlorine. In this case, the charity is teaching the people to fish, rather than giving them fish.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Biggest losers forget the goal

Last season's Biggest Loser was a watershed. They all got the point that the goal was to lose weight and change lives. When it came to voting people out, the leaders stepped aside to allow those who needed to be on the ranch stay.

What a difference a season makes. The producers decided to ratchet up the drama. They succeeded by bringing on board a real piece of work by the name of Conda

She doesn't know how to shut her mouth and somehow has her tribe following her when she bullies the few who don't bend to her will. She destroyed several other contestants including loudmouth Adrian. His sister, Daphne vowed revenge. Here is where things became interesting.

They forgot the goal of the show in their temporary quest for revenge.
  1. During the temptation challenge, Daphne ate 1800 calories in order to have to the power to switch up the teams
  2. She chose to switch Conda onto her team (so that she could vote her out? It wasn't clear what her strategy was)
  3. She lied to everyone else that she was responsible for the 'anonymous' switcheroo, even when the rest of the players figured it out and caller her on it.
  4. Her team decided to throw the weigh-in by all stuffing their faces except for one person they bellieved would beat Daphne so she couldn't gain immunity
I was hoping that at the end Daphne could lose more weight than Chris, the designated loser of their team, so she could vote out Conda but she actually gained 2 pounds for the week! Stress? Extra calories? Distractions?
Check out the full episode here.

What's the lesson here for project managers? Don't forget the goal of the project when you get buried by day-to-day problems and politics. Stay focused on the goal and get the project done.

Invention for waterproof electronics

Since so many people are attached to their i-phones, i-pads, etc, they end up in weird places. My son's ended up in the pool when he fell in and I hear a surprising amount of men talking in the bathroom on them. So it's about time someone invented not only a waterproof cover for them but one that has an antimicrobial coating.
The market for surgeons who need the coating is big and growing.

But the market for those who obsess about germs on keyboards, phones, remotes, etc is even bigger. This company even makes dishwasher-safe keyboards.

I can just picture my wife washing our keyboards when these become more common. She hates it when our boys bring their laptops into the bathroom:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is a Muslim democracy growing in Tunisia?

Said Ferjani of Enhanahda. (Gianni Cipriano)
This weekend I read an article that gives me hope for seeing democracy flourish in the new middle East. It was all about one of the leaders of Ennahda, the Islamist party that now governs Tunisia. His name is Said Ferjani and he has some theories about democracy that he wants to put into practice.

At first, the story sounded eerily familiar: Islamic agitator is captured and tortured by brutal regime, escapes to spend his exile in London, then returns after a revolution to join a Muslim uprising. Yikes! But this man actually broadened his horizons while living in England, unlike our favorite Ayatolla who seemed to pull further into himself during his own exile and returned more stringent than ever.

Mr. Ferjani is saying things that make me hopeful:
“I can tell you one thing, we now have a golden opportunity. And in this golden opportunity, I’m not interested in control. I’m interested in delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic, democratic system. This is my dream.”
 “Read, read, read, read. Even when I walked, I read.”  (I can relate to that)
“Everybody has to be careful not to be dragged into a dictatorial instinct, no matter what happens. We can’t lose the soul of our revolution.”

He is a student of Rashid al-Gannouchi who is bent on increasing the democracy in Tunisia's Muslim government: Mr. Ghannouchi, his own thoughts evolving in exile, became an early proponent of a more inclusive and tolerant Islamism, arguing a generation ago that notions of elections and majority rule were universal and did not contradict Islam. Early on, he supported affirmative action to increase women’s participation in Parliament.
He gives his mentor credit: “Frankly, the guy who brought democracy into the Islamic movement is Ghannouchi.”

It all sounds great to me but what power does this man have in Tunisia's new government? And how long will he continue to espouse democratic principles once he tastes the power?
“We don’t fear freedom of expression, but we cannot allow disorder,” he said. “People have to be responsible. They have to know there is law and order.”
He suggested that protesters should obtain permission from the police. He worried that the news media was too reckless.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Twenty-ninth excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

As he reached down, Gwilym stepped on his hand.
Gwilym collected Fred and they went into the tavern and settled in the dark corner. They drank but little and Gwilym laid out his plan. “Whoever comes to get you, go with them around to the back door and don’t let Tarrant out. I’ll keep him from leaving the front way. I’m sure that Sir Kay will be happy to talk with Tarrant again. But first, I want to ask him about Tirion’s daughter, Lowri. I’m pretty sure he had something to do with her disappearance. I gave that brooch we found in Brycgstow to Tirion and she recognized it as Lowri’s. Tarrant matches the description of the man who sold it to the trader. And he was just before us on the way to Caerleon. He said that I’d regret him being fired and if he was the one who stopped Lowri from getting to Avalon, he killed my Kaitlyn. And I’m afraid he killed Lowri also.”
The two men drank slowly to keep their wits about them. In addition to the ale, Gwilym had asked for a pitcher of water that he was not drinking. Fred asked about it but Gwilym just told him to be patient, all would become clear.
Finally George came out of the back room and whispered to them that they were all placing their bets for one big throw to win back all their money. Fred took George out the back and Gwilym slipped into the room. All the men were standing around one side of the room, looking down at the floor to where all the wagers were laid and the dice were to be thrown. Tarrant didn’t look up because he was focused on shaking the dice, but a couple of other men that Gwilym didn’t recognize watched him enter. They didn’t seem to have a bet on this roll.
Gwilym forced his way through his men and reached the edge of the throwing pit just as the dice were rolled. They bounced off the wall and spun a little, then turned up as a 6 and a 5. All the men groaned and Tarrant cheered to himself, “Lucky in dice, unlucky in love!” and moved to pick up the dice. As he reached down, Gwilym stepped on his hand.
“Let’s have a look at these lucky dice shall we?”
Tarrant’s face grew pale as he looked at Gwilym. He was bent over, his hand pinned to the ground, totally at the man’s mercy. “Let me go! It was a fair roll!”
“Indeed? So why not pick up your winnings first? Or are the dice more valuable than the money?”
Suddenly Gwilym felt himself being pulled over backwards. He didn’t want to let go of Tarrant so he didn’t shift his weight and, as a result, he fell over towards the dice. Tarrant made a grab for them but Gwilym snatched them up first. Tarrant pulled his hand out from under Gwilym’s foot and ran for the back door. “Stop him!” shouted Gwilym.
There was a large tumult as men were being pushed around. The back door slammed open; there was an unearthly shriek and then the sounds of running feet. Gwilym got up and ran outside. He saw Fred kneeling over George who was holding the hilt of a dagger that was sunk deep into his chest. “Hold those two!” yelled Gwilym at his men, pointing to the two strangers who had knocked him over helping Tarrant escape and were now trying to flee through the front door of the room.
“George! Stay calm man, we’ll get you help.” Gwilym lifted the man into the light of the room, seeing then that it was hopeless. Blood poured out of the wound and George’s face was turning grey from the lack of it. “How…how…was he cheating?” were his final words. Gwilym pulled out the dagger, a nasty looking one with a three pointed blade, designed to open a wound and keep it open.
Meanwhile, the tavern-keeper was arguing with Gwilym’s men. “It’s not your money. Ranta won it in my sight. You can’t come in here with your goons and scare him away and keep the money. I saw the dice throw and Ranta wins.”
“Hold those two until later, boys,” Gwilym said to his men who were holding the two strangers. Then he approached the tavern-keeper and introduced himself. “Well Nick, I see you run a fair gambling establishment that can’t be taken over by force. That’s commendable. Do you allow cheating?”
“Never!” protested Nick.
“Then let’s have a look at these dice that Tarrant, I mean Ranta, was so lucky with. Would you give them a few rolls please?”
Nick obliged him and the murmurs grew to roars of disbelief as Nick rolled a series made up entirely of 11s and 12s. He turned the dice over in his hands to ascertain that there were other numbers on the faces and looked at Gwilym in astonishment. “How did he do it?”
Gwilym brought the dice over to the pitcher of water he had taken from the other room. “Watch carefully as I

Single-minded leadership of Romania's emergency-response system

Dr. Raed Arafat, in checkered shirt, at a fire scene in Bucharest
Here's a government leader I'd like to see more people emulate. Read the article about Dr. Raed Arafat, and prepare to be impressed. He memorized the book 'First Aid Without Panic' as a boy, rode with the West Bank fire department at 14, was giving shots and stitches at 15, then emigrated to Romania at 17 to receive his formal medical education.

When the communist dictatorship ended in 1990, he drove to Germany, bought a used emergency vehicle and set up the country's first emergency service. With single-minded determination, "I'm married to emergency medicine," he built a system that now boasts 170 first responder teams, 12 training centers and four helicopters.

But what makes him truly remarkable is the reaction of the ordinary people to him. Patients will recognize him in the helicopter and remark, "It's Dr. Arafat." And when he was berated on air by the country's president and forced to resign, the people took to the streets in a week of violent protests to demand his return. The government had no choice but to comply.

How many of our bureaucrats are accorded that kind of respect and loyalty?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Disasters spawn inventions

The Japanese Tsunami resulted in thousands of deaths, focusing some inventive minds on the question, "How could I survive a seventy foot high wave bearing down on my town when I have only a few minutes to react?

Shoji Tanaka standing in front of Noah, his invention to survive tsunamis
Shoji Tanaka invented a pod that could withstand the forces of a tsunami and provide enough air, food and drink for a person to survive for three days. Other inventions, like robot armor to clean up nuclear disasters and 3D mid-air messages for informing the public of disaster, were unveiled and were reported on in a recent NY Times article.

Some of these ideas seem crazy but, if history repeats, one or two will become reality. Let's see what happened to disaster inventions from ten years ago.

Soon after watching people jump from the stricken twin towers, inventors came up with seemingly outlandish ways of saving them. Here's an article from December 2002, discussing the various parachutes and rappeling devices being envisioned at the time.

One of these inventions bore fruit. Dr. Kevin Stone invested a million dollars to create a product that would allow people to rappel from burning skyscrapers. He showed off his invention by March 2011 and it is available for purchase now, ten years after the event at http://www.rescuereel.com/

Here's his TED video showing his inspiration and the invention in action:

So which of the tsunami inventions is the most likely to be a product in ten years?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

We are drowning in debt

Great graphic from NY Times January 22
I'll let this graphic from an excellent NY Times article do the talking for me while I ask this question:
Have the last two presidents led our country forward or backward?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Santorum definition

Black leaders on the extremes of the movement
Every movement has a continuum of rebels, from the most militant to the most complacent. For every Frederick Douglass there was an Uncle Tom. The founding of Israel, the Iranian and American revolutions, the ending of apartheid, all had leaders on both extremes. The civil rights movement had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Junior. While both wanted equality of the race, they went about it using different methods and the followers chose one path, the other, or somewhere in between.
Unfortunately, each of these movements had a lunatic fringe whose efforts, while ostensibly driving toward the same goal, actually worked against it by hardening the majority’s hearts against it. Protesters raping female journalists in Tahrir square, Black Panthers murdering police officers, Zulus shouting ‘Kill the Boer’ and American revolutionaries looting Tory properties are examples of this lunatic fringe.
There is currently a movement in the US to afford marriage rights to the gay population. This movement, like those mentioned above, has its continuum of rebels who use techniques ranging from introducing gay families in prime time TV shows to fighting off the Californian referendum in the higher courts.  
While this battle is being fought in the legislative bodies of the states and attempts are being made to force a Federal decision on it, many elected officials have been asked what their stance is on this issue. Senator Rick Santorum has staked out his claim to stand directly against this movement. That is his right and the place to oppose him is in the ballot box.
This movement has its lunatic fringe as well, hurting the efforts of the mainstream. Unfortunately, this fringe has take the unique step of defining Santorum in the Urban Dictionary as a disgusting by-product of anal sex. They then used social media to force this definition to become one of the top results to a Google search on the senator’s name.
I notice that the right is fighting back and the definition is now no longer the number 1 result.
At first, this seems like a funny practical joke.
But is that the picture gay rights activists want to evoke in the minds of those who are deciding if it is a good idea to afford full marriage rights to this population? Wouldn’t you rather have the majority thinking of a gentle, committed couple who are happily raising children than the picture the above definition puts in our minds, or sex in airport bathrooms or rest areas or any of the other unsavory images of homosexuality?

Mitchell and Cameron with their baby in 'Modern Family'
I think it is time that the leaders of the gay rights movement policed its lunatic fringe, took down the offensive references and engaged their political foes in honest discourse. That is leadership.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Project Managers must never waste Team Members' time

For me, the most egregious sin a Project Manager can commit is wasting the time of his/her Team Members.
The reasons for this are manifold but the two biggest ones are:
  1. You get a bad reputation as a Project Manager
  2. That time spent in meetings could have been better spent by them working on their tasks
So how can you avoid wasting their time? Here are some of the rules I follow.
  1. Only invite those Team Members who will be working on the project's tasks to the planning session.
  2. If, during the planning session, one foresees that a particular group will be dominating the planning for the next hour or two, excuse the remaining team members for that time. Simply inform them that their input won't be needed for the next hour, and ask if you can call them back when that time is up.
  3. Schedule status meetings during the end of the planning session. Ask everyone to look up their calendars and block out 30 minutes a week at a time convenient to all.
  4. Hold these session at a time that works for the entire team. If you run a global project, this means early morning US to allow the Europeans to attend during business hours. But watch out for what this means to those stationed in Asia.
  5. Look at the flow of the project and make recommendations for when certain Team Members will start and stop attending status meetings. Some will need to be there the whole time, others can come in and out as their contributions wax and wane.
  6. Status meetings take less than half an hour. Separate out the gathering of status from the problem-solving sessions that usually are generated from status gathering. Problem-solving sessions rarely require the entire team so call a separate meeting with that subset for those sessions.
  7. Review the topics likely to be discussed at the status meetings and determine if a particular team member need not attend. Offer to excuse them for that.
  8. Look around often during meetings and see if there is anyone who need not participate. (They're usually the people looking at their phone) Offer them the option of stepping out of the meeting.
  9. Organize the agenda of a meeting so that topics that interest the entire team are covered first, then some of the team can leave and the subset remains to deal with the other issues.
  10. Excusing a person from a meeting should be done with respect. The wording I use goes along these lines: "I know you are busy with a few other projects and are not too busy on mine right now. I'd rather you free up earlier from your other work sooner. Would you like to skip the next three meetings? I'll call you if anything comes up that is likely to concern you."
  11. Sometimes just make rounds of people working rather than call them all into a meeting. You need to decide if this will be more or less convenient to the Team Members. It will probably be less efficient for you as the Project Manager but that doesn't matter. Your job is to make the team efficient, not for them to serve you.
Do you have any other ideas for not wasting your Team Member's time that I haven't listed? Add a comment.

Monday, February 6, 2012

How to get back your stolen i-phone

Here's a neat invention. With a simple free app you can track down any of your Apple products in case they get stolen or lost.

Shown in a recent NY Times article a policeman, who had this app on his own iPhone, was able to punch a mugging victim's code into his own iPhone and track down the thief.

Punching in the victim’s Apple ID, which is the log-on people use to buy, say, songs from iTunes, he quickly determined by the location of a small gray phone icon on a digital map that the robber was near Eighth Avenue and 51st Street.

As Officer Garland and his partner drove there, the signal source shifted, closer to Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. There, a man later identified by the police as George Bradshaw, 40, of New Lots, Brooklyn, stepped outside a Food Emporium.

Officer Garland pushed the “Play Sound” button on his phone. Instantly, a pinging beep — not unlike the sound of a submarine’s sonar — began emitting from Mr. Bradshaw, 20 feet away.
As the officers closed in, joined by another pair, the pinging stopped. 

Officer Garland said, the suspect left the phone unchanged, and the officer hit “play” again, prompting another round of pings. Mr. Bradshaw was caught red-handed, or more specifically, with the stolen iPhone in his right sock, Officer Garland said. The victim later identified him as the robber, and the phone was recovered.

A great way to keep track of your own items but a little scary that anyone who has your code can track your movements. What are your thoughts?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Twenty-eighth excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

Just before it fell off the side, a rock hit it and stopped its motion.
Fred and Gwilym were working with the men to remove the stones of the tower in numerical order and had set up a chain gang to transport them to their places. As Fred removed one particular stone, a small rockslide emerged from the space behind and a highly decorated urn rolled out. Before Fred or Gwilym could catch it, it fell onto the arch. It didn’t break, and the men all breathed a sigh of relief as the beautiful picture of a swift deer was revealed. But then it fell onto its side and started rolling toward the edge of the arch to fall into the river. George made a dive at it but couldn’t reach it in time. Fred ran down the tower but even he knew he wouldn’t make it in time. The men were all cringing at this loss, most knew that this urn contained the ashes of Belinus. Just before it fell off the side, a rock hit it and stopped its motion.  The rock cracked the picture of the deer. Fred finally grabbed the urn before it rolled off the other way. The men looked back to where the rock came from and saw Gwilym lowering his arm from the throw.
Looking inside this urn they found ashes of a long-ago cremated body. “The ashes of your forefather, Belinus,” said Gwilym.

One afternoon, Fred asked Gwilym to come up to the top of the arch to see something interesting. The man had removed all but the last layer of tower stones that, in turn, sat on the top of the arch. They were able to see now that the cornerstone of the tower was hollow and contained an earthenware jar. Gwilym looked inquiringly at the men and asked, “What is it?”
Fred replied for the men, “In owlden days, it were t’custom to put important documents about t’buildin’ in t’cornerstone. They mun be inside t’jar.”
“Just like it says in ‘Gilgamesh’!” remarked Gwilym and removed the jar from the stone.
While the men continued with their stone-by-stone demolition, Gwilym carefully carried the earthenware jar into his lodgings and examined it. The stopper was also made of earthenware and it looked as though it had been fired at the same time as the jar. Gwilym wondered if it would be possible to open the jar without breaking it. But the jar couldn’t all have been made at the same time or it would have to be empty.
Gwilym tapped the sides of the lid and tried to gently lift it off. It moved slightly, then stopped. He worked the other side a little up, then proceeded around the lid, moving it a millimeter at a time. After 15 minutes of careful work, he was able to prise the lid off the jar, revealing a layer of wax that had sealed it. He removed this and revealed an ancient scroll.
Gwilym washed and dried his hands before he reached in and withdrew the scroll. He opened it and eagerly scanned the document. It was written in a much older form of British. The words were separated from each other by tiny dots, which meant that the scroll must have been written many hundreds of years ago.
He started at the beginning and worked his way painstakingly through the scroll. While he could not work out every word, he understood that this scroll discussed

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Solution for captured pirates

With better patrolling of the seas around the failed state of Somalia, civilized countries are starting to capture some of these pirates and free the hostages. Sounds good, right? Only the question becomes, what to do with the prisoners once they are in our custody? We brought the one survivor from the Navy Seal rescue back to the US for trial. Remember that great rescue with three pirates killed at night with three bullets, freeing the captain?

Crew members of the Maersk Alabama celebrated after hearing that their captain, who had been held hostage by Somali pirates, had been rescued.  By ROBERT D. McFADDEN and SCOTT SHANE
Well, the one surviving pirate Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse received a sentence of 34 years in jail. But what about all the others that have been captured in less dramatic circumstances? Believe it or not, some have been released back on Somali shores, alive. A NY Times article details the complications. The pirates are Somali. They attacked the motor vessel Sunshine, which is Greek-owned but operates under a Bahaman flag. They were detained in international waters, but in the so-called exclusive economic zone of Oman. And they had commandeered an Iranian fishing vessel.
So how do you prosecute these guys? And where?

I have a possible solution in this case that could have international implications. How about delivering them gift-wrapped to Tehran and letting the Iranians deal with them? I'm sure there's still some begrudging respect held by many Iranians at our rescue of their sailors. Why not go all the way and turn over the pirates who had held them hostage for a month and allow the Iranians to deal their own justice? The publicity with Iran can only help thaw relations between our two countries a little. What do you think?