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The Differences Between IT Projects And Other Types of Projects (And How Project Managers Should Deal With Them)

Several decades ago, when someone mentioned the word “project”, the first thing that came into people’s mind was probably a construction of some physical object like an airport, a road or a shopping mall. But everything has changed since that time. Due to the Internet penetration to every sphere of our life the share of IT projects has been increasing every year. I believe that the majority of projects undertaken today are actually software development projects.

The significant growth of IT projects have led to demand on extra project managers. But since there was no separate profession of a digital project manager at that time, a question appeared: “Is managing of an IT project different from managing any other type of project?”

In fact, many of the concepts and techniques of general project management are applicable to software development projects. Regardless of the project specifics, the same constraints of scope, time and budget are present. However, there are also certain characteristics that make IT projects different from any other type of project. Let’s take a look at these differences and figure out how a project manager can deal with them.

The specific characteristics of software development projects:

Intangible outcome

Unlike traditional engineering project, when some physical object is being built, you can’t touch the final result of an IT project in the most cases. Software is a digital product, not a physical one. It consists of ideas, designs, instructions and formulas, not of concrete and bricks. Moreover, when a software product is being developed, a lot of work is done behind the scenes, so, that the customer can`t see any tangible result at the beginning or even in the middle of the project. This fact may cause customers` dissatisfaction because of not understanding what they are spending money on.

What a project manager can do about this
You as a project manager can actively use prototyping to show clients how the visible part of their product will look like. Explain the process of software development lifecycle and the fact that the most of the work done can`t be seen by the end users.  Share a clear project`s activity plan with the clients or stakeholders and establish a good form of regular status report. I believe that the mentioned steps either remove or, at least, reduce distrust from project sponsors` side.

Complexity

When I say that software development projects are complex it doesn’t mean that the other types of projects aren`t complex from the management standpoint. It means that the software development work is complicated itself, because it is based on logical, not on physical work. This complexity leads to necessity in higher communication and collaboration between the project team members. The extended communication is actually the reason why adding human resources in IT projects doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of missing deadlines and, in fact, can make things worse.

What a project manager can do about this
Try to establish a good communication culture in your team. Schedule both regular team meetings and one-on-one meetings with your team members. Establish regular and structured status meetings with all project stakeholders, as well. But make sure that you don’t overuse meetings because they are useful only when they’re really necessary and lead to a meaningful outcome.Besides, keep documentation in order. It will help you speed up the knowledge transfer in you team and save time and effort.

High level of uncertainty

It is very difficult to accurately define the detailed requirements for software product prior to the start of the project. It is also very difficult to estimate the complexity of a software development project. When you start a software development project you are likely to bring together teams and technology in a way that hasn’t been done before. Perhaps, you will do this for the first time in your company or even for the first time in the whole world.

What a project manager can do about this
To deal with uncertainty you should have a great risk management plan in place. But the problem is that a large number of risks you encounter while implementing a software project are difficult to foresee. That’s why you will be forced to plan for some contingency reserve on your projects in terms of budget and time. The figures may vary depending on how much experience you have got and how good you are at estimation. If you`re a newbie in industry and have no idea for how much reserve to plan, start with adding 30% of time to the schedule and the same percentage of money to the budget. It is considered to be a kind of unspoken industry standard.

Quick and frequent industry changes

Software development industry is highly flexible. The market is changing quickly under the pressure of volatile customer demand. The technologies also are changing really fast and new standards are coming in front.  The things that are on the cutting edge today can become obsolete in a year having a direct impact on your project. These conditions turn managing software development projects into a real challenge.

What a project manager can do about this
Project managers in software industry have to be flexible, because all that you`ve been doing for quite a long time may become irrelevant very soon. It is where agile approach comes to your rescue. Also, a manager should be able to foresee potential risks of requirement changes. You should explain stakeholders (project sponsors, clients, upper management) in advance that in case of requirement changes you need more budget, shifted deadlines or new resources to reach the goal.

Project costs structure

Unlike construction projects there are almost no material costs in software development projects. The cost of labor or, in other words, the cost of intellectual work makes up a greater part of software development projects spendings. Third party libraries integrated into the final product may definitely cost some money, but usually these expenses take a really small share comparing to the labor costs.

What a project manager can do about this
The fact that software development is dependent mostly on the intellectual resources leads to the conclusion that human resources are the highest asset in digital projects. Therefore, one of the main focuses of a digital project manager should be on people management. This implies recruiting, motivating and retaining talented people. There is a whole science behind this, but just to start with it, have regular talks with your teammates and collaborate closely with your HR department in order to identify employees` satisfaction level.

Varied stakeholders

Usually software development projects have a very diverse stakeholders structure. An IT project manager has to deal with business people, technical team, customer representatives, suppliers, support organizations, etc. All of them have their own perspectives and interests, so,  it is very difficult to make everyone satisfied.

What a project manager can do about this
It can be said that software development projects require more management and less administration. And this, in turn, require robust negotiating skills and creative approaches from project managers. Get to know what are the most valuable things for each stakeholder and try to trade with them to achieve consensus between stakeholders. Strong stakeholder management is essential on IT projects as you have a lot of different specialties and business areas to bring together into a cohesive team.

Conclusion

These are my ideas on what the difference between software development project and other types of projects is. Having learned all the peculiarities of IT projects, you probably understand that software project manager is employed for a reason.  Digital projects need leaders, not just administrators. Managers are there to manage the project, its stakeholders expectations and support the people. As an IT project manager you have to deal with changing targets, multiple demands, variable production, accidental (or deliberate) organizational changes, multitasking, new methods and so on.

If you have anything to add or want to argue with me, welcome to the comments. What else do you think makes IT projects different from the other types of projects?

Also, I recommend to read this article where the author is trying to give a definition to a digital project manager profession.

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