Defining Project or Customer Prioritization Models

I’ve come to appreciate the difficulty of project prioritization.  Historically, my teams only ever really had internal customers.  In some ways that makes the decision easy – you focus on the biggest revenue opportunities or impacts first.  Operational issues came first, with development coming second.  This problem becomes exasperated when you are in a consulting situation where there are multiple customers, with multiple customer teams and often, conflicting priorities.

At the end of the day, people want to do the right thing.  Ultimately what happens when you combine a lack of project prioritization with people who are striving to “do right by the customer” is time spent on non-priority tasks or employee burnout trying to meet everyone’s needs.  Neither one of these outcomes is optimal for teams.

In our personal lives, we make prioritization decisions everyday. Most often we put things we need to do (i.e. eat, take care of children, work to support family) before other things (i.e. sleep, exercise). This may not be the best long-term decision, but it is the best decision we can make at the time it comes up. The nature of business complicates this problem significantly as ever customer needs to be treated with respect. Each customers’ problems are the most important to them. If every organization had infinite resources, dedicated teams could exist to service each customer.

Unfortunately, resources are limited and you have to make trade-offs. People do understand this. They may not like it, but it ultimately comes down to how well you set and manage those expectations. An organization should evaluate their core values and align their prioritization methodology to it. While large and small customers should not necessarily be treated the same, it is important to make sure that you have a strategy for handling both sets of customers. This exercise must be re-evaluated on a regular basis. Some common prioritization considerations include: customer size, project duration, complexity, strategic project nature.

Customer Size: This really comes down to revenue. Your largest customers bring the most money to the organization and therefore need to be kept happy. Sometimes, some creative solutions might need to be introduced. This might be dedicating a team to customers over a particular size, or providing on call services to these select. As I mentioned before, the downside of this is you can’t do this at the expense of all your other customers. They won’t be ignored.

Project durationIf you can focus on a project, get it done quickly and make a big impact, there is value to making this a priority. There is a risk to constantly pulling resources in and out of new projects. You might want to consider a roaming “quick-hit” resource squad to rotate through these types of projects. It can be a great way for more junior resources to learn and grow, continuously being introduced to new case studies. Duration can also negatively impact prioritization as covered by complexity.

Complexity: Complexity is an interesting consideration. Who defines it and how does this impact how you use your resources? A project might be considered complex if it is something you have never done before; or it has quite a few moving pieces and is expected to take a really long time to complete. Additional complexities might have to do with hard deadlines outside your control. One way to minimize the impact of complexity on prioritization is to separate a complex project into more manageable mini projects. You can then prioritize based on your other factors. There may be a few cases where you will need to evaluate project complexity as a factor. This may increase prioritization of the project in order to meet strict deadlines, or it may reduce prioritization of the project given the state of other business and projects.

Strategic Project Nature: We all are aware of opportunities that come along and introduce us to a new market, technology or methodology. These can come from the large customer looking to push the limits, or a small customer willing to take a gamble on us. The upside of these types of projects can be significant, but if things go wrong the project could impact project duration, revenue, and resource allocation.

Once you have your prioritization factors, you need to decide how to weigh them. Giving each consideration equal weighting does simplify the process, but that may not work given your customer and project mix. You might be in the middle of a pivot and need to put greater emphasis on the strategic project nature than you do on customer size. You also need to determine your scale for assigning value for each prioritization factor to each customer or project. This can be as simple as rank order for the number of projects or customers. It could also be a simple 1-n scale, with n equal to 5 or even the number of factors you are using. For both weight and scale, make a decision and move forward.

This is an evolving process, so define a few prioritization factors as a starting point. Once you choose your weight and scale, you have a solid prioritization methodology. Apply this to your customers and projects. You should start seeing the benefits within a few weeks. Projects should finish and your ability to set and meet expectations of your customers should improve. Feedback from your customers will deliver the biggest set of data points. Adjust accordingly.


A different path..

In my last post I wrote about teaching my younger daughter about arduinos and my dad’s change of heart on whether I sit on the edge of technology or am an active participant.  I wanted to explore this idea a bit more this week, especially as I watch my older daughter sit on the fringe.

My older daughter, Cayla, is 16 years old and typical in many ways. It’s difficult to find a time when she isn’t on her phone, or iPod or computer. She has taken some very basic computer classes in school, but has never expressed an interest in learning to code or playing video games other than the ones on her phone. Cayla likes science and math, but has been struggling this year with geometry and biology. In many ways, this is not unlike my own experiences.

We got our first computer when I was 7 years old. My dad taught me the DOS prompts to be able to get to do what I wanted and I was a pretty avid “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” fan. I was placed into an advanced math class in 7th grade, but then had to drop it because I was too busy with dance and other after school activities. In HS, I enjoyed my sophomore chemistry class and took the only advanced science class I could take. It was that Physics class where I got so frustrated with the instructor that I took it out on my father by throwing the book at him. Poppa John still holds this over me.

Despite my early exposure to technology and my dad having an education and experience in chemical engineering, I did not even consider engineering as an option. It was the constant learning and growing that inspired me to pursue my advanced degree and go the business route. That said, that technological interest fostered early in life has carried me to some unique opportunities. I was involved in internet at a dotcom in the late 1990s, then moved to telecom/software company and then most recently worked at a big data analytics company. I have been able to combine my soft business skills and technical interests to be a strong project manager and business analyst. I am able to get in the weeds with my team and work through fairly technical problems. I am able to discuss big data and algorithms with data scientists and less technical customers. I am also able to be that cardboard batman when my husband is having one of those moments. I do all this while writing about and networking with other women in technology (or those too hanging on the fringe). I am also able to get my hands dirty writing some SQL, programming that arduino or learning enough HTML, CSS and Javascript in a 2 week period to take my younger daughter to an app development workshop.

IMG_2937At the end of the day, I believe that being involved with technology will provide better lives for my daughters, and a bigger impact on the world. While Cayla isn’t ready to sit down and program a website, she is willing to support her sister. I have brought them to a couple recent STEM symposiums and showcases. Cayla does a great job encouraging Ana and stepping in when Ana is feeling a bit shy and overwhelmed. I hope that Cayla continues to appreciate the technology and become open to the possibilities. Let her be her sister’s mentor and advocate. We all have our own path’s to technology.

P.S. Cayla agreed to learn about data analytics and R as her internship this summer. May the journey begin.

Raising a Women in Tech

I recently went on a trip with my dad, Poppa John and my youngest daughter Ana. This was the first time I traveled with my daughter separately from the family. She negotiated this trip to Disney World for spring break and was quite persuasive. That said, I knew I wasn’t going to spend every day for a week at a Disney theme park. Ana is very interested in technology – she’s the daughter who wants to learn to code, immerses herself in Minecraft and has participated in app development summer programs. Our entire family encourages this and Poppa John indulges her.  For this trip, Poppa John purchased a couple of Arduinos for us to play with during some downtime. He also compiled a selection of really cool things that Arduinos can be used for and got a book for kids, written by a kid on how to program our Arduino.

My husband is the programmer of the family. He started when he was 14 and has made this his career for the last 20+ years. I have had a much more diverse career supporting technology – project and product manager, analyst, customer success manager and software team lead.  To my father, I was sitting on the fringe of women in tech and needed to get motivated to lead Ana on her quest. If we sat around waiting for Carson it would be slow going.  These Arduino projects we had planned were as much for Ana’s benefit as it was for me to step up to the challenge.

Our downtime fun started a bit slow, with Ana not really understanding what an Arduino was and why she should care. Her attitude swung to the other extreme once she figured out that she could build a car with lights and sounds. However, she just didn’t understand why she had to do the basic lessons and not jump straight to the car. Since Ana doesn’t like to be left out, Poppa John and I started connecting the Arduino and making it light up and sing. This at least got Ana creeping over to the computer and looking over our shoulders. We knew we had her attention at least for a little while when she took her spot front and center on Poppa John’s lap.

We took a very simple approach to this, using the existing open community scripts for making the light blink or the song play. We then took the next logical steps to add blinking loops, change the speed of the blink or the manipulating the time between the blinks, slowly making the code a bit more complicated. I took my pretty standard approach of asking Ana the engaging questions, but having her work out the details with Poppa John. I also stepped in to help troubleshoot or explain something when mistakes were made.

It was during this time that Poppa John was surprised. He claimed I was holding out on my women in technology-ness. How was it that I could never have had coded anything (expect sql during my brief DBA days) but yet could read the code and make suggestions and resolve issues? In each one of my diverse opportunities working for technology companies, I have always been hands-on. When issues arise in my projects, I worked very closely with my technical team to walk through the business requirements and the code to figure out the best way to resolve these issues. I have always been willing to lend a helping hand and truly get my hands dirty. Apparently I have picked up a few technical skills.

We ended up having a lot of fun with something new. We made our Arduino blink SOS and play music. We also turned the Arduino into a finger flute. Ana still wants to build her car and thinks it’s pretty cool. Ultimately, I taught my father that I was a women in technology and had the skills to teach my daughter to be one too (in any capacity she wants).


Are you truly confident?

I recently met up with a friend who I have known for almost 20 years now.  I consider this woman very successful.  She grew up in NJ and has degrees from Duke University and a law degree from University of Pennsylvania.  Since she got her law degree, she spent 7 years at a top law firm and then she was corporate counsel at a Fortune 100 company.  My friend just started a new job for a global company that is considered one of the most admired in the US. What struck me as most interesting this visit is when she acknowledged doubts recently about whether she could do this most current role.  Not only is this women smart and talented, she is also the epitome of a confidence, social butterfly.  Of all my friends or colleagues who have doubts about themselves, I would never have considered that this applied to this friend too.  My friend’s experiences align pretty closely to what I have been reading about women in technology, leaning in and other topics at the forefront of my interests.

This also very much ties into a book I just finished and a keynote that one of the authors just gave at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Women in Business “The Science of Success” Conference.  Claire Shipman, author of The Confidence Code gave a great overview of a challenge that definitely exists for Women, in technology and other industries.  I had purchased the book prior to seeing Mrs. Shipman speak, but didn’t read it until afterwards.  This is a compilation of my thoughts on the book and notes from her speech.

I think it is now common knowledge that diversity is key and that soft skills are becoming more and more important in the workplace.  There was an HP experiment conducted that highlights the confidence gap.  Women tend to apply for jobs where they have 100% of the skills required for the job, while men apply for jobs when they have 60% of the skills required.  Another research study at Berkeley shows that confidence is a better measure of success than competence.  Women tend to hyper focus on competence.  If this is the case and women are so focused on being competent that we’ll only stretch ourselves when we believe we have met 100% of the requirements, those opportunities just may not be available for us.  It’s imperative that women start treating confidence like a skill and incorporate into our professional and personal play books.

One of the most interesting pieces of The Confidence Code was learning that confidence is at least partially hereditary.  The majority of the brain is the same between men and women.  However, women and men differ in how the brain fires its neurons and also in the risk taking versus worrying areas.  Men have more testosterone and therefore tend to take more risks while women have more estrogen and tend to overthink or ruminate preventing the brain from building the confidence.  The good news is that the significant developments in neurology have taught that we can train our brains – the science known as brain plasticity.

We should not get too bogged down in blaming our genetics as there are also societal impacts that influence confidence in girls.  We subconsciously initiate the confidence gap for girls by raising our girls to be perfectionists and people pleasers.  Girls are taught to follow the rules, be good listeners and do what they are told.  Boys are given a bit more leeway to try things, take risks and ultimately fail.  Ultimately as women transition from school into the workplace, it becomes very difficult for them.  They are still seeking the rewards and praise they got in school, whereas the workplace is really recognizing the confidence, risk taker who is willing to take on increasingly more responsibility.

There are a few recommendations for what we can do differently.

  • Fail fast – do, learn, move on.  Start acclimating yourself to risk taking.
  • Act more, think less – ruminate less. Come up with an explanation that is not a failing on your part.
  • Be authentic – this is critical.
  • Play competitive sports – there is a huge link between confidence in girls and competitive sports.  Not everyone is a winner.  You need to work hard, develop competency and ultimate become confidence.

Confidence is what turns your thoughts into action.