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How to juggle multiple software projects with great results

By Francis Miers, Director, Automation Consultants 

Programme and portfolio managers are under pressure to make sure that a growing number of software projects, which in total could involve hundreds, or even thousands of team members, are co-ordinated, so that cross-project deadlines are met. While new implementation methodologies today may offer individual software and IT projects more protection against failure,successful multi-project implementation remains challenging and complex.

One of the major challenges in managing multiple software and IT projects is how to assess the investment of money and resources against the benefits for the business. Each project will have its own manager and team with some degree of independence, but to enable meaningful progress reporting, there needs to be a degree of consistency across the organisation.

Unless some degree of standardisation is agreed between the teams, inconsistent reporting will occur and hamper the measurement of progress. Each team will most likely use different metrics to measure progress and make comparison between teams, and consolidation of their reports will be very difficult.

While a degree of standardisation is essential for consistent reporting, however, too much of it can enforce excessive rigidity and uniformity on the different teams and hamper creativity and efficiency within them. To prevent this, a balance must exist between enough standardisation to permit consistent reporting,yet enough freedom for project teams to customise their working methods to suit their particular needs and circumstances.

Tools to manage a project portfolio

Successful portfolio management involves finding the best possible combination and co-ordination of resources to deliver on business goals as quickly and efficiently as possible. Several project portfolio management tools exist to help portfolio managers manage projects and resources across the organisation. With these tools, you can collect and consolidate information about your projects in order to manage risks, resources, timelines, budgets and so on.

In the world of Jira, one such example is Portfolio Management for Jira, an agile tool that enables a portfolio manager to plan and forecast a realistic road-map across multiple projects, make data-driven decisions when the unexpected happens, and keep everyone informed. The tool can manage up to about 150 Jira projects.

When the number of projects exceeds this figure, it is better to rely on a standard reporting framework which also permits customisation at project level.One way of doing this is to impose standard reporting requirements at the higher levels of the agile hierarchy but permit customisation at the lower levels.

Such an approach not only permits standardised reporting but also prevents the reporting of data generated by a project management tool like Jira in another tool like Excel or PowerPoint.Using multiple tools increases the risk of error and removes the advantages of a ‘single source of truth’. Embedding a consistent approach to reporting is not easy to do and takes a consistent, repeated training programme. If done successfully, however, it can change the organisational culture and ensure the efficient generation of management information, a very valuable outcome, given the big money being invested in software development by many organisations.

Atlassian’s most recent acquisition is interesting and aimed at this problem of managing agile at scale. In March, the company bought Agilecraft. Agilecraft had one product, previously also called Agilecraft, but now renamed to Jira Align. Jira Align manages large scale Agile development, up to the thousands of projects. It gives a view on the state of development from the level of an individual project, to a set of projects, to an initiative, all the way up to the strategic development efforts of a large organisation. As well as managing resources and scheduling, Jira Align tracks budgeting, and provides in-depth reporting on return on investment, a crucial requirement for senior management.

Unlike Portfolio for Jira, Jira Align (despite the name) is not an add-on to Jira, but a standalone application. It integrates closely with Jira, but also integrates with other agile project management tools such as Azure Dev Ops, IBM RTC and Github. What’s more, it can integrate with several instances of Jira, or other project management tools, at once, and aggregate data from all of them. Jira Align scales to a much larger size than Portfolio, being suitable for the needs of any size of organisation from medium to very large.

Implementing a tool with such a complex purpose as Jira Align – co-ordinating the activities of thousands of developers and projects – is not the work of an afternoon. It requires agile projects to be configured in a certain way, and it should normally fit with one of the established methods for managing agile at scale, most commonly SAFe, while DAD and LeSS are also options. Users, power users and administrators must also be trained. A Jira Align implementation typically begins with a pilot, then a gradual rollout to a wider set of users.

An interesting feature of Jira Align is the ‘why’ button, which is shown on every work item (e.g. and Epic or User Story). The ‘why’ button shows the next level up in the hierarchy, clicking the button in a story shows the epic, clicking it in the epic shows the initiative and so on, all the way up to the organisation’s top-level strategic goals. Thus there is full traceability from the grass roots to the top.

Easing the pressure on IT infrastructure

Atlassian’s Jira Software is highly configurable, which makes it popular with project teams. As with reporting, there is a downside in granting too much freedom to teams to make their own configurations. The profusion of configurations is likely to cause the performance of the project management tool to diminish. Again, a balance must be struck between allowing projects the freedom to innovate, while preventing the creation of a disproportionate number of customisations that slows the system down. Typical configurations include custom fields, workflows and issue types.

A worthwhile compromise in larger instances could be to process customisation requests through a helpdesk. For any given request, the helpdesk can tell if a similar customisation already exists and can be used by the person requesting it, or it can assess the likely performance impact versus the benefit of the customisation. Either way, it can advise on the most efficient way to achieve the desired result. On top of this, the helpdesk can help maintain Jira and regularly delete outdated configurations, keeping performance high.

As the number of users on Jira (or a comparable tool)grows, it may become necessary to consider different software deployment options, as the rising demand may put a single server at risk. The potential cost of downtime can prompt the move to a clustered architecture, which for Jira would require a move, either to the Atlassian Cloud or to the Data Center edition. The Cloud edition of Jira gives the latest features and very high availability, but for enterprise use it still has size limitations (currently 5,000 users), and a smaller choice of apps (i.e. add-ons). For larger deployments, Data Center is the best option. While it comes at a heftier price tag, Data Center permits high availability, greater resilience and zero downtime upgrades. These benefits start outweighing the additional cost from about 2,000 users up.

Building capability

Managing software projects effectively relies even more on the human element than on the processes and tools. Having suitably qualified people in the right positions is vital – not only experienced project managers, but also people that can be trained as ‘power users’ of the various tools and software options.

Training should cover the full spectrum – from standard agile at scale methodologies such as SAFe and DAD, to how to use different project and portfolio management tools, including the organisation’s unique reporting standards. Spending the time and money to train project managers, power users and senior managers is an essential investment with immense payback value.

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