At Black Pepper, running successful IT projects is about accepting and embracing uncertainty

John Proudlock Small Square

Since we introduced Slack here, at Black Pepper, we’ve been thinking how to make use of its full potential. Granted, it’s both fun and useful for quick chats, but we wanted more.

So we came up with this novel concept of doing Q&A sessions with some of the guys and gals here in the team over Slack, so that we can then give you a glimpse into life at Black Pepper. We settled on one question a day, as most of us do tend to focus on programming, not answering questions asked by the nosy marketer.

In today’s interview, we’ll be talking to John Proudlock, one of our Project Managers. This should not only give you an insight into John’s views, but also into how we run projects here, at Black Pepper.

Sound interesting? Read on to find out more.

Let's start off with a simple question - how did your story with Black Pepper begin?

I started at BP in the long cold spring of 2012.I left a research role in the Home Office and decided it was time to work in the commercial sector. I joined Black Pepper as a project manager.

Now let’s have a bit of fun: if you were a gadget, what would you be and why?

I'd be a gadget that is uncomfortable answering existential, metaphysical questions and can only generate lame answers. Examples:

  • A gadget that can answer slacker interview questions with original answers. Or;
  • A GPS - they're handy and help people get to where they want to go. Hmmm, too nauseatingly corporate.
  • I give up.

What was your favourite project you worked on at Black Pepper so far?

So, we've just finished a project to help chains of pubs and restaurants manage their stock ordering. Sound simple? It really, really isn't. So, it was interesting learning about the complexities of keeping a pub stocked with the right drinks, for the right season, without overstocking whilst avoiding the risk of running out of Pimms on a hot day or WKD when A-Level results are announced.

The solution leant itself really well to mobile and web technologies, so we built up an elegant solution with tablets used for stock counts, and a manager’s site for seeing what can be, and what should be, ordered.

I worked as the delivery manager on that, but as it was a small project also did a fair bit of the business analysis. The client were good to work with, they knew their domain really well and were happy with our iterative approach to getting the work done. As far as work goes, it was fun.

What do you like most about Black Pepper?

Well, the coffee is very good.

Other points, it’s a friendly, small company and the working environment is great. We work for lots of different clients on projects that vary in both sector and technology so there’s usually an interesting project to work on (and if your current project isn’t blisteringly interesting, another one will be along soon).

Everyone’s quite chatty. Although, that might just be the coffee.

Did I mention the coffee?

How about we lighten up the mood with a series of quick questions? Pick your favourite without thinking too much, okay?

Sure.

Windows or Linux?

Linux.

Facebook or Twitter?

Neither… Facebook

Android or iOS?

Android.

Xbox or PS4?

PS4, occasionally. Very occasionally.

Team Cap or team Iron Man?

Iron Man - but in a suit rebuilt using a cluster of slightly misconfigured Raspberry Pis. It would be much more peaceful solution if none of the weapons worked. Captain America could communicate with Iron Man peacefully over SSH.

Lord of the Rings or Star Wars?

Lord of the Rings. But with the hobbits removed - I don't trust them. Never trust anything with feet that are hairier than your own.

Game of Thrones or Sherlock?

GoT!

Fish and Chips or Sunday Roast?

Sunday roast.

Lager or ale?

Either, probably ale

Black pepper or salt?

Er... chilli pepper, is that allowed?

Right, back to full sentences now. What does a project manager do at Black Pepper and what's the difference between your role and a scrum master role?

In short, project managers at Black Pepper front the relationship with the client during delivery of a project and they facilitate the team's delivery of the work.

My listoid for this would be that delivery managers make sure:

  • the client knows how we're progressing, what we need and what they can expect at the end of the project
  • the delivery team gets everything they need to deliver the work
  • the delivery team and the client is following agile methods we know work well and that suit the project.

Your explanation for the project manager role seems like it would 100% fit a scrum master job spec, though. Am I wrong?

I agree. I think there's more client management involved in the role here at Black Pepper than in a traditional scrum master role.

So what skills does a project manager need to succeed at BP and what the technical vs soft skills ratio?

I'd say successful project managers are good at listening, communicating, measuring, change management and process control. They'll use these skills to enable a development team to efficiently deliver software that meets a client's requirements.

Easy, right?... Mostly. It's all about setting up agile processes we know that work well, and then maybe tweaking and amending things so that it works for that combination of client/project/team.

The technical skill level in the role goes little further than being able to understanding (at a system level) how the solution works. The technical teams here are fantastic so there's very little technical input the project manager role can contribute.

Stats are usually alarming - saying that most software development projects fail, exceed their budget or aren't delivered on time. In your experience, how can that be avoided?

What happened to the easy questions about hobbits?

IT projects overrun when a project gets costed, scheduled and commissioned and there's no thorough view of what's required or how it will be delivered.

As it turns out, at the start of a big or complex IT project, there never is a thorough view of exactly what is required or how it will be delivered. Worse, there seems to be a workplace taboo around this fact, so we mask these uncertainties with project plans, delivery schedules and costing templates. All these documents tend to provide is a false credibility to a piece of work that's not fully understood.

So running successful IT projects becomes about accepting and embracing this uncertainty. This is where the 'agile' term applies, you focus on the value you want the project to delivery, but you repeatedly review and adjust what you deliver to provide this value. So, you identify what value the project will provide and:

  1. identify the most useful features that provide the most value
  2. work for a short period of time (typically a couple of weeks) to deliver the highest priority features that can be delivered to the end users.
  3. review the delivered work and go back to step 1.

This iterative approach lets you deliver valuable functionality early, and allows clients to re-define the features they've requested if they need to. For projects any larger than a couple of weeks of work, this works much so much better than huge up front project specifications and the regular cost ramp up and schedule delays that follow.

Because we like to be transparent and take pride in how business as usual goes on in our office, we’ll post more of these interviews, trying to offer you a rounded view of how our team see Black Pepper and feel about coming to work every day. You can read our previous interviews here and look out for the next one!

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