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Interview with Brett Bentsen, Group Program Manager: Microsoft Project 2000

ActiveWin: How long was the development time for Microsoft Project 2000? Did you set any milestones, or overcome any setbacks? How many people worked were on the team?

Brett Bentsen: Development of Microsoft Project 2000 began almost immediately after we released MS Project 98 in September of 1997. Microsoft generally uses the term milestone to refer to a development phase. We had three major milestones, each focused on building a specific set of features, and then spent time stabilizing those features before moving on. The goal is to limit the number of moving targets as we are finishing the product and doing final stabilization. We have about 80 people working on the core product in Redmond, plus people in East Asia and Ireland creating localized versions.

ActiveWin: Why might businesses want to use Project 2000 instead of Excel or other programs for their projects?

Brett Bentsen: It really depends on the goals they have for managing projects. If they have just a few items that they are tracking against Due Dates, then Excel might work for them. If they have different people who are responsible for the various items or if there are dependencies between items (you can't paint  the walls until after you have masked the windows), then they probably want to look at a project management package. Microsoft Project 2000 is well suited for a wide range of users. It is the easiest to use of any of the project management software products, while still having all the power associated with what people have traditionally called the 'high-end' systems. In addition, Microsoft Project is very extensible, which enables companies and solution providers to create customized solutions that integrate with Microsoft Project.

ActiveWin:  What are the main features this version has over the previous?

Brett Bentsen: Here are a few of the features that we've received the best feedback on from our users:

Performance. We improved the performance of database and multi-project operations, such as resource sharing and inserted projects.

Grouping. Microsoft Project 2000 introduced the ability to categorize tasks or resources by just about any criteria. For example, you could add a field to each task that listed location. Then you could group on that field to see the tasks organized by location. Microsoft Project automatically calculates subtotals for these categories, so you can see the costs for each location.

Network Diagram. We completely re-wrote the PERT Chart view found in earlier versions to provide more flexibility for customizing the fields displayed, the formatting of the boxes, and the layout of the diagram. Additional Scheduling Features. We added Task Calendars, Material Resources, and Variable Resource Availability to allow more flexible modeling of projects.

Custom Field Improvement. Custom fields can now contain a picklist or a calculated formula. In addition, you can associate graphical indicators with values or value ranges to create stoplight reports.

Microsoft Project Central. New web-based companion product to Microsoft Project focused on team members working on projects. I'll elaborate below in your next question.

(Note from Product Management: A comprehensive comparison of Microsoft Project 2000's new features, improved features and continued features from Microsoft Project 98 is available on our web site at )

ActiveWin: How is the inclusion of Microsoft Project Central Webserver set to aid businesses? Can employees access project data on the road?

Brett Bentsen: Project management is a collaborative activity in which a project manager might be the one to create the plan, but many people contribute to the plan and do work on the project.
Microsoft Project Central supports collaborative project management. A team member can see the tasks they are assigned to work on across multiple projects. They can track their time and suggest additional tasks that the project manager should add to the plan. A team member or a team manager can also delegate tasks to the appropriate person. Users can also take the timesheet offline to continue tracking time even when they don't have network access (e.g., on an airplane).

A project manager using Microsoft Project Central can review the time that team members have spent on tasks and automatically update the plan, rather than having to manually re-key paper timesheets into the plan. Microsoft Project Central also allows more visibility into the plan. People can view a summary of all the projects scheduled, as well as drill into the details via the browser.

ActiveWin: How can developers maximize their use of Microsoft Project 2000 through using the SDK?

Brett Bentsen: The Microsoft Project 2000 SDK, available through MSDN (  or and select SDK Documentation and Microsoft Project 2000 Software Development Kit in the left pane), is our first attempt at documentation specifically targeted to developers or solution providers. It has a section that talks about the Microsoft Project database format and leveraging this open format. Another section discusses using the Automation capabilities and the COM Add-in architecture. Integration with Exchange is focused on for both Microsoft Project and Microsoft Project Central. Finally, one section deals entirely with Microsoft Project Central in outlining its database structure, describing how the interface could be extended, and how some of the controls could be used to display data.
The SDK also includes examples that cross the different sections and can help developers get started. One example, "Initiate a project," allows Microsoft Project Central users to propose a new project with some high-level data (project title, description, owner, start and end dates, and budget). It adds elements to the Microsoft Project Central user interface to access this functionality, writes information to the Microsoft Project Central database, and sends e-mail to the person who can approve or reject the proposed project. If the project is approved, it is added to the Microsoft Project database.

ActiveWin: Was the current success of this version anticipated from the get-go? How did you believe such a significant update would attract new users and make the current user pool want to update?

Brett Bentsen: For each release, we try to balance a couple of different priorities. First, we talk to our customers to understand what is and isn't working in the current release of the product. Improving key areas in Microsoft Project 2000, such as database performance, is one way that we continue to try to keep our customers satisfied with the product. Second, in talking to our customers, we also discover what they want to do, but can't - i.e. desired features. Task Calendars is a good example of this. In a usage study of our customer base, over 90% of those surveyed requested the ability to associated calendars with tasks.

Finally, we try to observe how customers work and develop solutions to their unarticulated needs. This makes existing customers more productive, and hopefully brings new people to the product who may not have considered it before. Microsoft Project Central is an outgrowth of this kind of work. We saw how much teamwork there is in project management and heard how team members wanted access to better information about what they needed to do and how it fit into the big picture.  If we can hit all three of these aspects by really understanding the customer's needs, then we believe we'll have a successful product.

ActiveWin: Does Microsoft Project 2000 exist with the other office programs in harmony? Can things be exported into word, excel, etc.?

Brett Bentsen: Microsoft Project 2000 is a great Office Family member. The menus and toolbars are consistent with Office, so if you are familiar with an Office product you can find your way around Microsoft Project. We use shared code for things like toolbars, the Office Assistant, AutoCorrect, Spell Checking, File Open/Save dialogs, and the help system. You can use SQL Server or Access as your storage for projects, which opens up use of Microsoft Access to reporting of project information. 

In addition you can use Access' Data Access Pages to create reports against our file format (MPP) or the database format. Microsoft Project can import and export both Excel and Access formats. In addition, you can create a picture of any view in Microsoft Project, such as the Gantt Chart, and save it as a GIF image to place on a web page, or paste it into Word or PowerPoint for reports or presentations.

ActiveWin: How has Microsoft Project 2000 help companies in their deployment of Microsoft Windows 2000?

Brett Bentsen: Microsoft Project 2000 ships with a Microsoft Windows 2000 Deployment project template in the box (available from the File|New dialog box). This helps people define the tasks they need to undertake before they even start the actual deployment process. It helps them determine the right people who need to be involved and organize their work so the decisions are made in the right order. Plus, with our Save as a Template feature, it's easy for organizations to use an existing deployment plan that incorporates the company's own best practices or standards to create a custom template they can use throughout the organization.

ActiveWin: Were there any features you would have liked to include in Microsoft Project 2000 but couldn't?

Brett Bentsen: There are always features that we thought about or our customers would like to see that don't make it into a particular release. We always re-visit the list for each release and try to add as many as we can in. One feature that we had wanted to do in Microsoft Project 98, but that didn't make it in until Microsoft Project 2000 was Estimated Durations. In usability testing of the product, we often see that people new to project management are uncomfortable with entering information about durations and dates - "once I show my boss the schedule they will hold me to the dates even though I'm still investigating items." So, we had the idea of allowing people to tag those tasks that are still being looked into. In Microsoft Project 2000, you simply enter a ? next to the duration to show that it is estimated or tentative. It's a simple idea, but with all the features we were including in Microsoft Project 98, we had to put it off until Microsoft Project 2000.

ActiveWin: One of the biggest things for new business users is ease-of-use. What makes Microsoft Project 2000 user-friendly?

Brett Bentsen: One of the biggest ease-of-use features for new users is the re-vamped HTML help system. You can see the 'Project Map' that outlines the project management process via a series of goal-based help topics. For example, the "Plan Project Costs" area in the Map has 3 Goals: Estimate Costs, Define and share cost information, and Prepare to manage costs. Each of these has a Goal topic in the help system. Estimate Costs has 4 steps: Review historical data, Enter cost information, Review planned costs, and Optimize costs. These then drill down to specific steps you can take in the product to accomplish the goal.

ActiveWin: Also, do a lot of Microsoft development teams use Project 2000? Did you receive a lot of feedback from other Program/Product Managers of different products?

Brett Bentsen: Part of this is the general methodology our development teams use. Most don't care what order people work on things as long as they are finished by a certain date (end of the major milestone). Many team just want to know how much work have they done and how much is left and how that maps to how much time is left before the end of the milestone. The Deadlines feature in Project 2000 make this easier, but when you try to model this many times you have to understand what assumptions the product is making. 

So, we've gotten a lot of feedback that people don't realize why Project
took a certain action when they made a change and, although they could
adjust setting to get Project to behave the way they want, its hard to find
those settings. In short, while Project is the easiest project manager on
the market, project management is hard. So, we'll continue to look at ways
to make it easier for people to get the schedule they want without having to
get a degree in project management.


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