Risking Life and Limb – Book Review

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A couple of day ago I was thinking, why aren’t there any books on IT issues by local authors. It can’t be that our techie guru’s aren’t all that good at writing. Afterall, quite a few of them now run blogs and the output is more than decent. So what exactly was holding them back? While I still dont have the answer to that issue, i did come across this wonderful gem of a book from Ansar Muhammad and Rahim Hasnani titled Large Software Projects: Risking Life and Limb on Jehanara’s blog.

The content of the book is extremely simple to read through and it is designed to be consumed quickly. Its written in three parts, with the first being a complete case study of a large software project for an Insurance company. The project chosen is fraught with all the problems we see on a day to day basis while managing projects such as impossible deadlines, scope creep, expectations management, high risks and so on. It describes the life of a project manager, Ahsan, as he navigates his way though the complex world of managing everything from his team, schedules, clients and his own management, trying to come out of an impossible project with his dignity intact.

The story highlights many management issues faced by PMs and is a good read for people coming into these roles for the first time. One of the biggest themes of the book, in my opinion, is breaking the limiting belief that a PM that doesn’t code is useless. A very prevalent problem in our industry, project management is often misunderstood within the ranks of developers, who see it as a addon task for a developer rather than a task in its own right. By going through the story, one realizes that day to day challenges a PM has to face and if not given adequate time and resources, how much jeopardy an organization is placing itself into.

Two more themes, which really struck a chord with me, were managing team morale, especially during high stress times and the importance of training, both of your own resources as well as those of the clients. As the author himself states, “Life is too short to learn from our own mistakes”. While experience is definitely a requirement for maturity, experience+knowledge will lead your people into a higher plane of maturity. While trainings are often viewed as an overhead by management, especially since they cannot effectively track outcomes and effects on the training objective, it is no doubt an important tool in broadening the horizon’s of your people. Just think of it this way, would you rather have a knowledgeable, well versed and qualified person working with you for a year, or an unqualified, out of date person working for ten years? To anyone thinking of productivity, the choice is an obvious one.

For experienced managers, as you read through the story, you begin to identify with Ahsan and the dilemmas and start mapping your own current and past projects to his plight. This exercise, in itself, leaves you with much clearer idea of what went wrong and more significantly, what went right in your own projects, and is a highly effective means of self improvement. As Ahsan goes through the motions of managing the team, customer, users and his own management taking one of the many possible paths which might exist, you begin to see how each of the outcomes presented later on in the story were actually crafted. If nothing else, it makes you value the exercise of planning a project just a little bit more.

The second and third parts of the book are divided into lessons learned and things to avoid. While these may seem like a rehash of something we already know, going through this concise bulleted list reminds us of little ideas and nuggets of experience we might have buried over the years.

One of the most interesting features of the book however is not the content but the delivery mechanism. This book is released on the internet in ebook format, and under the creative commons attribution, noncommercial and share-alike license, which in layman terms means, anyone can download this book free of charge, can use the content of the book for their own purposes (with attribution) and build upon it and share it with anyone they like. It not only demonstrates the capacity for knowledge sharing of these writers but also the power of the internet as a publishing medium for Pakistan. Most authors who write books actually have to pay publishing companies to print and distribute their works, and only see a dime of profit if it manages to sell. Something which is very discouraging for many upcoming authors.

Overall, I give the effort a 5 star rating, and urge everyone to at least give it a try. Its short (I went through it in under 1.5 hours), lively and not very taxing on the mind while at the same time, is power packed with scenarios and solutions a lot of us can identify with.

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