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Project Directions: Microsoft’s Arpan Shah Fields Questions

If, as the Standish Group’s 2009 CHAOS Report declares, 68 percent of projects truly failed, that could either be considered an indictment of current project management practices or a compelling reason for why it’s so vital. Arpan Shah prefers the latter interpretation, perhaps because it’ll help sell more copies of the most popular dedicated project management tool in the world, Microsoft Project, which he’s in charge of developing at Microsoft.

In fact, he says, since the launch of the latest version, his company has sold a license for Microsoft Project 2010 every 20 seconds. “That speaks,” he notes, “to how popular this release has been.” One could calculate that that equates to about 4,320 Microsoft Project 2010 license salesper day worldwide, a number Microsoft itself won’t comment on.

Shah believes that a major driver behind the success of the Project family, which includes two client editions and a server edition, is the health of its “ecosystem.” That includes a number of partners that provide training, consulting, and add-ons that extend Project’s functionality; as well as a growing community (MPUG, PMI, and a multitude of bloggers and book authors); and integrations into other Microsoft products, such as SharePoint, Outlook and Exchange, and most recently Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2010.

Recently, just after celebrating his 10th year with Microsoft, Shah addressed questions from MPUG culled from multiple members of the Project community.

MPUG: We know that Microsoft is working on a next generation of the Microsoft Project line. Will that be tied directly to the timing of the next release of Office?

Arpan Shah: Yes. That’s right.

Are there areas that the development team is especially focused on for that?

Shah: It’s too early to comment on it. We’re working on the next version right now. For the next version, there are several things we look at: feedback from customers and partners and the community. We always look at trends as well. What’s happening in the marketplace in and around project management? And we look at key areas where we can innovate. But I can’t really comment on investment areas right now.

Some of our contributors are quite interested in finding out how it can help Microsoft with the prioritizing of features and focus for that next generation of Project. How are you taking feedback from users?

Shah: We have formal mechanisms and informal mechanisms. Formal would be advisory councils: the customer advisory council, the partner advisory council. We have a formal relationship, as well as the appropriate [non-disclosure agreement] materials, so we can have a bi-directional conversation. We also look at semi-formal avenues, like customer communities, such as MPUG. We have [Most Value Professionals] (MVPs), who represent a vast number of people. On the more informal side, we’re always looking at public forums. We try to see where the feedback is coming in, and we comb through that.

Not everyone is in a position to influence at all of those levels, but we do have channels where people can influence at some level. For a project manager it might be a public forum or informal community, whereas for a customer with the right relationship, it might be at a customer advisory meeting.

Let’s talk about Project in the cloud. The last time we spoke, you said that Microsoft would be making announcements in this area regarding Project becoming part of Office 365, which is Microsoft’s cloud-based application suite. It’s three months later. Can you provide an update?

Shah: I can give you an update. I think the last time we talked was around the time of Project’s [Service Pack 1] release. [At that time] I mentioned Project Hosts and BeMo, and several other hosting partners. They’re continuing to get some great interest and they’re doing a lot of deployments of Project Server in dedicated environments.

The other thing to mention is that the Project 2010 client integrates with SharePoint Online and Office 365. So people can take tasks and use them in a Project schedule with bi-directional synchronization. We’ve heard some really great feedback on that functionality.

As far as Microsoft’s own project [software-as-a-service] solution, it’s something we’re looking to do in the future. I can’t share any more detailed information than that.

One area where we haven’t heard Microsoft’s project team weigh in is in the mobile space. What’s the Project group working on there?

Shah: Just to reiterate, I can’t talk about [the next generation of] Project. But I’ll talk about some things people can do on mobile today. First, Project Server is built on top of the SharePoint platform. So micro-browser support works with Project through SharePoint out of the box. I do want to be clear: It doesn’t work for all scenarios. With SP 1 we extended the footprint for things like timesheeting, which will work in a micro-browser.

On the app side of the house, I know that there are partners that are looking to deploy solutions on different platforms like Windows Phone Marketplace as well as the iTunes App Store.

A lot of mobile examples we see are coming from companies that are promising compatibility with the Project format: Yes, you can work with Project content or data. Which isn’t exactly the same as saying, “Hey, we’ve got apps for iOS, for the Android, or for Microsoft’s own mobile platform?

Shah: Just two things. The Microsoft solution today would be through our browser support. And there are partner solutions that have specific apps for statusing, time tracking, [etc.] on different OSs — iOS, Windows Phone, and Android. There are partners developing apps specifically for Microsoft Project.

Microsoft has announced the next Project conference in Phoenix next March. How are plans going for that?

Shah: Preparation is going well. [Registration is now open.] We’ve received a lot of great feedback and suggestions. A few weeks ago we had a formal call for content. We got a lot of suggestions. We’re in the process of trying to find the best sessions because we have limited capacity. We’re just working through that now. We’re excited about the conference.

Is that call still open? Will the next event feature outside speakers in a much broader way Are there areas where people should focus their proposals?

Shah: Yes, it’s still open until mid-October. When you think about the next conference, we’re really looking to enable sharing of best practices and how people are using our software around [return on investment] and around success stories. My advice would be to focus on success stories, best practices, how software is being deployed, vs. some of the feature/functionality topics that were more popular with the last conference.

You’ve been in your Project position more than a year. What about it gets you excited these days? What is most interesting to you about this community and about the product line you’re managing?

Shah: It is really learning and talking to project managers. It continues to just absolutely amaze me — the amount of passion that project managers have, and the [number] of best practices from very simple methodologies to complex ones. I feel privileged to listen to all of this stuff and to influence the next version of the product. That’s what excites me.

Dian Schaffhauser
Written by Dian Schaffhauser

Dian Schaffhauser is MPUG’s editor. She’s been covering project management, business transformation and topics technical as a journalist and editor since IBM released its first PC. She invites you to send your best story ideas for MPUG to her at editor@mpug.com. She promises to let you know what she really thinks.

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