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M2: Analysis of Comparable Project Planning/Management Offerings

M2 Product/Service Profile: AEC's FastTrack Schedule

Date: 10 Aug 2000

Copyright (c) 2000 Jim Salmons
All Rights Reserved

Associated project: Specification Writing for Web-based Project Planning Software

Project URL: http://sohodojo.com/techsig/project-planning-project.html

sXc Project detail: http://sourcexchange.com/ProjectDetail?projectID=24 (SourceXchange is out of business.)

Project coordination: Sohodojo

Sponsors: Position open

Sponsors (M1-3): Opendesk.com and Collab.Net

Core Team: Jim Salmons and Frank Castellucci

1 Overview

The intent of this document is to provide feedback from analysis of products that are comparable to the general goals of the project. The focus is on key technological areas with an overriding concern in regards to role collaboration capability.

2 Product/Service Profile [ All assessments, this topic ]

2.1 Name of offering

FastTrack Schedule, Version 6.04

2.2 Publisher/Author/Service-provider

AEC Software, Inc.
22611-113 Markey Court
Sterling, VA 20166
(703) 450-1980

2.3 URL for more information


2.4 Type - one or more of local client, client/server, web service, etc.

Hybrid rooted in client application heritage. Runs at various 'scale points'; single-user, networked multi-user and 'Internetworked' (via TCP/IP and related protocols support)

2.5 Pricing/Availability

Single user license - $199 USD
5-pack network version - $1,165 USD
10-pack network version - $2,210 USD
25-pack network version - $5,225 USD

Version 6.04 was the latest version currently available for both the Windows and Macintosh versions.

A companion product, FastTrack Schedule for the Palm OS is available for $99/user USD.

2.6 Assessment based on hands-on experience or info-only?

The demo version of FastTrack Schedule is fully functional with the exception of file saving. This impacts exercising some features, such as importing and exporting, but basically the demo experience is comparable to full product access.

The AEC web site is very information rich and serves as an excellent resource for product users, evaluators and press. The reviewer reviewed Evaluator Guides, on-line Shockwave automated lessons, example files, FAQs, etc. during the assessment.

2.7 Reviewer comments

3 System Constraints [ All assessments, this topic ]

3.1 Physical Limitations

None to speak of... AEC supports electronic product purchase and delivery, on-line support, etc., so there are not 'physical access' barriers.

3.2 Software Limitations (operating systems, plug-ins, drivers)

No Unix, but most flavors of Windows and Macintosh are supported with relatively transparent file and feature compatibilities. (In some cases, such as host scripting, OS features are implemented differently while the functional contribution is comparable, as much as possible, between platforms.)

The multi-user collaboration features are generally implemented with a 'file-locking'-style interaction constraint.

A strong, built-in user licensing key system controls and facilitates multi-user licensed usage.

3.3 Implementation Limitations (number of projects, tasks per projects, users, roles)

FastTrack Schedule is an 'old guard' solution offering that has evolved through more than 10 years of continuous availability. It's 'design-point' has always been 'power with ease-of-use'. To that end, it has not tried to be 'everything to everybody'.

FTS is essentially 'project-centric' and 'project manager/planner' focused. That is not to say that over the years it has not developed sophisticated 'collaboration' and info sharing features. These interactive features are, however, designed within its original design-point.

For example, while Tasks are assumed/encouraged to have Manager assignments, there is no 'human resource' dimension to a FTS project. You cannot, for example, shorten a Task duration by 'doubling up' on Team Member assignments to a Task as there is no 'one to many' assignment of Team Members to a task. (A manager could, however, extend a project model to support such associations and to incorporate 'computed durations' into a project, but this is not directly supported to keep the 'complexity scope' within the design approach.

3.4 Does the software assume a specific project management methodology, if so which one(s)?

FTS does not support or require a specific project management methodology. However, the product's design constraints encourage a 'project-centric' approach (as opposed to a 'people-centric' approach like ManagePro) and a 'project planner/manager' user focus.

This focus was apparently selected for a 'core value' of 'ease of use' for its target user market. AEC has successfully avoided the 'grow by adding all things and the kitchen sink' to its feature-set. To its credit, AEC has found ways to add interactive 'teaming' features to FTS while still maintaining its 'project-centric/planner-centric' focus.

3.5 Reviewer Comments

4 Collaboration [ All assessments, this topic ]

4.1 What is the interaction model? (Real-time dynamic views, publish/subscribe, email, user queries, etc.)

The multi-user collaboration features are generally implemented with a 'file-locking'-style interaction constraint. Since FTS supports various complex task interdependencies, such a 'lock, change, release' model is almost inevitable (without resorting to some even more complex 'dynamic change conflict' resolution system.

AEC has done an admirable job of bringing FTS into 'the Internet Age'. By adopting the widely-used Internet collaboration protocols, such as TCP/IP, FTS has moved from an initially single-user client application, through its networked 'groupware' phase into its 'Internet-friendly' implementation today.

While there are features that encourage 'planning collaboration' and 'dynamic progress monitoring', it should be noted that FTS intentionally stays away from being a 'fine-grained teaming environment'.

4.2 When used in project planning mode, is team communication supported?

Yes, but again, the 'team' here is more correctly thought of as 'the planning team' rather than the overall 'project team'.

FTS supports a variety of configurations which allow flexibility in collaboration. For example, the FTS application can run in 'server mode' allowing multiple users concurrently access or users can designate 'shared directories' where multiple users can concurrently access a project file (without having an initial 'primary server' running.

Full networking configurations support multi-level password protection and file locking, etc. The built-in license key management system makes it easy to add and control licenses users.

When accessing a project concurrently, a 'pen' tool is shared among the concurrent users. When you have the 'pen' you have write access. Relinquishing the pen unlocks the project file and lets somebody else gain write access.

When used in 'sharing' mode, views are dynamically updated although the 'single-writer' rule is always in effect.

4.3 When used in project monitoring mode (more modest a target than project management), how is team member interaction handled? ('project-manager -centric' or peer interaction; is there an ad hoc issue management facility, etc.)

FTS has a very extensive, though cleanly intuitive, 'planned, revised, actual' progress tracking feature-set.

Again, the granularity is oriented toward a 'project manager and team leaders'-centric model rather than full-bore individual Member-oriented collaboration model. But this is 'core value' design-point within FTS.

The reviewer's impression is that small team projects could adopt an 'all Generals, no Soldiers' approach where Task assignments at the 'leaf-level' could be assigned to the 'Manager' who is also the 'Doer' of the Task. On larger project, such 'drilling down' to 'Team Member as his/her own Manager' would lead to a 'complexity explosion'. For example, the collection of assignable Managers is maintained as 'pop-up list item' entries rather than as 'Person/Role' records which show up in a Task's Manager assignment field. Considering the dynamic nature of team member assignments during the lifecycle of a project, such an overly simplified underlying model would get out of hand if it was used in too fine-grained an approach.

4.4 What are the 'key indicators' used to keep project team members and stakeholders informed of the state of the project?

FTS excels at time-oriented visualizations of a project plan. Indeed, there are those who have described FTS as a 'specialized drawing program on steroids' that knows a lot about project planning/management dynamics rather than describe it as a project management tool with good visualization tools.

FTS is _extremely_ rich in timeline and report formatting features.

One of the most intuitive and powerful 'key indicator' features of FTS is its 'planned, revised, actual' progress monitoring subsystem. They have refined an interface for capturing and visualizing this 'core project dynamic' that is very impressive.

NOTE: Rather than 'grow through complexifying', the AEC folks have developed a companion product, Details, which is strong on project status assessment and reporting. This product is on its Version 3.0 level of maturity. Details appears to be positioned as a stand-alone product with optional, complementary interfaces to FTS. If we have the bandwidth, the sXc24 core team would like to assess the Details product as well.

4.5 Does the product or service's concurrency features facilitate or hinder team member collaboration?

Paradoxically, it is some of both. On the one hand, you could make a case that the 'people/team-member'-less project is an over-simplification. But to the extent that user/adopters understand its strengths and weaknesses (more 'intentional blindspots' than weaknesses), FTS can be a 'just right' solution which manages to get a lot of 'real world' project planning and management features into a packages solution which is flexible and easy to use.

User/adopters should NOT, however, think that the FTS collaboration features are tuned to a 'peer team member' level. In organizations where such 'command and control' of 'project planner/manager, team leaders and minions' is the established culture, FTS would be a good solution. In organizations with a high degree of fine-grained teaming, there could be a bit of a 'square-peg, round-hole' affect to consider.

4.6 Security features

There is a flexible, multi-level password protection scheme that gives project planner/managers a high degree of flexibility in implementing a project management methodology. Used in conjunction with its flexible reporting features, the project planner/manager has 'no-access/read-only/read-write' access control.

These 'view level' controls however are very much related to a conventional 'user access control' mechanism rather than related to a 'stakeholders/roles' nature of the underlying project model of FTS.

The built-in user license control system is more about license-purchase compliance than it is about project role-view access.

4.7 Reviewer Comments

5 Role Support [ All assessments, this topic ]

5.1 What is the 'person/role' model?

If you create a new, 'clean slate' schedule (that is, don't use any of the numerous template 'starting points'), Activities have a 'Responsible' attribute (field in the default database representation of the graphical schedule). In earlier versions, it appears that this default field was called 'Manager'. The more general 'Responsible' allows users to think in terms of manager responsibility or the more fine-grained team member 'work assignment' responsibility.

FTS does not have first order Persons or Roles. FTS is 'project/activity'-centric.

5.2 How are 'person/role' elements related to 'organization/group' elements?

Simplicity rules here. The default schedule has no organization/group model elements. However, FTS is highly configurable and extendible. Scripting interfaces, built-in computations, hyperlinking, etc. allow the user to tailor FTS to his or her conception of what a project is and how it works. So, in a sense, you can add virtually anything you want in terms of data associated with activities and projects. However, such extensions are not the same as having these 'strategic elements' of the problem domain represented as first class model elements.

5.3 Can one person fill many roles? Can one role be filled by many persons? (resource/skill pools, etc.)

By default, no.

But again, as Picard says, you can 'Make it so' in that FTS encourages customization.

5.4 Reviewer Comments

Don't look here for insights into modeling Persons, Roles, Organizations or Groups, etc.

FTS excels in the intuitive, graphical construction and presentation of time-oriented descriptions of projects. Persons, Roles, Organizations, Groups; all these things are relegated to optional, user-configurable data fields to be associated with Project Activities. So, we don't look here for insights or inspiration regarding the implementation modeling of these model elements.

However, when it comes to easy-to-use UIs related to the graphical display of time-related data, FTS is a fountainhead.

6 Concurrency [ All assessments, this topic ]

Concurrency is defined by the implementations locking and transaction model. As such, the granularity of the locking will determine the liveliness of the system. The finer the granularity of locking, the more lively the interactions may be. Another aspect of concurrency is in regards to work-flow and the transaction model, does the system support "conversational or long-term transactions" for example.

Concurrency is defined by the implementations locking and transaction model. As such, the granularity of the locking will determine the liveliness of the system. The finer the granularity of locking, the more lively the interactions may be. Another aspect of concurrency is in regards to work-flow and the transaction model, does the system support "conversational or long-term transactions" for example.

6.1 Single or multi-user

The design-point is ease-of-use for FTS. AEC has done an excellent job of making its network versions 'transparent' upgrades to its basic single user 'local application' base product.

A built-in license registry manages user licenses and log-ins, etc. Password-based permission setting allow the project manager to set 'none/read/read-write' access levels for users.

FTS supports TCP/IP-based file access which lets it be used in both local intranets as well as on the Internet.

6.2 What is the implementation technology supporting concurrency?

FTS manages its own 'file/record'-locking. When used interactively, FTS uses a 'pen' UI metaphor to pass 'change access' among a collaborating group of project planners.

6.3 Revision Management


6.4 Reviewer Comments

7 Accessibility [ All assessments, this topic ]

7.1 Web-based


FTS is 'web-aware', not web-based.

7.2 Interchanges support (MS Project, XML, RDF, etc.)

FTS will 'natively' open MS Project's 'MPX' export file format. In addition, FTS has a generalized import function which allows data to be imported from the clipboard or files.

7.3 Import/Export (MS Project, text, etc.)

Imports and exports MPX files.

Import and export of data to user-definable file export formats is supported. In addition, project data may be exported in lightly-configurable HTML formats.

Platform-specific features, like OLE server functions on Windows machines, are also applicable.

7.4 Mobile Users

Not applicable.

7.5 Reviewer Comments

8 Project Proposal Management [ All assessments, this topic ]

8.1 Vision/Goals specification

Not applicable.

8.2 Business Processing Rules

Not applicable.

8.3 Implementation Specific Rules

Not applicable.

8.4 Reviewer Comments

9 Requirements Management [ All assessments, this topic ]

9.1 Documentation Controls

Not applicable.

9.2 Relationship to Task Management

Not applicable.

9.3 Implementation Specific Rules

Not applicable.

9.4 Business Processing Rules

Not applicable.

9.5 Reviewer Comments

10 Task Management [ All assessments, this topic ]

10.1 What is the 'activity/task' model?

A Project is a collection of Activities which may be composed of 'sub-Activities' which are denoted through the familiar 'indentation-based outliner' UI metaphor.

Activities are a 'nexus' of data collected and maintained by FTS. By default, there are a large number of data fields associated with an Activity including the 'usual suspects' of Start Date, End Date, Duration and Responsibility. By adding column data to layout views and report formats, the user is modifying the 'project database schema'.

10.2 How are roles related to activity/tasks?

Not applicable by default.

Users can extend the default model to capture and maintain data fields such as Roles and Persons as long as these 'data sources' are understood to be 'pick lists' and similar attribute configuration settings for fields within the Activity database. That is, users are not able to add 'first class' model elements like Roles and Persons.

10.3 Is the product/service 'project-manager-centric' or can team members extend and/refine the plan within the realm of their own activity?

The product 'design-point' is targeting the project planner/manager. In this sense, FTS is project-manager-centric. An intuitive and practical 'planned, revised, actual' progress reporting subsystem carries FTS into the 'management' side of projects. This subsystem is intended for Team Member participation.

But in general, FTS is not intended to be a 'team-based collaboration environment'.

10.4 Views: Predefined, user-configurable or both

Dozens of example and template projects are supplied which ease the use of FTS.

10.5 Status reporting mechanisms (percent complete reports, 'flag-raising' or issue management features)

Dynamic reporting of percent completion is supported. There is not explicit issue management system, although a 'Notes per Activity' default field encourages the user messaging associated with Activities.

10.6 How are consumable/required task-specific resources handled?

Not in the default configuration.

You could 'roll you own' as data field and field computation extensions (or use scripting or object-embedding, etc.) to add features along these lines.

10.7 Reviewer Comments

11 Task Constraints [ All assessments, this topic ]

11.1 Task Dependency Internal (intra-project)

FTS has powerful and flexible Activity dependency constraint capabilities. Particularly strong is the intuitive user interfaces which allow easy drag-and-drop editing which respects constraint requirements.

11.2 Task Dependency External (inter-project)

You can open many Project files concurrently in FTS. However, each Project is its own 'private turf', there is no inter-dependency mechanism which ties Projects together.

That said, FTS is highly configurable and uses host OS-specific scripting and object-embedding features to allow the motivated user to create such inter=project dependencies.

11.3 Resource constraints (expressed as percentage)

Same as other answer...

Not applicable in the default configuration.

The user is free to 'get creative' with the extension features of FTS to 'make it so'.

11.4 User defined constraints

Actually, yes. If by that we mean that there are good facilities for supporting the extension of the Activity model. Again, the system is open and flexible enough to let you 'roll your own'.

11.5 Reviewer Comments

12 Reporting [ All assessments, this topic ]

12.1 Pre-defined, user-defined or both

A hallmark of FTS is 'presentation quality' project planning documents and reports. A vast array of project reports and user views are built into the default FTS product configuration.

What isn't there is easily addressed by a powerful and easy to use report definition and generation facility. A wide variety of export and report formats are supported.

12.2 Publisher-push by project manager or team member dynamic views?

The Mach version apparently has some 'latest and greatest' multi-user feature. The reviewer did not have direct experience with these advanced, Mac-specific features.

In a network environment, multiple users have various levels of access to the 'live project data' rather than a generated report of that project. So these users' views are certainly dynamic and real-time.

For extended 'stakeholder' views, the project manager is can quickly and easily generated HTML reports on an as needed basis. There views are static 'snapshots' of the state of the project at the time of the report generation.

12.3 Stakeholder-specific views?

See above. Not by default, but roll your own.

12.4 Multi-project analysis


12.5 What-if analysis

Not explicitly. The quick and easy direct manipulation of the visual representation of the project encourage one form of 'what if' analysis. And the 'undo' function let's you recover from such explorations. On the other hand, since FTS does not directly model 'work-effort' resource allocations, etc., users won't be doing any 'spreadsheet-like' what-if planning that involves these kinds of resource dynamics... again, unless you 'rolled your own' using FTS's extensibility.

12.6 Security features

For direct-access of FTS files, password protections based on user licenses applies. But once data is exported to other formats, the user is on his or her own to maintain information security.

12.7 Reviewer Comments

13 Multi-project Management [ All assessments, this topic ]

13.1 Role Template library?

Not applicable.

13.2 Repetitive Task library?

Excellent. In this case, project templates are abundant and serve as helpful starting points for a wide variety of project types.

13.3 Reviewer Comments

14 Post Mortem [ All assessments, this topic ]

14.1 Analysis and Reporting

Not applicable.

14.2 Is there an interface to a 'reputation-building' rating system for team members? If so, is there a 'disputed assessment' system to resolve conflicting opinions.

Not applicable.

14.3 Reviewer Comments

15 Subjective Impressions [ All assessments, this topic ]

15.1 User Interface: Strengths/Weaknesses

The direct manipulation interfaces and the time-data editing and display features of FTS are superb.

15.2 Project Modeling: Strengths/Weaknesses

As I said before, FTS's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Its design-point of intuitive, ease of use has been achieved by very deliberately placing important project dynamics 'below the radar' (outside the implemented problem model space). The lack of first class Person, Role, Organization, Group, Resources and similar model elements reduces the potential of FTS as a 'dynamic teaming collaboration platform'.

What is does do, FTS does very well with a 'ruthless simplicity' true to its design.

15.3 Technology Platform: Strengths/Weaknesses

No Unix. But the Windows and Mac support is top notch. AEC is walking a fine line between having transparent file-access across Windows and Mac platforms while also taking advantage of OS-specific extensions for such technologies as object linking and embedding (OLE).

15.4 Overall 'Wow' factor: 1 (low) to 5 (high)


15.5 Reviewer Comments

My 'three' WOW rating is a combination of way high ratings for UI ease of use and extension flexibility, tempered by frustration at the lack of first class User/Role model elements.

16.0 Reviewer Profile

16.1 Reviewer name: Jim Salmons

16.2 Reviewer email: [snip]

16.3 Reviewer URL: http://sohodojo.com/about_sohodojo.html

16.4 Evaluation performed: 10-11 Aug 2000

16.5 I DO NOT work for, or have an undisclosed relationship with, the author or publisher of the evaluated product or service:


16.6 Reviewer Comments: [Optionally tell us about your experience, interests or opinions about project planning and management.]


Version 0.9 - Initial draft
Version 1.0 - Final

### end of sxc24-m2-fasttrack-comparables.txt (Version 1.0) ###

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