Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Microsoft Project and the Gantt Waterfall

I've been using Microsoft Project quite a bit recently with a certain customer of ours. They bleed Gantt. I hadn't used Project in years, and after being exposed to it again, it really struck me how deeply the waterfall model is ingrained into the product. Take a look. What do you see?

Microsoft Project 2003 Gantt chart screenshot

Every Microsoft Project file I open is a giant waterfall, inexorably flowing across the page from left to right like Twain's mighty Mississippi river.

But like Twain's fictional Mississippi, project management with Microsoft Project is largely built on tall tales:

When you work in IT, you deal with the consensual hallucination of Project Management. There is an almost universal belief that it is possible to predict ahead of time how long a project will take, how much it will cost and what will happen along the way. In the broadest sense, this is possible. If you have enough experience you can come up with ballpark figures; last time we did something similar it took this long and cost this much.

But some people believe Project Management should tell you these things down to the day and the dollar. A project plan should tell you every task that needs to be completed. A project plan should be flawless and leave nothing to chance. And a project plan should be completed before ANY work is done on the project.

Despite the fact this is clearly insanity, it is a terrifyingly common mindset in management ranks. Project planning and goals are obviously important at some level (otherwise how the hell would you know what you are doing?) but how did we move from "let's have a clearly defined set of project goals and a strategy for how we'll get there," to "this is 100% accurate, carved in stone and will never change"?

What are the alternatives? Well, anything but waterfall. And a dose of McConnell's Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art, which manages to cover the difficult topic of software estimation without a single mention of Microsoft Project.


Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: