From Outer Space to Cyberspace

Seven years ago, Tenagra got its start in online marketing as a member of a NASA technology incubator. After seeing how NASA was using the Web to communicate its mission out to the public, Tenagra decided to help commercial organizations use the same technology to meet their online marketing objectives. I was reminded of our heritage while viewing the Internet video feed from NASA’s control center during the recent landing of the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft on the asteroid Eros. A truly phenomenal achievement for mankind and one that motivated me to pause and reflect on what it takes to plan and execute such a complex program.

Many of the same lessons we can learn from a large and complex organization like NASA can also be applied when creating successful online ventures.

Whether you are designing a complex Web site or overseeing a spacecraft mission, success depends on the convergence of four key considerations: creative, technical, strategic, and managerial.

When executing an Internet project, finding solutions to the first two considerations is generally relatively easy. Most credible companies providing Internet development solutions can bring to the table people who are good at the creative and technical aspects of Internet development. And as we have seen from the deluge of risumis that we have received over the past few months, presently there is no shortage of both creative and technical talent available for hire in our industry.

But the strategic and managerial considerations tend to be far more problematic. Strategic considerations are the single most important factor in the overall long-term success of any online venture. Finding individuals who know how to map out a winning strategic approach that will meet the realities of the online community and marketplace is not easy.

Once a strategic approach is defined, it is the day-to-day project management that is by far the most difficult part of project execution. Many of the project management methodologies in widespread use today came out of the techniques employed by NASA during the Apollo space program.

A project manager is ultimately responsible for achieving results while juggling the desired level of quality, cost requirements, and schedule requirements.

Unfortunately, these three factors usually compete against one another.

The heightened number of failures in NASA’s “Better, Cheaper, Faster” program illustrate this fact. Better quality often requires greater costs and time to achieve. Meeting a faster schedule also often means greater costs. And an insufficient budget can frequently lead to cutting corners with an adverse effect on quality.

One of the most difficult aspects of project management is coordinating resources, especially people with a diversity of skills. Being a good project manager requires an understanding of the technical and creative aspects of a project so that those with the necessary skills are made available and can be utilized at the right time.

Despite the critical role of project management in the implementation of an Internet venture, it is often the least-appreciated and least-understood aspect of a Web development project. It can also be costly. Staffing a full-time project manager for a development project will likely cost an organization between $100,000 and $200,000 per year. Some find it difficult to pay that kind of money for coordination rather than technical or creative development. But on a complex development project, history has proven the cost to be worth it.

Too many times I’ve seen situations where an organization is not willing to allocate funds for adequate project planning, management, and coordination, and then is left wondering when quality, the budget, and the schedule suffer greatly as a result. (Even worse, of course, is when an organization is willing to pay for someone, but the project manager does not have the sufficient skills for the task. I’ve seen that happen, too.)

Differences in project managers’ skills also explain why two different projects performed by the same company with the same creative and technical staff may have very different outcomes.

NASA is learning from its mistakes and bringing us spectacular success stories like the NEAR-Shoemaker mission. By taking the lead from NASA and incorporating adequate project management into your online venture, quality control, costs, and scheduling can be managed in a way that leads to your long-term success.

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