May 22 TDWI Event: Big Data Panel

Plaster Group is looking forward to sponsoring and attending  another TDWI Northwest event next weekThe Database Warehousing Institute’s Seattle Chapter aims to enable those in BI and DW-related fields to gather together, grow a strong network of peers, and share best practice and technical advice.

The Big Data Panel consists of  experts from Puget Sound companies T-Mobile, eBay, Expedia, Big Fish Games, and Concur Technologies who are excited to share their experiences adapting and using Big Data to meet their business needs. This event will take place Thursday, March 15 from 5pm to 9pm at the T-Mobile Headquarters located in Bellevue. This is a great opportunity to meet other Seattle BI professionals, share ideas and career advice, and exchange business cards while enjoying a quality presentation and discussion. There will also be food, beverages, and a raffle drawing!

To read more about this event, and to register to attend, click here! Want to do some reading up on Big Data before attending? Read an article on what constitutes Big Data and the challenges it poses here.

How SharePoint Can Help Your Business

SharePoint is not just a program or individual solution; it’s a massive platform that provides secure places to store, organize, share, and access information from almost any device.  Able to be deployed within a server environment or used in the cloud, SharePoint is highly scalable, extensible, flexible and cost effective. As versatile as it is ubiquitous, SharePoint can be used to access or create solutions that provide:

  • Websites – for your employees and your customers
  • File sharing and document collaboration
  • Enterprise social networking
  • Organization of people, processes, and projects
  • Custom web parts and applications
  • Enterprise search
  • Standardization and refinement of forms, approval, and workflow
  • Records management and legal compliance
  • Business intelligence and data visualization

The fundamental building blocks of SharePoint are internally or externally facing websites to which users make changes and contribute content. The degree that users can alter or access these SharePoint sites can be limited to ensure information is only available to those who need it or should have it. Changes to information and sites are monitored and controlled.  Groups can set up centralized spaces for document sharing where documents can be stored, edited, and collaborated on. SharePoint’s integration with Microsoft Office online allows users to edit documents directly in their web browser.  Additionally, SharePoint collaboration environments can be extended through the use of apps and web parts to provide additional functions like email alerts, shared calendars, data summaries, and sophisticated tools to search through, securely access, and reuse large amounts of content.

SharePoint can be used to enhance an organization’s ability to manage content and information at the enterprise level. Solutions are employed to manage enterprise metadata, define a company’s best practice for creating documents collaboratively (including versioning and check in/ check out functionality), and enforce policies that govern workflow across a project’s life cycle. In addition, SharePoint can be used to ensure records management regulatory compliance and mitigate legal risk across all of an organization’s content.

SharePoint 2013 has advanced integration with Microsoft’s self-service BI platform. This integration gives users access to PowerView in SharePoint providing numerous ways to visualize data, create easy-to-use dashboards, and share reports with colleagues. Also new to SharePoint 2013 is a focus on social sharing. Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer allows SharePoint users to engage in threaded discussions, “like” and share posts they find compelling, and connect other users to content.  With Yammer, it’s even possible for SharePoint 2013 to learn from user activity and offer users relevant content automatically. Additionally, SharePoint 2013 users can create and access blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, and other functions associated with top social media platforms.

Which Microsoft Dynamics Solution is the Best Fit for your business?

Microsoft Dynamics is a series of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) applications with more than 350,000 customers. It consists of four products:

  • Microsoft Dynamics AX
  • Microsoft Dynamics NAV
  • Microsoft Dynamics GP
  • Microsoft Dynamics SL

With varying capabilities, which of these products is the best fit for your business? Here’s a quick guide to the differences between Microsoft’s ERP products.

Microsoft Dynamics AX

Microsoft Dynamics AX, the fastest growing of the four Dynamics applications, is a multi-language, multi-currency ERP business application. A best fit for organizations with multi-country operations, it supports industry-specific and operational processes across global enterprises. Keep in mind Microsoft Dynamics AX is a heavy-weight solution: it takes longer to implement than the other three Dynamics applications, has the most expensive license, and requires full-time development resources to implement.

Microsoft Dynamics NAV

The biggest seller of Microsoft’s ERP solutions, Microsoft Dynamics NAV is inexpensive to implement and maintain. It is highly customizable with a wide-range of add-ons. This is a great fit for mid-sized businesses that are global but do not yet have a complex organizational structure. Dynamics NAV can provide your mid-sized business with the powerful technology to compete with larger organizations, and will grow alongside your company.

Microsoft Dynamics GP

The second most popular of Microsoft’s ERP solutions, Dynamics GP’s out-of-the box business management functionalities include financials, human capital management, and manufacturing operations. It is a great fit for small and mid-sized business in the professional, financial, or public sectors.

Microsoft Dynamics SL

Microsoft Dynamics SL is designed for small, project-driven organizations. This is a niche product that is best suited for companies with less than 500 employees. It provides project, service, and distribution-driven businesses with functions to improve the profitability and efficiency. Its functions include finance, project accounting, manufacturing, supply chain management, and ecommerce.

Plaster Group is a Seattle-based business management consulting firm that includes Microsoft Dynamics Consulting. Read more about the difference between Microsoft Dynamic’s products, and find out our business consultants can help you choose, implement, and maintain your ERP solution here.

Here’s another few helpful links:

March 11 TDWI Event: Putting the Business Back in BI

Plaster Group is looking forward to sponsoring and attending  another TDWI Northwest event next weekThe Database Warehousing Institute’s Seattle Chapter aims to enable those in BI and DW-related fields to gather together, grow a strong network of peers, and share best practice and technical advice.

Putting the Business Back in Business Intelligence explores the topic of how technology interests often supersede those of business, and suggest steps to refocus the attention to business needs. This event will take place Tuesday, March 11 from 5pm to 9pm at the Alder Hall Commons and Auditorium located at the University of Washington. This is a great opportunity to meet other Seattle BI professionals, share ideas and career advice, and exchange business cards while enjoying a quality presentation by Dave Wells, who will explore the different dimensions of business to illustrate how they create a framework for business-focused BI. Did we mention that there will be food, beverages, and a raffle drawing?

To read more about this event, and to register to attend, click here!

Agile Coaching: A Multi-modal Approach

By Grant Beck, Plaster Group Agile Solutions Director

A few weeks ago, I attended a gathering of Scrum masters to discuss Agile best practices and the various challenges we were encountering with the adoption or execution of scrum. One Scrum Master I spoke with mentioned to me that he was an Agile Coach. An Agile coach is someone who helps teams and individuals with the transition to Agile and become high functioning by modeling and teaching Agile principles and techniques. Having taken some course work in coaching myself, I was curious what he thought it meant to be an Agile Coach. He said he ran the Scrum ceremonies, maintained the burn-down chart, and removed obstacles so the team could be productive. Making sure the team knew the responsibilities of each scrum role was also something for which he said he was accountable. I responded that I didn’t see how that was different than being a Scrum Master, but he really didn’t have a good response. A Scrum Master might employ some coaching techniques, but how is that different than being an Agile Coach? What are the competencies that a good Agile Coach should possess beyond the skills of a Scrum Master?

Continue reading “Agile Coaching: A Multi-modal Approach”

Agile Open Northwest 2014 Recap

Plaster Group Agile consultants Shama and Grant had a great time time last week at the Agile Open Northwest conference. This year’s open space conference covered the gamut of Agile-related topics and provided an engaging environment for lively discussion. The session topics included:

  • Managing Stakeholder & Executive Expectations
  • The Role of an Agile Manager
  • Teaching Pairing
  • Designing Programming Languages for Agile
  • When Management Threatens to Kill Agility
  • Adaptive Execution + Any Planning = Agile
  • Thus Sayeth the Oracle
  • CREATE Quality Code (Cohesion, non-Redundant, Encapsulation, Assertiveness, Testability, Explicit)
  • Stuck? Root Cause Analysis
  • Legacy Code
  • How to be an Awesome Project Manager
  • Measuring Team Productivity
  • Agile: the Day After…
  • Visualizing Teams
  • Project Planning in an Agile Environment
  • CFDs
  • Agile Resumes and Interviews
  • Lean Feature Experimentation
  • End-to-End Quality & Other Challenges with Agile at Scale
  • Managing Requests Without a Product Owner
  • The 5 Rules of Learning
  • What Happens When we Focus on Everyone’s Needs
  • Why Cycle Time Distribution Looks Like it Does & How we Can Use it
  • Seeding Agile in a Reluctant Team
  • Working Remotely with an Otherwise Co-located Team
  • Good People are Made, not Bought
  • Avoiding Orthodoxy


Agile Open has graciously provided summaries of many session topics, complete with photos of any brainstorming and notes that took place during the discussion. This is a great resource if you are looking for Agile conversation-openers, need a quick reference after participating in the conference, or were unable to attend. Visit session notes and pictures on the AONW website by clicking here.

The Role of Project Manager in an Agile Environment

by Shama Bole, Sr. Agile Consultant

The traditional role of a Project Manager (PM) is becoming obsolete – or at least evolving – in the world of Agile software development, and Project Managers must adapt in order to be effective. Often it is simply a matter of ‘doing whatever needs to be done’ to get or keep the project moving.

A client manager made an interesting comment to me – that she loved working with me because I didn’t draw a line in the sand about what constituted my job and what did not. When our client first determined that they wanted projects run Agile, I embraced the methodology and in the process discovered a renewed love for my PM role. I truly enjoy the principles that underlie working Agile. It’s not just another recipe to be followed because it is the flavour of the month, but rather it aligns with my working style and personal philosophy – my personality, if you will. But most PMs have been steeped in the more traditional waterfall methodology that is in contradistinction to Agile, with the latter’s emphasis on iterative development, incremental delivery, self-managing teams and attendant artifacts.

As a Project Manager, my tasks include the traditional:

  • Project Financials & Financial/Portfolio Reporting
  • Status Reporting
  • Project Governance
  • Identification of missing roles/resources and resolution/escalation of same
  • Business stakeholder communication
  • Issue/Risk communication/resolution/escalation – removing blockers
  • Project Planning
  • Change Management

As a Scrum Master (SM), I’m also responsible for:

  • Ensuring the team adheres to its processes (and all that entails in terms
    of artifacts and meetings)
  • Resolution/escalation of inadequate or ill-defined user stories – ensuring
    Product Owner accountability
  • Removing barriers and shielding the team from external interference

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Project Manager and Scrum Master roles are in conflict, owing to the PM role being one of “command and control” and the SM persona being very much that of a “servant leader”. I have always seen myself as that servant leader since, not being a technical expert or a SME, my job is to keep the project on track and remove blockers to progress. Either as a PM or a SM, I serve the team. The area where one might identify a potential conflict is where, as Project Manager, I protect the interests of the product owners (primary stakeholders) and project goals, whereas in the Scrum Master role I protect the core/delivery team from all outside interference. But to put a combative slant on these roles is to assume a zero-sum game (with the Product Owner and delivery team at odds) rather than a collaborative venture that provides optimal results for all.

I don’t think command and control is a sustainable mode of operation. As has been proven with Agile, the best possible outcomes result from the team organizing and managing itself. This may be perceived as threatening to some in the project management community because it suggests a diminishment of the PM role. I am currently combined PM/SM on three projects and purely PM on a fourth, with my role on that fourth project being to manage tasks and obstacles that fall outside of the sprint (e.g. data acquisition from source/transactional systems), and I do not feel it is a diminished role; having a Scrum Master take on daily project activities frees me up for other projects and to take on more. That said, the combined PM/SM role is often attractive to managers and clients because it obviates the need to hire a separate Scrum Master.

One area that frequently struggles with the transition to Agile is that of project financials. Funding for an Agile project would be in iterative chunks, feeding directly into value of throughput for the Business by the delivery team. I have heard this referred to as a “factory” model, suggesting an assembly line approach to development – this isn’t wholly inappropriate given that so much of Lean and Agile grew out of manufacturing. Budgets for projects are arrived at with an estimation approach that is still rooted in the world of waterfall-run projects (I have had interesting conversations with personnel in Finance when providing administrative details such as what is the “In Service” date for an Agile project). However, one of my projects that is run Agile is currently in the fifth phase of development – this suggests that delivery of previous requirements has bred trust between the product owner and project team to the extent that they have renewed our funding based on the product owner’s confidence that we will meet his changing requirements and provide what he needs to stay competitive and efficient. It’s not a blank cheque, but it comes close to a factory model.

In line with the challenge just mentioned, Product Owners are constantly desirous of knowing how much scope may be accomplished given what is left in the project budget. I actually find that I have a better grasp on the realities of what we can and cannot deliver within budget using an incremental delivery approach. In my PM/SM hybrid persona, I use Release Planning as well as team velocity and burn rate to provide the product owner with such an estimate. My caveat to the product owner is always that release planning activities take the core team away from delivering user stories, so that is a trade-off that the Business needs to make. This usually discourages the product owner from constant demands along these lines!

For Project Managers who have relied on a highly structured model that imposes timelines as drawn up by a long term project plan with dire repercussions to follow if said plan is violated, working Agile or sharing the Scrum Master role may seem quite incompatible; traumatic, even, based on what I’ve witnessed at times. The good news is that adapting to Agile gives new life to a discipline at the crossroads of alternative pathways for software development, allowing PMs to re-invent ourselves and stay continuously relevant to the art of Project Management.

Agile Open Northwest

Plaster Group is excited to be sponsoring and attending the upcoming Agile Open Northwest 2014. AONW is a non-profit alliance of Agile practitioners in the US Pacific Northwest region. This three-day Open Space conference will take place February 5th through the 7th at Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. The event will present a great opportunity to strengthen our agile community and shape the future of agile development in this region. Expect engaging conversation covering a wide-breadth of relevant topics.  At this time, Agile Open Northwest 2014 has reached full capacity, but you can visit their website to be added to a wait-list. If you cannot attend this year, look forward to our re-cap next week, and visit their website:

Inaugural ROOTS Luncheon

Plaster Group was thrilled to join the inaugural ROOTS – Young Adults Shelter Luncheon on November 6! ROOTS meets a very important need in Seattle by providing shelter and services to homeless youth, an often overlooked population within the community. plaster group roots pic (2)

Speakers at the event shared their personal experiences through ROOTS and shed light on the importance of the assistance available at youth shelters, meeting immediate physical needs while growing a network of support. Please check out their website to learn more about their mission, future events, and ways to help!