One company I worked for had purchased a job information system that technically did combine job budget and cost accounting with project management and performance information, but the system was slow, it depended on a fat client that made remote access difficult, and the learning curve for project managers was so steep that it ended up being used only by the accounting department. Project Managers were left to their own devices to know their budgets and schedules and somehow find success. I tried to talk management in to letting me build a better project information system that would leverage the accounting data in the purchased system and open up actually useful tools for project managers, but I was told “We already have a system that does that and we can’t get anybody to use it, so no thanks.”

I did it anyway. During slow work periods, in the evenings, on the weekends (at least before my first son was born), I designed the “Magic project information system” or Magic for short, inspired by Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” To lower the learning curve, I created printable forms that allowed project managers to pencil in new cost projection numbers next to those they had already entered in to web forms. Project managers at this company loved worksheets, and this allowed employees without job site access to computers to contribute to the cost projection system. Here’s a quick look at the Job Details form and the Cost Projections worksheet:


Magic Project information System – Job Details screen


Magic Project information System – Cost Projection worksheet

I almost forgot! I also implemented automated weekly project information email notifications. As you can see in the image below, the project manager for this job had not recently updated cost projection data for costs that were projected to have been incurred before the date of the report – his or her projections were¬†out of date and my system was designed to “remind” project managers to keep up to date.


All of the Job Details are queried from the legacy application and mashed up with data entered in to my custom application by the project managers. In the lower grid of the Job Details screen, actual accounting data of record is on the left and project manager-entered data and calculated values and ratios are on the right. The idea of this screen is to present a dashboard of project health indicators. It’s hard to say from this screen whether blown budgets are the result of estimating oversights, fabrication or installation mistakes, or even the effects of the economy on materials prices, but the pain points of the project are immediately visible. On other reports, the aggregate performance of all projects can be seen, helping to highlight which cost codes usually go over budget, or compare project performance from project manager to project manager, or even customer to customer.

I wish I had more time to work on this system, but I think what I was able to get done was helpful to the company.