Gantto Helps Managers Chart a Way Around Project Delays
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provide the updates I wanted to provide. When I wanted to present them, I would end up redrawing the models myself in Illustrator or PowerPoint.”
Around 2009, when Hansen was transitioning from its R&D phase into manufacturing operations, Carlson and Barbagli decided to leave and start their own company. They thought briefly about robotics, but chose software instead, for its capital efficiency. (Hansen had raised $50 million in venture financing before it went public in 2006.) “We kept coming back to the project management problem,” Carlson says. “People pay several hundred dollars per seat for MS Project. We were making executive salaries at Hansen, and wasting our time drawing triangles in PowerPoint. We figured people would pay a small SaaS fee to automate that.”
The plan got them into Y Combinator. But Carlson and Barbagli’s first idea was fairly modest: they wanted to build a plugin that would convert Gantt charts built in Project into something that looked good in PowerPoint, to solve Carlson’s redrawing problem. Eventually YC founder Paul Graham persuaded them to try something more ambitious: a genuine Gantt chart builder, with tools that made it easy to draw bars representing tasks and show their dependencies. “I think he was absolutely right,” Carlson says. “We finally realized that we were not just building presentable Gantt charts, we were building easy-to-use Gantt charts that you can present.”
In Gantto’s Web-based interface, users can create a set of tasks or milestones, arrange them on a timeline, and connect them to show dependencies. There are features that let users share finished charts with other team members, or export snapshots to presentation tools like PowerPoint. There are options that help managers visualize the number of employees required to complete each task and the times when employees may be overloaded or idle. There’s also a way to highlight the “critical path” items—those where any delay will affect the project completion date.
In this sense, Gantto is far more than a tool for creating status updates for the CEO—it’s a way to manage resources and meet deadlines. “I believe the middle manager is the soul of the organization,” Carlson says. “They are accountable for their teams. The real goal at Gantto is to give your middle managers insight about a conflict that is about to happen or what it’s going to take to get something done.”
But at Y Combinator, there was one benefit Gantto couldn’t take advantage of: the mutual dogfooding or peer beta-testing help that’s common inside startup accelerators. “One of the things that makes our product a little less sexy is that it’s not that useful for managing software projects,” Carlson admits.
In fact, it may be outright counterproductive. The problem with old-fashioned waterfall development (the word itself comes from the stepwise appearance of a Gantt chart) was that it divided large software projects into chunks so big and unwieldy that the goals couldn’t be changed along the way, even if customer’s needs did. “We have 50 years of software practice showing us that waterfall doesn’t work, and if it does, it’s incredibly expensive,” Carlson says. “In modern software practice, the thing to do is focus on a small number of higher-value things, and do those first, and then if you’re done, focus on the next set.”
In theory, Carlson says, it would be possible to draw Gantt charts to represent small, individual chunks of an agile software project. But agile developers move so fast, sometimes churning out multiple releases in a single day, that it probably wouldn’t be productive to spend extra time drawing up a Gantt chart for each task.
This shouldn’t excuse agile developers from planning ahead and thinking about how their own work schedule affects their peers, however. “If you over-plan, you can fall into traps, and if you don’t plan at all, you can fall into traps,” Carlson says. “If you have an accurate model, you have a better chance of being able to see the future.”