Gantto Helps Managers Chart a Way Around Project Delays
Say you’re making pasta with fresh marinara sauce for dinner. “It’s not uncommon to see a young, new cook spend 10 minutes chopping the vegetables and then 10 minutes cooking the sauce,” say Chris Carlson. “Then they put on the pot of water, and that takes 10 minutes just to boil. And then they add the noodles, and those take 10 minutes to cook. So a meal that could have been done in 20 minutes actually takes 40 minutes, because they chose the wrong sequence.”
The right sequence, of course, would be to start chopping the vegetables and heating the water at the same time, because there’s a dependency in this recipe: you can’t start cooking the noodles until the water is boiling. But “that level of insight, in my experience, is surprisingly rare without some kind of training, or without having been bitten by it enough times,” says Carlson.
Dependencies aren’t limited to the kitchen, of course: they’re everywhere in the worlds of business, government, research, and product development. And about 100 years ago, a mechanical engineer and management consultant named Henry Gantt designed a way to visualize dependencies, so that managers can plan around them more effectively. It’s called a Gantt chart, and it’s still widely used today. But creating Gantt charts has always been a tricky, largely manual process; to bring the idea fully into the digital age, you’d want a software tool for making and editing Gantt charts that’s just as easy to use as PowerPoint.
And that’s exactly what Carlson and his business partner Federico Barbagli have built. They’re the co-founders of Gantto, a Silicon Valley startup that got its start as part of the Summer 2010 class at Y Combinator. Their cloud-based Gantt chart builder isn’t the sort of thing you’d catch people using inside other Web startups, because Gantt-style thinking is deeply unfashionable in the developer community; in that world it’s known as the “waterfall” methodology and it’s been thoroughly extirpated in favor of the more bottom-up “agile” or “scrum” methods that can be adapted easily on the go. But there are still many other kinds of projects that require a systematic awareness of dependencies, and Gantto is being used to manage big projects inside companies as diverse as Twitter, Fujitsu, and Lucasfilm.
“The companies that wield Gantt charts effectively are much more efficient than the ones who don’t,” says Carlson. Prices for the service start at $5 per user per month. Even with the most basic offering, managers can use Gantto to visualize project schedules, allocate resources, and avoid delays. Prices go up according to the size of the team being managed: at the high end, an account with 50 team members goes for $175 per month.
The idea of putting the tool online, says Carlson, was to make it easier to create an online Gantt chart than to do it on paper or a whiteboard. Gantto is so approachable for the non-technorati that it’s even used by wedding planners to make sure everything is ready for the big day. Romance writer Anne Mallory, who finishes a new novel every 9 months, says she uses it to manage her complex publishing and marketing schedule.
But the real genesis of Gantto lies in the time Carlson and Barbagli spent inside Hansen Medical, the Mountain View, CA-based maker of robotic surgery devices. Carlson was there for six years, and spent the second half of that period as a manager. The Stanford mechanical-engineering PhD says the experience left him with a deep understanding of the difficulties managers face, especially those overseeing big projects involving electrical, mechanical, and software components.
“The first thing I was asked to do [at Hansen] was to consider the overall safety of the system from the point of view of all the different disciplines—electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, et cetera—to make sure nothing fell through the cracks,” he says. (Barbagli was hired around the same time to do technical management.) “I was starting to notice that some of the things that were falling through the cracks were totally anticipatable. At one point my boss tapped me on the arm and said, ‘Hey, how would you like to be responsible for making sure these tasks get done by this time?’”
Carlson says it was a “holy crap” moment. He’d used Gantt charts at Stanford, where he’d helped to build electric cars, but now he needed to make lots of them, fast.
“I dug into Microsoft Project and didn’t like it very much, then Excel, then bulleted lists in Word,” he says. “The CEO or the VP of engineering would say, ‘Hey Chris, what’s the status on those things?’ but the tools couldn’t 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.”