Q&A: Microsoft Joins with eLabor.com To Enhance Resource Management Tools in Microsoft Project, Project Central

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 18, 2000 — Microsoft last month formed a strategic alliance with eLabor.com to incorporate the latter’s Enterprise Project technology into future versions of the Microsoft Project family of project and resource management solutions. As part of the agreement, eLabor.com will become an application service provider (ASP) for Microsoft Project and Project Central as well as a preferred provider of time-and-attendance services on bCentral, Microsoft’s Web portal for small businesses. Combining Enterprise Project with the next generation of Microsoft Project products will bring customers better tools for portfolio management, skills-based scheduling, enterprise-wide decision support and top-down budgeting.

To learn more about how this alliance will enhance Microsoft Project, Project Central and bCentral, PressPass spoke with Todd Warren, general manager of Microsoft Project, and Michael Edell, CEO and president of eLabor.com.

PressPass: The market for desktop project and resource management software appears to be rising dramatically. What business trends and customer needs are driving the rapid growth in popularity of applications such as Microsoft Project and eLabor.com’s Enterprise Project?

Warren: Part of it is the overall shortage of skilled workers, especially in the areas of information technology and information services. As companies shift focus from bricks-and-mortar to e-commerce and business-to-business operations, having people who are skilled at working with software is a core part of their operations. Because of the critical labor shortage, project managers need tools to help them make the proper trade-offs in terms of which projects to do and what skills are necessary to make those projects succeed. Also, as companies were preparing for Y2K in 1998 and 1999, they had to allocate their resources efficiently across many critical projects that all had a very clear deadline. In the process, organizations discovered a lot of benefits to managing skills and resources centrally in order to achieve the most effective utilization.

Edell: Cost containment and best utilization of resources are huge incentives. If utilization in your organization is at 50 percent because you can only deal with a single skill set, or your system is only set up to manage based on a single skill, there are tremendous productivity benefits to be gained from software that helps increase that utilization rate to 70 or 80 percent or higher.

PressPass: Since Enterprise Project already integrates seamlessly with Microsoft Project and Project Central, how will incorporating this technology directly into future versions of the Microsoft Project products be better for your customers?

Warren: Today, as an add-on product, Enterprise Project in some ways has to stop short to let Microsoft Project finish the job. Customers manage the skills and resource replacement in Enterprise Project and then handle the final project scheduling in Microsoft Project, which creates an additional step for the user in terms of moving between the two solutions. With this alliance, we can make that one continuous process. That’s probably the biggest piece of integration that we get in terms of the ability to do resource trade-offs between projects and to do skills-based scheduling. Secondly, while Microsoft Project provides a great platform to build an application like Enterprise Project, there are some functions like the ability to associate a skill with a resource that are managed more effectively within the platform. Also, incorporating the Enterprise Project technology into Microsoft Project will create a richer base for eLabor.com or anyone else to build solutions that use that underlying capability.

Edell: Strategically, we took Enterprise Project as far as we could, in terms of integrating it with Microsoft Project without actually getting into source code and merging some of the components. We approached this alliance thinking about what’s going to best serve the customer as the product evolves into the next generation. We lose absolutely nothing. We still have this entire project management suite today, tomorrow and two years from now that will be a core component of our strategy. It allows our groups at eLabor.com to focus on a couple of the other workforce management silos that we’re moving into. It really comes together when the next generation of the Microsoft Project family of products ships. We have a solution that’s only going to get better as we march down the road.

PressPass: So was this alliance the natural evolution of the tight integration between the products?

Warren: Definitely. Michael and I met last February and discussed eLabor.com’s relationship with Microsoft as an independent solution vendor that builds upon the Microsoft Project platform. One of the things that we identified was that eLabor.com is doing a host of things to integrate project management data into line-of-business applications, whereas our expertise is integrating that information with the other knowledge work that employees are doing around a project. The two approaches complement each other. Also, we built Microsoft Project with the idea of people using it as a platform to create project-management solutions.

Edell: We just took full advantage of that platform. When we assembled Enterprise Project last year from the pieces of technology we developed and acquired, we effectively wiped out every component that was potentially competitive with Microsoft Project 98 and what we saw coming in Microsoft Project 2000. We tried to reinforce the technologies that we thought were really synergistic and could layer on top of the Microsoft Project foundation.

PressPass: Why did Microsoft choose to acquire the Enterprise Project technology from eLabor.com rather than develop this functionality in-house?

Warren: A head start, for one thing. It was a great advantage that Enterprise Project was built on top of the Microsoft Project platform, because the technology was a good fit with what had been done before and was along the lines of what we would build ourselves. Second, there were some unique capabilities in eLabor.com’s technology that impressed us. One is the WARP Scheduler engine, which allows you to assign skills across a set of projects and tells you the best resource assignments to make to optimize your schedules across different projects. There’s also a component called Vision, which is a specialized OLAP technology that enables you to analyze large amounts of project data quickly. You can get an aggregate view of how a person was used across different projects and then quickly drill down on the information to look at the exact tasks in question.

PressPass: How will customers benefit from eLabor.com becoming an application service provider (ASP) for Microsoft Project and Project Central, and providing time-and-attendance services on the bCentral small-business portal?

Edell: Our experience is that the ASP model is wildly popular in the market. Just since this announcement, we’ve had a slew of requests to immediately host this concept. Cost of ownership and the lack of internal IT and IS resources are really influencing companies that don’t want to bear that type of responsibility in-house, but would rather outsource it to a vendor. The customer no longer has to deal with implementing an upgrade and installing 100 or 500 copies of that upgrade at the desktop level, because we eliminate that whole process. Plus, most of these companies — even some of the bigger ones — don’t have the same level of network backup and redundancy that we can provide.

Warren: The ASP relationship with eLabor.com is going to be attractive for smaller companies that were interested in using Project Central in an extranet-type setting, or that don’t want to run the server themselves due to cost-of-ownership issues. Another piece of feedback that we’ve heard is that people want the ability to include their vendors and suppliers as part of their project management solution. Having Microsoft Project independently hosted provides an easy way for companies to do that.

PressPass: What types of businesses and users do you see gaining the greatest value from the integration of Enterprise Project technology into the Microsoft Project line?

Warren: It’s especially going to benefit large organizations that are trying to get a good handle on how efficiently they’re utilizing people across all their projects, as well as companies that need an intelligent tool to model the trade-offs involved in assigning people to different projects and prioritize those projects appropriately. And now with the bCentral relationship, small organizations will be able to take advantage of the time-and-attendance and contracting services from eLabor.com in a way that those businesses weren’t able to before.

Edell: Two years ago, when our company first started talking about this concept of having labor management and project management in the same solution, people really looked at us cross-eyed. But I believe that the concept holds water, and that information about time and resources allocated to a project all needs to flow through an integrated solution. Companies want one product suite that covers the full range of projects and resources, from a supervisor on the manufacturing floor all the way through to the IT/IS manager working with a team of 10 coders to develop a Web site. This is that whole, complete suite.

PressPass: How else do you see this strategic alliance creating long-term value?

Edell: We’re going to be able to migrate the Enterprise Project customer base to the next generation of Microsoft Project products as soon as they are ready to move. In just the past few weeks, we’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from our customers. In fact, we’ve had a couple of large deals come back to us that prior to this agreement would have gone to one of our competitors. Combined with other things that we’re working on currently, we’re excited about the new markets that we’ll be able to approach as a result of this alliance.

Warren: Shortly after the announcement, we talked to the Microsoft Project customer advisory council and they were universally enthusiastic. In fact, many of them said that of all the things that we’ve talked to them about, they were the most excited about the alliance with eLabor.com.

Certainly, the alliance helps Microsoft Project scale upward to do more enterprise-wide resource management with larger numbers of resources. The ASP relationship with eLabor.com also allows us to start moving forward quickly toward fulfilling the Microsoft .NET vision for software as a service. We are taking Project Central, which is a packaged product today, and having eLabor.com become the first ASP not only to host it, but also to build a unique solution that integrates the other things that they’re doing with Project Central as a base.

PressPass: When will the combined solution be delivered to customers, and will it be difficult for current Enterprise Project customers to migrate to the new solution?

Warren: People can still buy the current version of Enterprise Project, which works great with Microsoft Project 2000 — we released that version in February — and we expect to deliver the new version of Microsoft Project in the second half of next year. We didn’t want to leave current Enterprise Project customers or Microsoft Project customers in the lurch while we incorporate this technology into the next version, especially if they want to start implementing a solution today, so one of the things we’ve done as part of the agreement is really paint a very clear migration path for customers who purchase Enterprise Project. They will receive a free migration tool and upgrade to the new version of Microsoft Project when it becomes available.

PressPass: Are there any future plans to combine additional eLabor.com products with Microsoft Project or other Microsoft solutions? How might this alliance support your companies’ other initiatives?

Warren: From the Microsoft Project perspective, there’s a lot of potential in the workforce management area. Let’s say you’re creating a project that needs C++ and Visual Basic programmers; if you decide that you don’t have enough internal staff to handle that, you can link Microsoft Project with the contract management piece from eLabor.com to find out whether you have contractors in other areas that are underutilized and could be applied to the project. Or, you can link back to the contract labor agencies so they know what skills you need. That’s very powerful for a business decision-maker who’s trying to make the tough resource trade-offs and figure out the right skills within the organization to succeed.

eLabor.com, even prior to the formalization of this relationship, bet on the Windows DNA platform, both in its relationship with bCentral and with the Microsoft Project group. And — I think I can say this on your behalf, Michael — eLabor.com is making a bet on the .NET platform.

Edell: Yes, we’re about to get started on that. There are a number of other things that we’re creating in the project management suite today and down the road. One of the things we’re working on now is building our products directly on the bCentral platform architecture, which again is as close as you can get to creating fully integrated suites. We’re also going to be integrating with some of the other partners that will provide services through bCentral. We’ll continue to build the exchange capability for moving data back and forth, and we’ll continue to develop on the Microsoft platform. That’s a very strategic thing for us.

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