Hooked on a Feature: Timeline View Draws New Users to Microsoft Project

Editor’s note:
This is the seventh installment in

Ten Behind Office 2010

, a series that features employees behind some of the new and updated features in Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010.

REDMOND, Wash. — May 19, 2010 —Microsoft Project’s new Timeline feature is attracting people who never considered using the program before.

“We’ve kind of been joking around that Timeline is a gateway drug for Microsoft Project because the feature gets you hooked and you just want to keep using the program,” says Heather O’Cull, Timeline program manager.

Microsoft Project provides a variety of ways to juggle the many details and deadlines that come with projects large and small. What O’Cull found is that project managers needed a more simple representation of their projects – an at-a-glance overview that wouldn’t bog people down with details and could be widely shared, especially to bosses and people not working on the project. Thus, the Timeline view was born.

The feature has been a hit. Early in the Microsoft Project 2010 beta process, Microsoft employees started including colorful timelines in their routine status updates, generating a buzz from recipients.

“People who had never used Microsoft Project before were starting to open it, try it out, create a Timeline, and say, ‘Hey, since I’m in here anyway what other scheduling features do you have to help me manage my project?’” O’Cull says. “I think people like the Timeline view because it does what you want, it looks good, and it saves you from having to share a detailed status.”

Microsoft News Center recently spoke with O’Cull about the new feature and her career at Microsoft.

Originally from Ohio, O’Cull first took a job at Microsoft after graduating from Purdue University nearly six years ago. Since then, she’s become a full-fledged hiking, skiing, white water rafting, camping, dog-owning, Northwesterner. She plays soccer and has season tickets to the Seattle Sounders FC (and the lime-green apparel required of true Sounders fans).

“We sit in the end kind of toward the crazy section so we can hear everything going on but we can still talk,” O’Cull says. “We have a great time at all the games.”

News Center: You like to hike. If you were hiking with a non-techy friend, how would you explain Microsoft Project’s Timeline view feature?

O’Cull: I would tell them that the Timeline view is a new view in Microsoft Project. It allows you to quickly create a high-level view of your project plan that you can then share through other Office applications such as PowerPoint and Outlook.

News Center: Who uses Microsoft Project?

Microsoft Project 2010 includes a new feature called Timeline view, which allows project managers to condense a lot of details and data into a colorful, high-level timeline that can be easily shared and read.

O’Cull: Our main market is people who would call themselves project managers, or who do project management as a role. We’re always looking to expand that but right now that’s primarily who our users are. We get used by the government, entertainment companies, the communications sector, pharmaceuticals, the aerospace industry, and more.

News Center: What were project managers using before Timeline?

O’Cull: Before the Timeline view you’d use a Gantt chart, named after its originator Henry Gantt. A Gantt chart contains tons of data – how your project paths are all related to each other, who’s working on what, how they’re progressing, and more. This was really a lot of data for people who are not in the project schedule every day to have to look at.

The Timeline view allows you to add certain high-level data that stakeholders are concerned about, and save all the details for project managers to look at themselves.

News Center: Why is now the time for Timeline?

O’Cull: We decided to create this Timeline view because we always heard the Gantt view was too complex for most people. They’re for the project manager, they’re not meant for the customer, stakeholder, or the VPs. But you have to share status reports with these people often, so we said, “What can we do to make that easier? We need a high-level picture.” Then we came to the Timeline view.

News Center: If you were to make a timeline of your average weekday, what would it look like?

Microsoft Project Program Manager Heather O’Cull.

O’Cull: It would probably have me waking up about 7 to 7:30 depending on my mood, then wandering to the bus stop. The morning would be mainly e-mail and getting stuff ready for meetings later in the day, randomly talking to coworkers.

Then the program manager team here has a very set lunch time at 11:30, so we would definitely have a note on there for lunch time. We get cranky when we eat late.

The afternoon would probably be lots of different meetings, and then at night depending on the night I could have a soccer game, or maybe just going home and watching TV.

News Center: As a project manager, you use Timeline to do your job. Does that give you an advantage?

O’Cull: It definitely gives me lots of insight. No matter what software you’re working on you need to know about your target audience, so the fact that we can be our own target audience … really helps give us perspective. We really feel the pain of any issues that aren’t working at the time. It’s great to be able to say to customers, “Yes, we feel your pain, and these are the changes we’ve made.”

News Center: What do you like about working at Microsoft?

O’Cull: Getting to work on software that people use every day and rely on. It’s amazing to work on a feature for three years and actually have it go out to the public and then hear people say, “Oh this helps me so much, this saves me so much time.” It’s just a really good feeling.

News Center: Are you staying with Project to work on the next release?

O’Cull: Yes, I’ll be in project for the next release and leading the project manager experience area. That’s any feature that’s more aimed at the project manager, like the Timeline view is.

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