A Project Team’s Guide to Data Conversion: Book Review & Interview with Dave Gordon

For full disclosure, this article contains affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosure page. However, I have purchased this book myself and can honestly highly recommend it. 

When thinking of software projects, many things come to mind: requirements, writing or configuring code, testing, getting that new system implemented and perhaps getting off that old legacy system that’s outdated and no longer serves your needs.

But what about all that data in the old system?
There are so many considerations there that introduce complexity and risk.

David A. Gordon has you covered with his book The Data Conversion Cycle: A guide to migrating transactions and other records, for system implementation teams.

In this book, Dave explains how to handle complex data migrations (or even simple ones). He provides a clear guide for what to do each step of the way. Dave has extensive experience with data conversion projects, and explains that “converting legacy system data is typically the greatest source of risk to schedule, quality, and cost when replacing an existing record-keeping solution.”

It’s Complicated

Teams often don’t understand what problems exist in their current recordkeeping system.
It’s difficult to know how much effort will be required to find and fix those errors in the production system before you migrate the data.

And it’s hard to grasp how much change will be necessary to move records to the new system.
Because of so many unknowns, many projects are understaffed, underfunded, or lack enough time for all the conversion tasks.

Dave’s book will put you ahead of these data conversion risks with guidance on each step of the process.

He walks you through all the steps and does so in a way that’s accessible and unintimidating. While the topic may sound dry, he presents it in a way that’s not only clear and easily consumable, but he peppers his writing with clever cultural references, like happy little surprises.



Many of you may know Dave Gordon from The Practicing IT Project Manager web site – and if you don’t, you should. There he shares a ton of great information, both his own and from other writers. His archives are loaded with valuable project management guidance. He explains that’s how the book started.

In 2013 he wrote a series of blog posts on data conversion that were created “in response to various requests from colleagues, customers, and project teams for more detailed information.” He decided to provide even more thorough information and publish it as a book.


Clear Guidance

In “The Data Conversion Cycle,” Dave addresses scope, record mapping, data extraction, validating the conversion load, and risk management. But don’t worry if this sounds overwhelming.

Dave clearly explains the many steps of addressing the entire data conversion process. He walks you through and lays out what to consider and how to approach it.

I wish I’d had this book years ago and wanted to share more about it here. I asked Dave if I could interview him in addition to writing about the book. He graciously agreed.


An Iterative Approach

During our conversation, Dave shared the following:
“One of the things I tried to do with the book was to make it not only about data conversion but also iterative processes. You make general decisions, but you don’t have to make all the decisions up front. Agile is more increasingly about dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty in a positive way.

“We don’t need to know everything up front. We need a way to make good estimates, make a plan and follow it. Build in iteration and opportunities to inspect, adapt and improve. These are valuable aspects of the agile approach.

“I tried to incorporate that into the book. It’s good to start with a subset of data and work your way through.”

I asked if he’d tried this data conversion with both Agile and Waterfall.

Dave: Yes. And we found that with waterfall we couldn’t keep up. How do you keep up when you’re working with hundreds of record types? We decided that we just needed to start over and work with an iterative approach.

Dave explained that during the process you wind up with opportunities for going back to look at data and clean it up. Over time, lots of bad data gets into the system. You’ll need to use the conversion process to update and clean up the data.

It’s an iterative process, and you’ll go through it several times.


Other Considerations

Dave shared that it’s important to have an audit of your data, and identify the problems you’ll have before you even start paying for licenses.

He also pointed out the need to consider how things are done in different countries when you’re merging systems. There’s often no direct mapping, and your records will have problems. Plan for this. Plan to encounter problems.

Organizations that have a realistic view of data in these old systems recognize that they need to get started early.


A Common Vocabulary

One of the things I love about the ‘The Data Conversion Cycle’ is the clear explanation of the terms and processes. I thought it would be especially valuable to project managers new to data conversion. Yet Dave pointed out that it’s important to have a common vocabulary across all those who are working with the data conversion.

Dave: They need a vocabulary to talk about the data in the system. They need a common way to talk between the data custodians, the PMs, the business people and those moving the data. Feedback from others is that it’s been helpful to get the same terminology, rather than business people talking in lay terms and data people talking in database terminology.

Everyone speaking the same language can help in planning, executing, and reducing risk due to miscommunication.


Dave’s Advice for New Project Managers

I asked Dave if he had advice for new project managers. He offered this:
“My message to you is this – recognize that people want others to be successful. A lot of times people can get caught up in what’s going on, and they have to prioritize. If you have someone who’s not focused on your project and not delivering it’s not because they’re lazy or uninspired. They’re likely busy. Don’t interpret their lack of reaction as being lazy. Don’t try to motivate them. Try to enable them. Find ways to help them succeed.”



In his book, Dave takes an intimidating topic and makes it easy to understand, easy to read, and increases your chance of success. You’ll approach your project with guidance and insight that you’ll want to share with the entire team. It will also serve as a great reference any time you’re dealing with data conversion in your project. I highly recommend it.

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