Microspeak: The long pole

The long pole is the part of the project that is on the critical path due to its length. For example, if you have a project that consists of three independent sub-projects, then the sub-project with the longest completion date is the long pole.

The etymology of this term is simultaneously obvious yet hard to pin down. Intuitively, the long pole is the one that determines the height: If you have a tent supported by three poles, then the long pole decides how tall the tent is. If you have a collection of poles you want to put in the back of a pick-up truck, the long pole is the one that decides how big a bed you need. If you have a set of poles and you hold them in your hand in a sheaf and rest the bottoms on the ground, then the long pole is the one that sticks up the highest.

It is my impression that the tent analogy is the one that provides the source for this bit of Microspeak, but I'm not absolutely sure. If true, it's a nice bit of double-wordplay, because not only is it an analogy, but it's also a pun: The long pole is the one holding everything up.

You don't want to be a long pole in your project, because that just means that everybody will be giving your component extra scrutiny to make sure it's not going to make everything late.

Here are some citations.

Design on track, but setup work appears to be long pole.

XYZ work is long pole in the schedule; not clear whether issue can be mitigated.

XYZ is still the long pole, now out [i.e., over schedule] by about six days, down from eight days last week after the ABC work was offloaded to UVW.

Comments (23)
  1. Spike says:

    Seems to me that if you were to use say, Microsoft project to manage your project and display the Gantt chart then each task would be displayed as a horizontal bar looking kind of like a pole.  And the longest duration task would look like the longest pole.

  2. John says:

    I suspect this is typical homo-eroticism in a male-dominated workforce.  I mean really, a group  of hairy, sweaty men working on a long, hard pole?  Fabulous!

  3. John's Mom says:

    John: Did you forget to take your pills today?

  4. mvadu says:

    Ray.. some thing wrong, I am not able to post any comments.. when I hit Submit its going to your home page..

  5. mvadu says:

    I think its truck beds analogy, because the earliest you can complete a project (or the latest date till you have to fund a project) is the longest running sub projects (long pole) completion date. Which suites the truck scenario.

  6. wades says:

    This terminology might not be MSoft-specific: I first heard it in 1998, in a UNIX shop that was a spin-off from a major defense contractor.

  7. DEngh says:

    It’s definitely not Microsoft-specific – I heard it in the military in the early ’80s.

  8. mikeb says:

    > Ray.. some thing wrong, I am not able to post any comments.

    I know it’s off topic, but this made my morning.  There’s just something extra special about a comment complaining that comments can’t be posted.  

  9. DriverDude says:

    Around where I am, it is usually spelled out: "On Joe’s schedule, the hardware design is the long pole in the tent …"

  10. mvadu says:

    "There’s just something extra special about a comment complaining that comments can’t be posted."

    I know.. But I tried several time before testing it with that comment.. And it got poseted. So I reformated my reply and tried, And went thought..

  11. Eric Lippert says:

    I became very familiar with that term a couple years back. The C# compiler was the long pole for the last release of Visual Studio.  And my feature (lambda expressions) was the long pole for the C# compiler.  It was a rather terrifying position to be in.

  12. mikeb says:


    I didn’t mean to direct an insult or anything.  I know this kind of thing can happen to anyone, and I’m sure I’ve done less flattering things myself (like searching for my glasses when I’m wearing and looking right through them).

    But still, it made me chuckle.

  13. doug t says:

    One of the few Microspeak terms you’ve blogged that sounds useful.

  14. Neal says:

    When my last team at MSFT ordered sweatshirts with nicknames on the back, mine said, "LONG POLE."

  15. Mr Cranky says:

    I don’t think the tent analogy works.  The allusion to MS Project is the most sensible interpretation.  This is also fairly common management-speak all over, although one of the more tolerable terms.

    @Neal: There’s no call to be bragging here.

  16. Soren says:

    Does it ever get verbed? As in “<sub-project> seems to be long-poling in <project>”

    [To my great relief, I can find no citations for “long-poling”. -Raymond]
  17. Steve says:

    Just for the record, this is internal Apple-speak also.

  18. Adrian says:

    I hadn’t heard this phrase until I joined Microsoft.  And I hadn’t seen in written until this post.  I assumed it was "long pull" analogous to "long haul".

  19. Joe says:

    The grammer in the first two examples doesn’t sound right.  The tent analogy would make more sense if you would say:

    Design on track, but setup work appears to be *the* long pole.

    XYZ work is *the* long pole in the schedule…

    The third one is correct as is:

    XYZ is still the long pole…

  20. Jeff says:

    +1 to Adrian.  I don’t think he’s the only one who says (said) long pull — I think I’ve heard pull/pole 50/50 from the people on my team.  I just slurred it puwole to please both camps.

    (Or at least, to not get caught in my ignorance).

  21. Friday says:

    This only confirms my long-standing impression of militarization (sp?) of Microsoft and the US society.

    You’ve been poisoned by Hollywood.

  22. John's ex says:

    John’s Mom: I think he’s saying that getting a long pole is essential when building a tent.

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