Approaching projects - Part 4- 20 min read - Text Only
Do you have a project, a skill, a goal you'd like to complete or progress? Are you on your own, lacking leadership and structure, or could use more of it for yourself and your team? Here's what I've discovered works for me as a solo software developer and later as an engineering manager. This is a series of posts, the next post part 5 on modelling a plan comes next.
In the last post Approaching projects - Part 3, I described how to define milestones that build confidence in delivering a project. This post will focus on preparing for an actionable plan.
Throughout this series of posts I will be using this user story: As a person with money, I want a custom computer desk to fit in a weird spot in my home. With the chosen solution: Build the desk myself.
Final preparations for a plan
First, a few preconditions for a good plan:
- The story needs to be well understood!
- A model can be referenced for each deliverable.
- Resource needs are understood and available.
- Each step of the plan is well understood in its requirements and acceptance criteria. This will be in the next post
At least, for a low risk project. So let's qualify that, what makes a project risky?
Not understanding the story / problem presents the most risk. Even when the client is yourself, take the time to understand the story. What needs to be solved?
Another: not having a model.
Without understanding your resources and how they will be used, your project will not succeed. Consider intangible resources too. I would never build a desk if I lacked power tools. I don't have the training or experience to use traditional tools, nor the physical capacity to use them. Yeah, I have a hand saw, no I would not use a hand saw for everything.
Understanding the story
There's lots of material out there on designing solutions for big problems. I won't be writing one any time soon, but I'll provide my tips on this below. But if you do start looking for material, maybe try Rework by Jason Fried.
When you get a story like Cendyne wants a desk with a weird shape, see if there's a proposed solution already. Here, a desk is the requested solution.
This conversation is important. The stakeholder may have already explored a few options. They see it as important enough to have requested something be done. If the story was Cendyne wants to use a space in his home effectively then the conversation may begin with a discovery of what effective use of a space means to the stakeholder.
Ultimately, the objective is to effectively use a space in this home for a personal computer.
Continue to converse to find out some key acceptance criteria and what the deliverables are.
Ask about the space the table is to fill, the needs of a personal computer on it. Then dive into what a table is (since that is the deliverable). Take the time to research not only how a table is generally constructed but what makes a table worth the resource cost.
So after exploring what a good computer desk is like in concept and finding out the physical requirements for both the table and what physically makes a good table the requirements are:
- A large flat level surface being 26 inches deep, 72 inches wide and suspended about 30 inches from the floor. Additionally:
- It should be sealed so that it does not get warped by moisture
- It should be beveled along the edges so that it does not cut at the wrists
- It should look nice
- Space to add monitor arm mounts with clamps 4 to 5 inches in depth.
- No support beam bars on the very front below the surface
- Any support structures should be easy to forget
However upon review of the requirements, how would I make beveled edges? On my night stand, I actually used the cheap hand sander to smooth the pine edges. This would not be effective for hard wood. While I have a jig saw, it would be wholly inappropriate and unsafe to try to do beveled surfaces by hand along the desk. Therefore I also needed a router with the appropriate bit to do beveled edges.
The last requirement for the table surface was to make it nice to look at, not too distracting, and last a long time. Also not splinter! I considered paint like the night stand, but disliked the drab look of it. An alternative was to stain or have it be naturally colored. So I opted for wood staining and a clear coat finish.
Models for deliverables
The primary model I referenced was the night stand.
As part of my night stand experience, I saw that I easily made indents by tossing a tool on top one time. That experience made me conclude that the wood type was not appropriate for a desk surface.
But what kind of planks do I need? This goes back to what makes a good table. Pine (a species of tree) makes soft wood. A good desk should not indent or scratch easily, hard wood must be the answer. While searching for options at the hardware store, the cheapest hard wood I could find was red oak.
Another factor: appearance and sealing. I could have painted the wood like the night stand, but determined that red wood's grain was appealing and worth retaining. The color of the grain was not to my aesthetics however. So I performed additional research at this point. I learned about wood staining, but I did not have a model for it. In this case, I used the underside of the table as a prototype for staining wood.
As I experimented on the underside of the table (after jointing), I learned how many applications were necessary, how the sun affected its drying and bonding, how to clean off the excess stain, and so on.
I also learned that it is important to test compatibility between things. Pine wood is terrible with wood stain. It comes out splotchy and absorbs too much in some areas and too little in others. The legs of this table (which are pine 2x4's) were to be stained. After staining with the darkest stain I could find I was so thoroughly dissatisfied with it that I painted it over with black. This was a set back that affected how much time I put into this project. Those happen too.
Next: I used Minwax Polycrilic clear gloss finish. It worked but I found on my model that it would easily form congealed droplets and cure with a cloudy bump. What I learned here is that as I apply it to the main surface, I must do so in several thin applications, waiting for it to cure before applying the next layer.
So when it comes to resources, think about everything. Not just money, but also involved patience, effort, time, and room for mistakes.
So gather the tangible and intangible resources needed for your project. My true list had dimensions and quantity involved, but that was over a year ago. Here's an estimation of what I had to find or acquire or make.
- Enough red oak planks to make a desk of this size
- A Router
- A Jointer
- Wood Glue
- Clamps (reusable, pre existing)
- Disposable towels for staining
- Dark wood stain
- Clear coat
- Beveling router bits
- A design in CAD for the frame
- Time to do this project
- Saw horses to hold up the materials as I work on them
- An electric sander
- Safety glasses
- Breathing mask
- Ear Protection
- A workshop vacuum
- Finances to execute this project
- Experience with wood staining
- Experience with cutting and sanding hard wood
- Experience using a jointer
- Experience using a router
If you are using parts of your final deliverable as a prototype to acquire experience, make sure you're operating on an area that won't be visible or used. I accidentally tested the router on the wrong side of the table surface.
Once you understand your project's needs, what resources will be used, and confidence in the solution you'll go with down to each deliverable then you can make itemized achievable steps. At this point, you might be able to give a good estimate on how much time will go into it too.
The main takeaways of this post are:
- Find the why in the story, explore the context around it.
- Reference models and past experience for methods and resource-usage.
- When lacking a model, make prototypes to vet the approach. Make sure to test for compatibility.
- Dive into nested projects, discover their resource needs and requirements. This may affect how the rest of the project is handled.
- Resources you come up with may be incomplete and optimistic, reality will push for more than what you account for.
- Intangible resources require investment of tangible resources, plan for that too!
This post is the forth of the series, part 5 on modelling a plan comes next.