Approaching projects - Part 10

- 9 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, this is the last post.

In the last post Approaching projects - Part 9, I described what to do while the project is being developed and implemented, how to figure out where to put final touches and summarize the project's ending. This post will focus on the retrospective, an essential but often missed process to improve future projects.

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.


There are several good posts online about retrospectives, you should check them out.

Instead of describing what to do in detail, I'll try to motivate why a retrospective is a good idea. This is a moment to do some reflection, on yourself, on your team. It may seem like you don't have enough time to contemplate this. But doing so will really save you time and improve your work satisfaction going forward. If you find that honing your craft and delivering high quality products makes a difference in your personal happiness, take the time to do a retrospective for yourself at least.

A good retrospective affirms what you did well, provides insight into where you can do better, makes you aware of what gaps you have, and ultimately leads to your craft improving. It starts with answering these questions:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • What can we improve next time?

As you think of answers, hold off on the emotions. This isn't a time to be hard on yourself.

As an exercise, here's a retrospective for my table project.

What went well?

  • Hardwood was the right choice for the table top
  • The CAD design for the table frame was easy to follow and construct
  • The table top sits well on the frame and holds steady

What didn't go well?

  • I underestimated the amount of clear coat I needed
  • The jointer is under sized for planks this long
  • One of the machine screws likes to unscrew itself over time, I'm not sure why
  • The clear coat on the front where my hands brush appears to be wearing away quickly
  • Using the nail gun in-doors resulted in hitting the vinyl tile flooring through wood
  • Equipment costs added up, I did not consider them before starting this project
  • Painting clear coat resulted in cloudy droplets that had to be sanded down

What can we improve next time?

  • I wore myself out with the cheap rotating sander, maybe different equipment is appropriate at that scale
  • The clear coat does not cure well under 40 fahrenheit, heating the room may be a future investment
  • The gauge on the table with the router could have been avoided by testing on scrap wood before using it on the table surface
  • More layers of clear coat is recommended
  • Maybe clamp metal plates behind wood that will be pneumatically nailed
  • Research and ask about appropriate equipment ahead of time

As you write about things that didn't go well, consider if a likely solution can be prompted in the improved section.

It was my first time making a desk at this scale. As the sponsor, stakeholder, and developer I am pleased with it. It will last me several more years yet and I learned a lot from it.
There's no way I'll throw this out after finishing it. It is custom made for a unique constraints and it satisfies me.
Sure, there's definitely improvements to be made. It isn't a personal failing that I made some mistakes here. Woodworking is a new hobby and skill that I developed to satisfy my own needs at home.

After woodworking, I developed skills in:

  • Routing cables through walls for networking
  • Setting up security cameras with hidden wires
  • Residential grade electrical
  • Drywall cutting and patching
Each successive project was upon the equipment and skills I've acquired in prior projects. Each one has brought me personal satisfaction of making something I can be proud of. My work isn't professional, it doesn't so well done as to be invisible and expected, but each is a personal achievement that I can reflect on.

Acting upon a retrospective

So, how did I improve after this retrospective? I switched from brush-on clear coat to using a spray gun with my air compressor. This has its own consequences. With a spray gun, I can apply many thin layers of clear coat and not have thick cloudly globs of it collect and harden in one spot.

Spraying on clear coat

I have also experimented with the pneumatic nailer to understand how the angle of impact affects the nail's trajectory and performance. I purchased a belt sander, though I have yet to use it. I am now more mindful with the router and practice with the setting on scrap wood before using it on the final product.

Book Shelf drying

This retrospective lead to better results. I made a bookshelf with a friend for their personal space. In my eyes, this looks almost professional. Unlike walmart, target, ikea products, it will last over a decade and through several moves. I have pride in my work now because I know I can make something good. That came with several reflections where I chose to improve my craft. My mentor is myself, and I'm proud of my ability to improve any craft I set my eyes on.

Book Shelf completed

The main takeaways of this post are:

  • Take the time to do a retrospective, they greatly improve future outcomes and personal satisfaction
  • A retrospective comes with three questions:
    • What went well?
    • What didn’t go well?
    • What can we improve next time?
  • Act on the retrospective when the time is right

This post is the tenth and last of the series.

You can succeed! You can make amazing things! You can get better at whatever you choose if you proactively mentor yourself. A retrospective is essential to personal growth, make it a part of your life.