The life of a project

A picture on Twitter caught my eye earlier tonight. “The life of a project” captures a person’s mental state through the life of the project. It was particularly meaningful to me because it basically describes what I’ve gone through this past week at work. I’ve been working on a very high stakes proof of concept for a customer with a lot to lose, and it’s been pretty taxing. You can ask my family; I haven’t been much fun to be around the past few days. Fortunately, we’re on the upward slope now: lessons have been learned for phase 2 and the prototype cluster is basically working at this point.

It occurs to me that many projects I’ve been involved with or aware of follow this general pattern. I stopped to think about why that is. For this project, the business requirements weren’t incomplete, although that is often an issue for projects. The technical requirements were missing, though. As it turns out, a few extra DLLs (yes, this is a Windows execution environment) were needed. The software used for this project is pretty awful, and so the error messages weren’t particularly helpful. It took the better part of a day just to leap that particular hurdle.

Another contributing factor was not knowing where we were starting from. (As the old saying goes, “I don’t know where we are, but we’re making good time!”) I thought we were basically cloning a similar project we had done for another customer, and started my work based on that assumption. As it turns out, the environment we were starting from was not nearly as robust and automated as I had been led to believe. The result was two days of effort getting to where I thought we would be after a couple of hours. This wasn’t entirely bad. It gave me an opportunity to work with parts of our product stack that I haven’t worked with much, and it pointed out a lot of areas where future such projects could be done much better. But it was also a great way to add to the already high levels of stress.

Even in a small company, nobody is familiar with everything. Time spent re-explaining what I was trying to do when I had someone new helping me didn’t move the project forward. Likewise, having to hop from person to person in order to get the right expertise was a barrier to progress. I was fortunate that all of my coworkers were extremely willing to help, and I certainly can’t blame them for not knowing everything. Nonetheless, it was frustrating at times.

Certainly the long downward slide that characterizes most of the life of a project can be mitigated. Starting with a more complete understanding of requirements, knowing what you’re starting from, and having the right expertise available can reduce the surprises, frustration, and sadness of a project. Still, I think it’s human nature to experience this to some degree. We always start out confident in our abilities and blissfully ignorant of the traps that are waiting for us.