"Is the Project Starting Without You?"

By Cinda Voegtli

Here's a quick quiz on the subject of your role on the beginning of a project:
A) Are you involved near the very beginning and are glad for it?

B) Are you involved near the very beginning and are sorry?

C) Are you not involved and don't want to be?

D) Are you not involved and do want to be?
If your answer was A, great! Simply read on to make sure you're maximizing your influence during the critical start-up phase of your project.

If your answer was D, you probably understand that if you were involved early, you'd have important things to say and ideas to contribute!

If your answer was B or C, you don't know what you're missing! Read on for some ideas on why you need to be a valuable contributor your project's start

Why are Project Starts Critical?
  • It's where the product features and project goals get set (what are we developing, and why?)
  • It's where the high level design gets created (what will you be developing?)
  • It's where the schedule gets determined (Will it be reasonable? impossible? Be absent at your peril!)
These three aspects of the project start phase point to important reasons and ways for you to be involved.

Product Features and Goals: Think Marketing has all the answers about what should get developed on this project? Not really! Why? Because customers have many needs and wants; and companies have many project options, limited resources (us!) for executing them, and really tough decisions to make. Do we release in 12 months with the whole feature set we'd like to have? Or release in 4 with a subset, then follow on with more? Do we spend our time on cost reduction or move right on to the next platform development?

Many of these decisions come down to cost-benefit tradeoffs that depend upon the realities of the engineering work-- your work. How much software or hardware work is really involved in the different product capabilities? Where is the big technical risk hiding? Only you know for sure. So smart companies involve engineers way at the beginning of the project, to help sort through the "do-ability" of product requirements.

High level designs: And how can you answer the above questions about technical work and risk? By getting started on the high-level design work while requirements and schedule are being discussed. When Marketing lays out the project requirements, the only way to determine whether they can be implemented within the desired schedule timeframe is to do engineering high level design. Is that new platform going to require 5 different hardware modules and 50 software modules? Is that new supposedly- easy software-only feature really going to require updates to 5 major software subsystems and a hardware revision? Again, only you know for sure!

Schedules: And what you learn from high-level design work will definitely affect the project schedule. That whiz-bang feature upgrade list sounds fabulous until you do your design work and tell Marketing that the implementation schedule is 8 months instead of 5. Market needs drive many schedules these days; feature or cost tradeoffs may well get made to hold a particular release date or window. Your technical knowledge of the work at hand is absolutely required, very early on, to help make sure the right decisions get made for the company.

So the bottom line is this: you as an engineer are incredibly important to the decisions that get made early on in a project. Your knowledge of what it will really take to get the whole job done are critical. If you're not getting a voice now, find an ear with the people who have to make those decisions- the marketing person, the project manager, the Director of Engineering. They should thank you and welcome your inputs. If they don't-- well, that will be the subject of next month's column: having powerful influence as an individual contributor!

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