I think it is safe to say that anytime any company wants to get something new accomplished they “kick off” this thing called a “project”. Now if you have spent any time in IT you have probably had a role on one of these so called projects. You know when you are on a good project:
- Everyone knows what the end goal is.
- Everyone knows each others roles.
- Everyone has a sense that all participants are accountable for their tasks.
- Things are getting done.
- Everyone feels a sense of progress.
- Everyone feels a sense of team.
You also know when you are on a bad project:
- Everyone is seemingly bumping into each other.
- No one can really articulate the goal of the project
- No one knows what the end state is supposed to look like.
- Time is going by with meetings and minutes and status reports but no real tangible work is getting done.
This series of articles will cover different aspects on how to survive as an engineer that has a role to play on an IT project. The first article in the series can be found here.
Projects where everyone knows their role on and the goals of the project are rare. More than likely, the project you are about to join is top heavy in one of two ways. The first is too many chiefs and not enough indians. Like the proverbial saying implies, plenty of people taking about the work, defining the work, breaking the work into chunks or phases or milestones or whatever is great, but if there is no one around to actually do the work, you as an engineer or as a do-er is likely to get dumped on. The second is too many indians and not enough chiefs. Equally dangerous because the lure of a bunch of engineers doing cool engineering stuff without chiefs provide direction, priority and governance, time and costs are ripe of getting out of control. The next section will cover each in more detail with tips on how to avoid the prospective pitfalls.
Too Many Chiefs
A project full of managers, project managers, business analysts, requirements documenters, technical writers, testers, QA folks, support people, program office people, release coordinators, business liaisons, time keepers, relationship managers … well, you get the picture: people with functions to perform on the project but no one to actually do the engineering work itself. As an engineer getting assigned to the project, you run the risk of getting all the “real work” dumped on you. If you can handle all the work, great, if you can’t, there will be fifteen people with charts and graphs and emails and ten other ways to make it obvious that you dropped the ball. In subsequent sections, I’ll over tips on how to navigate in this type of project.
Too many Indians
A project full of engineers, developers, architects and coders sounds like utopia with a whole bunch of people all doing actual work. A bunch of people that think it is great when some new, hot off the Internet coding technique can be used to make some function perform some task at wire speed with four lines of code. All those people cost money and consume time. People, managers, which are responsible for tracking and managing money and time don’t have an infinite amount. At some point in time, someone, somewhere in the company is going to ask the dreaded question: “Hey, it has been four months, how close are we to implementing that new FlimFlam product?” This is the holy crap moment for the managers that are responsible for the resources on the project. If someone is asking that question, it means the project is in a heap of trouble. Since that someone doesn’t already know how far along the project is, how much it is costing, how on track the project is to cost as much as originally estimated and exactly when it is going to finish, the project has failed and nothing has even been released yet. Managers will be swooping in to ask the dreaded questions:
“What have we built?”
“How long have we been building?”
“When are we going to be done building?”
“When can this be implemented?”
If you have a bunch of engineers sitting around trying to answer those questions, the answers are not going to be what managers are expecting to hear. More than likely, all kinds of cool stuff has been half built with no plan to pull it all together and meet the original goal of the project. Managers are thus put in the tight spot and will react with decisions on what to do next which you are definitely not going to like.
In the next part of the series I’ll cover how to survive with too many chiefs or too many indians.