How I Killed My University Project.

It’s the beginning of 2006 and the end is in sight for my university career. It’s been a crazy 3 years up until this point having experienced both the dizzying highs of excelling in a subject and the punishing lows of failing to understand even the basic concepts of some units properly. Still I haven’t failed a single subject (despite some near misses) and really the only thing standing between me and that piece of paper I’ve been chasing is my final year, most of which will be dedicated to working on an engineering project. I had been looking forward to this for a while as I felt it would be a chance to test my meddle as a project manager and hopefully create something valuable in the process.

The year started off well as I found myself in a project team of 4 including 2 long time friends and a new acquaintance who was exceptionally skilled. After brainstorming ideas we eventually settled on creating a media PC with a custom interface based off the open sourceĀ MythTV project which would handle most of the back end work for us. After getting a space to work in we covered the whiteboard in dozens of innovative ideas ranging from TiVO like recording features to remoteless operation based on tracking a user’s movement. Looking at the list we were convinced that even that list of features wouldn’t be enough to fill a year worth of development effort but thought it was best to settle on these first before trying to make more work for ourselves. With the features in mind I set about creating a schedule and we set about our work.

Initially everything was going great, we were making quite a lot of progress and the project was shaping up to be one of the best of the year. The hardware design and implementation was looking phenomenal, so much so that I made the brash move of saying there was a potential market for a mass produced version of the device. Our lecturers showed a keen interest in it and we even managed to come in second place for a presentation competition amongst all the project students, narrowly losing out to an autonomous robot that could map out and navigate its surroundings. We were definitely onto a winner with this idea.

However my desire to project manage 3 other people started to take its toll on the project. Realistically in a team of 4 everyone needs to pitch in to make sure stuff gets done, there’s really no room for designated roles. I however kept myself at arms length from any solid development work, instead trying to control the process and demanding vast reams of documentation from those doing the work. Additionally I failed to realize that the majority of the coding work was be done by a single team member which meant that only they understood it, making collaboration on it next to impossible. Seeing the beginnings of a sinking ship I called everyone together to try and figure things out, and that’s when things really started to turn sour.

The primary coder expressed their concerns that no one else was doing any work and I, still not realizing that I didn’t need to be a project manager, instructed them to take a week off so the others could get up to speed. This didn’t work as well as I planned as they continued to do all the work themselves, effectively locking anyone else out from being able to contribute to the effort. I did manage to get the star developer to collaborate with the others but by this point it was already too late as they’d usually have to rewrite any code that wasn’t their own.

In order to save some face in this whole project I elected to do the project report entirely on my own, realistically a task that needed to be done by all of us (just like the project). I spent countless hours cobbling everything together, piecing random bits of documentation and notes together into something resembling a professional report. It wasn’t amazing but it was enough to get the approval of everyone else in the team and our project co-ordinator so a week before the final demonstration I handed it in, wanting to be done with this project once and for all.

The final demonstration was no picnic either with everyone in the team (bar me) staying at university until midnight before the presentation. We managed to demonstrate a much cut down version of our initial vision to the class with only a few minor hiccups and the 2 honors side projects went along quite well. Afterwards we hurriedly bundled the project away into one of the members car (he provided all the hardware on the proviso he got to keep it) happy to be done with it once and for all.

For 2 years afterwards I struggled to figure out why the project that started off so well tanked so badly. It wasn’t until I was officially employed as a project manager that I figured out that the most toxic element in the whole ordeal was me, the power hungry idiot who contributed the least whilst ensuring that anyone trying to get things done was hampered by my interference. I failed to get everyone to collaborate effectively and hamstrung them with rediculous requirements for documentation. In essence I was acting like a project manager on a big project when really I was anything but. The end result was a far cry from what it could have been and one member of that project team still refuses to speak to me, and I don’t blame them for doing so.

I suppose the best thing that came out of this is that I finally realized my weaknesses and actively worked to overcome them. Sure it might have been too late for the university project that was but I’m glad to say I didn’t inflict any such torment on a project whilst I was being paid to do it, instead taking on board those lessons learned to make sure those projects were delivered as required. I still hold out hope that one day I’ll look back on those days with my former project members and laugh but those project management war wounds will stick with me forever, reminding me that I’m not as infallible as I once thought I was.

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