It’s been almost five years since I wrote about the challenges of project management and timing your work as an engineer. While most of that information is still very true even today I’ve recently had my own challenges with my son’s Eagle Scout project. He is of a mind that you can throw together a plan and just do a whole week of work in just a couple of days. I, having worked in the IT industry for years, have assured him that it absolutely doesn’t work like that. Why is there a disconnect between us? And how does that disconnect look to the rest of the world?
Time Taking You
The first problem that I often see when working with people that aren’t familiar with projects is that they vastly underestimate the amount of time it takes to get something done. You may recall from my last post that my project managers at my old VAR job had built in something they called Tom Time to every quote. That provided a way for my estimate to reflect reality once I arrived on site and found the things didn’t go according to plan.
Part of the reason why my estimates didn’t reflect reality was because there are a lot of things that go into a project that can’t quite be explained or calculated into the final estimate. For example, how long does it take for a switch to reboot? Some of them can be ready to pass traffic in a couple of minutes. Larger devices that need to test modules may take up to ten minutes to be ready to go. If you have to reboot that switch multiple times during your project how do you account for that time? Is there a line item for a hour’s worth of switch reboots? What about the project closeout meetings a paperwork? How do you build that into a project timeline?
People that underestimate the timeline of a project are almost always only focused on the work. They see that it should take them about five minutes to copy the config the switch and ten minutes to put it in the rack. Did they think about the time to unbox it? Cable it? Do a final test to ensure all configuration is correct and saved to the startup config? Each of these things sound trivial but they add time. Maybe you don’t do the final config test and hope for the best. But you can’t shave time on unboxing unless you have someone helping you do that. Which, of course, just adds time to the project in a different way.
The Price of Time
Does this mean that you just need to increase the amount of time that you put on a project? No, it doesn’t. One of the connectivity providers I worked with in the past had what they called a “foolproof method” of getting the right time estimate for a circuit. They doubled the number and increased to the next time unit. So two hours became four days. Three days became six weeks. And I became infuriated when I realized how much time something like this would take.
Part of the reasoning behind that thinking was that the project management overhead always took longer than expected. But the other thinking was that quoting much longer timelines gave them more room to cram in too much work for a single team. They could juggle deployments because they had enough hours in the quote that they could be more interrupt driven. Work on something until someone complains then move to that project and work on it until the complaining stops. You can see why providers like that quickly get a reputation for padding their projects.
Time costs money. Either someone is paying you to do the job or you’re paying for that resource to be unavailable for doing the job. You have to learn how to allocate your resources effectively. If you need to help your teams or your contractors understand the additional time that it takes to do a project you need to either package that time as a line item or educate them about what additional tasks you see. Accounting for that extra time is a better way to show value than just adding lots of extra wiggle room to a project so you don’t go over budget. The education aspect is especially important for talent that isn’t familiar with things from the outset. Teaching them how to look for those time sinks and making sure they’re tracked means their estimates will be much more accurate in the future.
My son is going to complete his project but he’s going to learn a lot about the way the world works in the process. Paint doesn’t dry overnight. It takes time to load and unload lumber. People need more than 24 hours notice to show up to work on something. These are all lessons I’ve learned over the years that I’m happy to teach. Time is important to us all because we don’t get any more of it. Every minute that goes by is a minute we can’t get back. Make the most of your time by tracking it appropriately and building those hidden things into your project estimates. That’s how you get time to be on your side for once.