In large companies project management is often required along with all of the associated software tools such as Gantt charts, but if you work for a small company, project management might very well mean this: Manage the project so that you deliver it on time, especially if you wear all of the hats. If this is your situation, how do you ensure that you are giving a reasonable date when a project finish date is requested? Understand that when another entity, be it a department head, an internal or external customer, or a salesperson, pressures you to rush a project, it will not help you or your company to give an unrealistic date. There are many factors often not understood by those not directly involved in the process.
Since I come from a test engineering background, I will use an example of building a test set with both hardware and software components, although the basic principles for effective project management can apply to any discipline. A semiconductor company has product engineers who have the responsibility of monitoring and improving existing products, as well as developing new ones, which may be variations on existing products or a completely new product. In any case, they will need their products tested, first in the engineering lab and then in production -- and that is where the test engineer comes in.
When building a test set, a savvy engineer will think out all of the possibilities. What test equipment is necessary for testing the required parameters? Is it for the lab, or is it a production test set? Are there temperature test requirements? How many seconds can be used for test to meet production throughput requirements? Verify the customer requirements up front and make sure they are in writing. Make it clear that any changes or enhancements in the future may make the completion date obsolete.
Once the project requirements are determined, a test engineer better check the lead times on receiving the selected equipment before committing to a date. Sometimes, test equipment can have extensive lead times, especially if they test to a higher resolution or accuracy or are testing a fairly new technology. When you have all of the hardware you need to build the test set, how long will it take? It really depends on lots of variables, not the least of which is your understanding and experience with the project's requirements.
Be sure you are very familiar with the parameters of the project and leave yourself enough time for research if you will be programming, designing, or working in an area that is new territory for you. Learning curves need to be accounted for. Also keep in mind that the likelihood of you being temporarily pulled off of the project to fight a fire can be rather high, depending on the number of qualified personnel in your company.
If you are in a similar situation like one company I worked for, you may have access to a variety of departments that can provide support for your project. In our test set example, we may need to design an interface board for the device under test, along with appropriate fixtures. Perhaps you can design the PCB yourself and then submit it to the PCB shop you have on site. Are you familiar enough with mechanical design to design the test fixture that holds the device under test yourself? Do you have an in-house CAD team with design expertise that can help you out? The same thing applies to the actual fixture. Can your in-house machine shop handle it? Does it make sense to farm the project out instead? Cost and lead times are factors to be considered in making that decision.
Leave time for debugging your software and troubleshooting your hardware. You also don't want to put your project into service until you have had a chance to test it thoroughly. In our test set example, you will also want to run Gage R&R (a repeatability and reproducibility statistical tool) and document the results, making sure the test set meets an acceptable percentage of variation.
While my example is specific to building a test set, you can take these concepts and apply them to your own project. Delivering your projects on time will give you a reputation of integrity and reliability. People may not always like your projected delivery dates, but they will learn to respect them when they see you deliver on time rather than continually extend deadlines due to unforeseen circumstances.
Nancy Golden started her electronics career at Dallas Semiconductor and moved to Optek Technology where she was a test engineer for several years, eventually moving up to test engineering manager. Nancy became especially experienced in hall effect characterization and test and also gained experience with photologics, LEDs, VCSELs, and fiber optic transmission. She was also the first person to become a Certified TestPoint Application Specialist (CTAS) by Capital Equipment Corporation and has done contract work for Hitachi and Andrews Corporation and control room software for NBC in Testpoint. While employed at Optek Technology she also authored articles for Test and Measurement World on test system development. Nancy owns a small business called Golden Technical Creations, a service oriented company that provides consulting, teaching, PIC programming, course development and web design to its customers. She also has a M.A.R. with a focus on intercultural studies and is an adjunct faculty member at Dallas Christian College.
[image via Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
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