Introduction
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Why is there never enough time?
It seems like there is never enough time to get things done.  Your customer wants the project done yesterday, your manager wants more features but can’t offer more time to get the job done.  You feel like you keep getting pulled in 10 different directions.  It is enough to drive a person crazy.
Then there is that guy who is always on top of things, you know – That Guy.  He gets jobs done ahead of schedule, does a good job and always seems to be in control.  What does he know that I don’t?
Chances are good that he has a plan of attach for each project he works on.  A plan starts with understanding.  When approaching a new project, reading all the documentation provided, listening to the presentations (hopefully there is a kickoff meeting) and asking good questions will help form a mental overview of what the project entails.  This does not have to be only a mental picture.  For really complicated projects I often map it out on a piece of paper or a whiteboard.  I try to understand the flow of the project and not all the specific detail, not yet anyway.

That’s not my job
Once I understand the big picture, some people have referred to this as the 50,000-foot view, I start to burrow into the specifics.  What are all the little details that have to happen.  What don’t I know?  What tools do I need?  What are my resources.  But you are an engineer and this is starting to sound like a project managers job.  If I wanted to be a project manager I would have applied for that job, right?  If you want someone else to tell you what to do, to hand you every task, to micromanage you, then sure don’t worry about it.  I have never met a manager that values an employee who need to be told every step to take.  I have also rarely met an engineer who likes to be micromanaged and yet I have seen many engineers who don’t do the steps needed to manage themselves, to manage their time.
To me this is kind of the old west mentality, shooting from the hip.  Let’s jump in and start working without really understanding how the pieces fit together.  You feel like you will handle things that are most important as they come up.  That is a fine way of doing something if it is your hobby but not your livelihood.

The Plan is the Map
Once I have written out the tasks in enough detail to understand what needs to be done I stand back and look at dependencies.  What can’t I do until…  I make some notes to remind myself or add a task asking for what I need.  Now I have a pretty good understanding of the project.  I know what we want to accomplish.  I know what I need to get done, to meet that goal.  I know my resources and I know where my trouble spots are going to be.  It’s time to think about time.
I start at the top of the list and start plugging in the amount of time needed to complete each task.  The units may be hours, days, weeks, whatever makes sense for the scale of the project.  I want enough detail to understand the time requirements without confusing the issues.

The devil is in the details
If this is a big project, then I want there to be milestones along the way.  These are great in helping you move through a project.  They also focus you to get all the little problems taken care of.  Now I can add up time and see how much time it will take me to reach each goal, and ultimately the final goal of finishing the project.  If a specific task takes up a huge amount of time relative to the project it indicates that task is too large and should be broken up into smaller bites, subtasks.  Don’t forget to add in time for meetings.  And you have probably just outlined the ideal situation.  Make sure to allow for surprises and all those little things that must get done that you really don’t think about (How long will it take you to find a substitute part when the one you want has a 22-week lead time?).
Lastly give yourself a little cushion.  This is tricky.  You don’t want to add too much of a buffer here, but you don’t want to be bare bones either.  It is a balance that comes with experience.  I like to keep track of my time during a project and compare it to what I thought it would take me to get a job done.  It is the feedback portion of a job that will allow you to be more accurate the next time around.

Effort vs schedule
What we have so far is the level of effort required to finish a project.  It is not a schedule which has dates and is generally tied to a calendar.  If you are a contractor, you probably have enough at this point to quote a job.  If you are an employee, you are ready to sit down in a planning meeting with your manager, co-workers and the project manager and work on a schedule.
Well that just didn’t work
We have all been on a project where we tried something out, really thought it would work only to find it an utter failure.  This is when you will hear words like “Pivot,” and “Schedule Slippage.”  If you have been shooting from the hip, taking problems as they arise, this where you panic.  If you have been following things according to a plan, you already knew this was a bit risky and were thinking about what you would do if things did not work out.  You have a list of ideas, contingencies.  You can offer good advice, helpful suggestions to keep the project on tract.
You are That Guy
Before you know it, you will be on top of things.  Your stress level will go down. You will have your act together.  You will be a valued member of the team.  You will make a difference.  The down side is you will have to sneer at yourself in the mirror for being – That Guy.
Final thoughtsThis newsletter is sponsored by Celtic Engineering Solutions LLC, a design engineering firm based out of West Jordan, Utah, which can be found on the web at:www.celticengineeringsolutions.com.  You can find the newsletter on the company blog, LinkedIn or by subscribing.  Send your emails to The Celtic Engineer at:  TCE@celticengineeringsolutions.com.