We Submit

And you thought I never went inside a church.

Woah. Well we got our term assignment project in. I have to admit, it was a pretty messy last-minute rush. Which is funny because it’s about Project Management, and in it we go to great lengths to display our knowledge of all the techniques and methods you can use to make sure that your project is not a messy last-minute rush. The irony is intoxicating.

Kinda head-wrecking too. It’s a project, about doing a project. It’s our Project Management project management project… project? I can’t tell any more. To make it worse still, there is no real project involved. I mean, it is a real project. But our real project is to describe a project we had to make up – ours was installing a computer system into a retirement home.

We didn’t actually get to create a system that elderly people would be depending on, thankfully. But we did have to research and understand the obstacles we would face if we did. So we went around and asked questions to a lot of real retirement home owners and staff, who were all very helpful. That was a good exercise, but still it was weirdly detached from reality. In an actual job like this, what would you be spending most of your time thinking about? Your client of course. Trying to please the bastard. We had no client. One of the members of our team tried to pretend, but it’s just not the same. Her interests are our interests.

So our objective, in our project about our imaginary project, was to please ourselves. No wonder it was hard to keep focused.

Incidentally, the picture has nothing to do with the post – as far as I know. I just thought it was time I used it. It’s a lovely brass electric candle-offering machine from a church in Castlebar, Mayo. You put in money, press a button. and that’s lighting a candle for someone or something. Oddly un-prayerlike, but kind of beautiful nonetheless.

My College Is Trying To Kill Me

Engineering

“Check Ignition”

A Bowiesque start to the day. This is the note I left myself so that when I got up at 7:00 I’d remember to make sure the car battery hadn’t died. It had happened the day before, thanks to a faulty ignition lock on the new old car that allows you to take the key out without fully switching off the electrics. If it had happened again I’d need to start charging immediately to have any hope of making it in on time.

Our team was holding a 9:00 a.m. meeting ahead of a project deadline. Between myself and another member being ill, we hadn’t had a full meeting since the project’s inception. We’d worked through the fever and pretty much got it finished online, but we needed to meet to finalise and sign off on the thing. The battery, to my relief, was fine.

And that was the last thing that went right today.

The first lesson was that even if you arrive at the college at 8:30 you still won’t find a parking place on the campus. I had to go out to the park-and-ride facility again, and so arrived slightly late. However there was only one other member there anyway. Not being quorate and not feeling under any real pressure, we chatted with classmates as we waited. But just as another team member turned up, someone said something that reminded me – in my hurry I’d forgotten to display the student parking permit on my car. To avoid a clamping, I had to rush back out to the facility. By the time I got back it was after ten.

And there was a smell of panic in the air. While I’d been gone, the word had got round that the lecturer had put an ambiguous message on the online noticeboard. Whereas we’d understood that we needed to have a team contract and the briefest description of what our project involved, it now seemed our deadline objectives were:

1 – Project Teams Identified
1 – Project Assignment Outline
2 – Signed Project Team Contract

We’d done the rest, but what exactly was a “project assignment outline”? What examples we could find suggested it was a pretty detailed breakdown of our (imaginary) client’s problems and how we intended to fix them – including crap like time and cost estimates, diagrams, charts. All to be done by 6:00 p.m. the next day. We starting allotting the writing tasks. If we broke it down and did a section each we could probably pull something together in time.

No wait, we’d made a mistake. It wasn’t tomorrow at all. It was 6:00 p.m. today. That… That wasn’t really possible.

So perhaps the lecturer had made a mistake. Why were there two items one on that list? Maybe the second didn’t belong. It was time for our first lecture; we did go in but I spent most if it on my phone, furiously searching documents on the noticeboard for clarification. I decided to email the lecturer about it. We might not get a reply in time, but anything was worth trying.

As luck would have it, we met him after the lecture. But he was cagey, and refused to give us an answer any more enlightening than the one he later sent by email:

As mentioned in class the perspective of this project assignment is as if the project team were working with the Client as consultants.

The project assignment outline should be written to reflect this in terms of depth and scope.

What?

Lunch would have been next but there was an extra lecture we were supposed to attend about plagiarism policy. We couldn’t afford the time, so skipping the thing we were already skipping lunch for (I had also skipped breakfast because of the panic in the morning) we took a room, hooked my computer up to the projection system, and started brainstorming some sort of response to those nebulous criteria. By the start of the next lecture we had something, just not in English. I sat at the back – missing important background to our next assignment – hammering our thoughts into some sort of document.

I should point out incidentally that I am still running a slight temperature here. I’m not entirely over whatever it is that’s kept me mostly asleep the last few days. Adrenalin cleared my head then, but as I write this I’m in bed paying for it.

Then a mad rush to email and print this stuff – he wanted it both ways. It wouldn’t send; it seems I couldn’t make the secure connection my email requires via the college’s network. (Which incidentally would suggest that any communication to the Internet we make on campus has to be open to sniffing by the college – I will have to investigate that further.) By the time we solved the printing the lecture for which this submission was effectively the deadline had already started, so I sat in that figuring out a solution to the email problem. Half way through, it sent.

Here’s your chance to guess the ending.

Yes, there was an extension. Many other people, it seemed, had also been thrown into confusion. We now had until Monday to do this. But that’s not the highpoint. It turned out our instructions had been deliberately ambiguous – to “see how we’d handle it”. A real-world situation.

Right.

Of course you do get difficult customers in the real world, and you do your best to please them. The customer is always right; at least until they’ve paid. But when one customer’s indecisive requirements cause you to let down others, you need to think again. And in this exercise that’s precisely what the other lecturers today were – clients that I didn’t give my full attention to. If this were real reality, I’d have to seriously consider ditching the problem client.

We didn’t take up the extension. Whether by accident or design, this last lecture mentioned Parkinson’s Law – Work expands to fill the time available. It had expanded enough already.

Doing Teamwork By Yourself

The Engineering Faculty has some fairly decent overhead projectors

For our first project, we have to work in teams. But how can we build them when as yet we have little idea of each other’s skills, talents, and weaknesses?

I thought Well, apply communications technology, and took it upon myself to create a message board. With this we could discuss stuff when we weren’t in college, get to know each other better. And as an adjunct I thought we might have a spreadsheet – online but closed to non-members – where we could volunteer skills information; easy enough to set up with Google Docs. This would be helpful to everybody, but it would also demonstrate the useful sort of stuff I can do. Why, people would be bidding to have me join their project teams.

I got quite into this for a couple of days. When I looked up, everyone had formed into groups without me.

Fortunately there were enough of us left over to form another group. Team Not So Savvy At Team Stuff, we could call ourselves. Though actually I think this unusual selection process has left us with a pretty good assortment.

Perhaps not the best organised though. We had our first team meeting today. Only two of us turned up, and one of those was an hour late. OK that was me. I’d been up far too late trying to catch up with my reading on the whole area of project management. I learned a lot in theory, but in the morning completely failed the practical.

I know it’s a terrible cliché, but as my alarm blared away, doggedly failing to wake me, I actually had one of those anxiety dreams where you find yourself in an exam you’re completely unprepared for. I know, someone whose been through an exam system gets those dreams for the rest of their life, even when the cause for anxiety is wholly unrelated.

Only here I actually was failing to prepare for something I’m soon going to be graded on. So really it was hardly a dream at all. More just my subconscious doing a sardonic voice-over.

Tuam Raider

Tuam. Not the worst for traffic

Well here I am in sunny Tuam, for the first time really since I passed my driving test. Yes I’m sorry Tuam, I admit it, I used you. People say it’s easier here than in Galway city. After the fact, I’m not so sure. Galway traffic is insane at rush hour it’s true, but Tuam was then going through an interminable process of roadworks, diversions, temporary traffic lights and tailbacks. And though Galway has imposing roundabouts, Tuam has far too many of those ridiculous mini-roundabouts that transform a simple honest junction into a revolving door. Also, some trick signage; my instructor introduced me to a way you could fail your test without even trying. At one junction there’s a yield sign, so naturally you stop if there’s oncoming traffic. If there is no oncoming traffic, you fail your test.

How come? Because there’s a STOP line marked on the road – presumably left there from a time before the junction was demoted to a mere yield. But the indicator of the greater hazard overrides the lesser, so if you went through without stopping you’re breaking a stop sign, an instant fail, even though there’s no stop sign there. OK, it’s not part of any known test route, they’re not actually out to trick you with legal ambiguities. But with all those diversions in place, you never know your luck.

I’ve just passed a restaurant called Cré na Cille. It’s named after quite a famous novel by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, sometimes called “The Irish language Ulysses“. One  problem though. Literally, the title means “Graveyard Soil”.

I wonder what their specials are.

Speaking of tests, we have our first one coming up on the MSc course already. Well it’s a project, for the Data Analysis and Project Management module, but we will be marked on it. We’ve two weeks to get a proposal together, which includes assembling a team, creating a proposal, even devising a contract to sign for ourselves. It’s not something I mind doing, it’s just that before I do I could probably use a few lessons in, you know, project management. And data analysis.

We’ve had just two so far. I only have the sketchiest idea of what the course is even about. Project management and data analysis – you might as well say “All that businessy-computery stuff.” So I literally don’t know where to begin. I have no idea at all of what would make a good project. Or even a feasible project.

And as a part-time student, I’ve very little idea about a team either. The full-timers meet much more, and many of them will have been undergraduates together. Us part-timers meet literally one day a week. Some of us might be able to get together socially, but most not. So I’ve volunteered to create a forum or bulletin board for us, so we at least have some level of virtual presence.

I’ve done forum admin before, but I’ve never actually set one up from scratch. It’s not hard though – not at least if you rent some web space that supports the necessary technologies. I set one up last night in fact. And in the light of what I learned by doing that, I’ll be setting it up all over again today. I’m also going to suggest we create a spreadsheet of our strengths, weaknesses, and other factors, centralising the information we need to assemble project teams. A database, if you will.

Huh. Maybe I have a project idea after all.

Or would that be a metaproject?

My Furst Day In Scoohl, Part 2

Fred Ott's Sneeze (film by William K.L. Dickson)
Fred Ott’s Sneeze (film by William K.L. Dickson) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Please excuse the flailing around. I’ve not been getting much time to keep up the blog. Bad enough that it’s the first week in college, with all that that entails. But – perhaps due to the sudden change in routine – I’ve come down with a nasty cold as well. I mean, really nasty. So much so that I wonder if it’s not actually mental illness brought on by the sudden increase in workload and stress. I feel depressed, have slowed reaction times, difficulty remembering what I’m supposed to be doing, constant tiredness, sneezing.

Well, I suppose the sneezing does remove any ambiguity.

It’s an oddly mental cold though. I find my sense of time is badly affected. Not timing, that would be bad enough, but time itself. I sometimes forget it’s the present. Which is unhelpful. It is important to be fully aware that the things one is experiencing are actually happening and not just a memory. Especially when driving.

My powers of concentration are, to put it mildly, impaired. To put it colourfully, I have the attention span of someone falling downstairs on fire. So it’s week one and I’m already behind in my work. I’ll tell you about the other two core elements of my first year’s courses – Database Systems, and Systems Development & Project Management – when I catch them and pin them down. All I really know so far is that they use the word “systems” quite a lot, and they are nothing I ever in the past for one moment envisaged myself studying.