Part two of a series of storied experiences on a small project at a large consulting company in the Pacific Northwest. (Part One).
Robert held his key card to the electronic light of the entry door to the third floor office space. The light greened, and he opened the door while gentlemanly holding it for the team to pass through.
We were working on a project to develop a web application that managed documentation related to contracts and communications for a regional power utility district. The team consisted of Robert, Project Manager; Ryan, Developer; Angela, Graphics/Usability; and myself, Lead Developer. The client had requested a six-week final delivery schedule to coincide with opening their next big project using the web application. A break-neck project to be sure; six weeks to gather requirements, develop an interface, code, and document; forget about time for testing. Registering my complaint about the over-ambitious schedule at our internal kick-off meeting fell on deaf ears, but at least it was on record.
As we crowded into a short hall, Robert squeezed passed us to show us into our team room. "There are three keys;" he explained, "I'll keep one in my desk. Rusty, you take this one, and I'll give the other key to Angela. We need to make sure not to lock ourselves out of this room or we'll be in trouble!"
The team room was impressive. One entire wall was windows looking out on the courtyard. The mahogany conference table comfortably sat 6, and occupied the main space. There was a large white board on one wall, and several individual desks against the interior wall. "Don't tell anyone down here this is only a $70,000 project, now," warned Robert, putting his reputation before the team.
As we sat down at the table, I took a seat at one end while others sat on the sides; a habit I had noticed of myself in the past, and one my modesty is not proud of. As we sat looking at each other, it quickly became apparent that it was unclear who should be leading the meeting, a problem that was already recurrent.
The problem first became apparent the previous week when Robert, Ryan, and I paid a visit to the client for what was supposed to be a week of meetings and requirements gathering to jump start the project. The first day was chaotic; the six-member client team was reduced to debating insignificant details amongst themselves, but at least had shown a lot of interest and willingness to participate. At dinner that night, the three of us mulled over the plan for the next day.
"Today we got some good ideas about how they want their unique document numbering system to work, but I haven't gathered the information I need to actually write a functional specification," I said between mouthfuls of BBQ chicken. "Tomorrow, Ryan and I need to corner two or three team members at a time and get them to walk through how the system will be actually used. How are projects added, archived, and managed." I was reminding them of the agenda I had forwarded to Robert at his request for this week's meetings, and which he had passed on to the client.
"I'd really like all of us to meet with them again in the morning and go over all the questions we have from today's meeting. I think Brett (Client Project Manager) had a few more things he wanted to talk about," Robert replied. "I really want to go in there tomorrow with a clear list of things to do, questions to ask, so that we don't get off track. How about, after dinner, we meet to get everything laid out and typed up for tomorrow," he stated, rather than asked.
And we did just that; we came up with a list of questions to ask the next day, but I was still sore that I wouldn't get my agenda complete. I worried that I wouldn't have the information I needed to figure out how the site was supposed to work.
The next morning when we reconvened, things went from bad to worse for me as the precedent of unclear leadership was set. As we sat at the table for the meeting, Robert handed me the list of questions and started telling me how to lead the meeting. He imposed the responsibility of leading the meeting, without any ownership over the agenda, and it made me feel a little uneasy. Nothing to get too upset about, but a flag was raised in my mind that something didn't feel right about this.
As the meeting started, I asked Brett if he had anything to discuss leftover from yesterday's meeting, and he looked at me blankly and shook his head. "Ungh," I thought, "I should have questioned Robert's assertion last night when I wondered what he was talking about."
"Why don't you group your questions concerning each web page, and we can walk through them that way," Brett suggested.
"Crap, we didn't organize them like that, now I have to scan this two page list and try to ask them in an organized manner." I thought. "OK, let me just scan this list for the first set," I replied lamely.
At that point, Robert interrupted and took over with his own line of questions, and we fell back into the previous day's arguments over the unique document numbering system.
After two hours of debating, my face was showing my disgust, which Robert interpreted as impatience with himself, but which actually was the feeling of powerlessness over getting the information I actually needed.
"I don't think we have time to get into that subject," I tersely replied to Robert, somewhat under my breath, as he suggested opening Pandora's box 10 minutes before the client team had said they needed to break for other meetings. He opened it anyway.
Fifteen minutes later, we had successfully closed the box, and he was ready to go open another one. "No, I don't think we should talk about that now; it's already past 10, and Brett needs to get to his other meeting," having lost my patience, I clearly stated this while glaring at him. "We will adjourn now, and while you go and read the contract with Sam, Ryan and I will interview Renae about how the site will actually work."
After the room cleared out, Robert apologized a few times for taking over the meeting, and I felt silly for losing my cool. Besides, I was happy that I finally caught a break and would get a chance to talk to a client about functionality.
Our interview went spectacularly! We learned so much basic information about who would administer what, how security roles worked, what Renae expected each page to do, and how the work flow would proceed, including email notifications on certain events.
"That was what we needed to do that whole time!" Ryan cheered gleefully after the interview.
"Man, I know! That was great." I agreed, feeling vindicated.
The afternoon went well as Robert was still absent, so I was clearly the leader of the meeting. Even with the whole group back, we stayed on track and got through a lot of information.
That night, Ryan returned to the home office 150 miles away, as did Robert. I was staying at the client site to write a draft functional spec the next day, and then planned to reconvene the following day when Laura was scheduled to visit for usability interviews. I got an email reading that Laura had a change of plans due to personal reasons that required her to be replaced on the project by Angela; neither would be coming out. I decided to keep working anyway, and to present the draft spec in a couple of days. Then, my laptop HD crashed. Shoot. I didn't loose any work thanks to backups, but I decided to pack it in and go back to the home office; it seemed fated.
It turned out to be two days of meetings instead of five after all; funny how things work out sometimes.
Continued next week...