Project Essentials

4/28/99 Version

Group Projects

A project is some kind of complex task. The term can mean well-defined effort. In lay language project could be something that an individual can accomplish. Some examples of that word usage are: clean out a file drawer, organize a bookcase, title and date photographs in an album. Usually the word is a way of expressing something else in computing. There this term conveys the notion of a large effort, often one that will require many people to cooperate for some extensive time period.

Plan, blueprint, design, game plan, scheme, strategy all are synonyms to project in the thesaurus of an online dictionary. That item continues with enterprise and undertaking. The dictionary definition there is something (as a business operation) that one engages in or attempts. The computer science course adds one significant specific. It is a general requirement that the project a) be done by a group, and b) be something that could not have been finished by an individual in the same time period, no matter how able or hardworking the person.

Note that the word attempts is prominent in the definition of project. What that means is that a project isn't guaranteed to succeed. Unlike things that have fixed duration, and hence beginning, middle and end, a project continues over time. The project experience could be the first step in a continuing development effort. Whether it is or not, active participation in that experience is designed to increase individuals' ability to work successfully with others in an organization.

Projects involve more than one individual. They apply several different skills to an overall goal. Engineering and programming skills can be promininent, but so can systems analysis, operations research, market-research, or management. In a project's initial phase, evaluating what a client or customer needs is a very valuable component of the overall work. After a design is completed marketing or sales services, cost-benefit analysis, and other economic considerations from implementing the system could require much more to be in a project document than simply a discussion of software or hardware developed. Copyrights, patents, and assessment of government regulations, involve working with lawyers, and a project can supply the needed technological base to do that ... or not include relevant information that may be necessary to bring about commercial success.

Describing and Beginning a Project

In twelve ten-week terms from six to forty students came to choose and work on their own projects. Students in the project design course formed teams and became acquainted with working on a task involving cooperation with other people. Most of those involved were senior computer science students. But some have had training in electrical, mechanical, manufacturing engineering and medicine. Usually the people who come together have no initial concept of what they actually will work on jointly nor try to accomplish as individuals. Students' training and interests differ. As individuals initially they focus on a variety of things.

Since all need partners, participants must act in informal and formal ways. Dialog in small groups starts the process of discussing a possible joint effort. Talks about possible work delivered to the entire class are useful as ways to recruit partners. Writing about specifics begins with individual statements on a possible group task. To get others involved participants will exchange drafts and comment in writing and by small group discussions on what they have read.

Requiring project participants to consider and reflect on the above is at the heart of the course. Student willingness to learn, to work hard, and to share knowledge with one-another makes the classroom and other project interactions succeed.

Alternatives are part of the project. Is there any reason to prefer one technical solution to another? Is there added cost for certain approaches or solutions? Can the partners or peers suggest more than one approach? [Several solutions changes the work dynamic.] Finding a solution leads to satisfaction and ultimately professional reward. When there are several, the task of analyzing which is best, finding the rationale to back up that decision, can drive the work. Hence, a good project report clearly presents why the design solution is preferrable in comparison with the alternatives. It states what are any advantages of the proposed solution. It lists key design parameters so that if some things should change, e.g., relative values of national currencies, production costs could be evaluated. A convincing project report answers questions. It justifies further investments or expenditure of resources, such as design time, money to be invested. These things need to be the consensus of the several people contributing to the final product.

Work Procedures

This section lists the elements students are exposed to and usually use in creating a project. Each list below begins with at least one italicized term. Items here in italics are essential. All should gain some facility with them.

Titles, Telegraphic Writing, Descriptive Project Title, Goals, Task Description, Requirements Statement, Specifications.

Project Statement, Work Statement, Progress Reports.

Tables, Figures, Graphs, Appendices, Flow Charts, Schematic Diagrams.

Technical Talks, Project Presentations, Recruiting Partners, Design Reviews, Working Updates, Explanations of Choices, Sales Pitches.

Organizing, Recording Items in a Dated Signed Notebook, Protecting Intellectual Property.

Bibliography, Reference Lists, Citing World Wide Web Items, Computer-Based and Hardcopy Information Sources, Journals, Magazines, National Newspapers.

Deliverables, Project Planning, Milestones, Pert Charts.

Facing-Page Exposition, Proposals, Budgets, and Business Plans.


This section lists suggestions re starting something new. Material about Berkeley Unix, Java/Jini, and ICQ appeared in recent Fortune articles. ICQ and Yahoo both have been ably discussed in Newsweek; likewise original approaches to fundamental issues in mathematics, conservation and transportation have been presented in recent issues of Scientific American. If your project is to have the impact of Amazon or E-Bay, you need to evaluate three things. What is around? What needs to be done? What skills can you bring to bear? Prior lists of projects can be found from the Fall 1998 starting pages for the course. Possibly useful tips follow.

Think in original terms. Question things.

Use the newest technology todo something that hasn't been possible before.

Questioning [Improving Creating in the Workplace, Max M. Feibelman.]

Develop and use illustrations and examples.

Be sure the things being done yield some concrete demonstration understandable by others.

Rewrite each other's drafts until the wording seems clear to a typical nontechnical person such as a Congressperson.

Everything can be improved.