How to manage a student project efficiently, transparent and without adding costs? This article tries to find an answer by presenting the tools used in the HOLI 300 project. Also, a general idea about a project management philosophy for voluntary student projects is given.

Why this project needed planning

Having participated in the project management of two engineering contest projects in my mechanical engineering bachelor studies before, I did not feel totally unprepared to take over the role of the project manager. The projects I had worked with before had small team sizes of two to three people, a relatively small budget up to 400 Euro and a duration of about five months. In contrast, the HOLI 300 project was bigger in every aspect: The team consisted of eleven international engineering master students, the budget was about 15 times higher and the project was planned for nine months. For the project manager role this means compared to previous projects a higher responsibility.

But most important, a project of this size calls for proper planning!

Goal of project management: Motivate without a salary!

Because the project is relatively small, the project management role is difficult to separate from the team leading role. As a result, all requirements to the team leading role also reflect onto the project management role. In the next paragraph these requirements are elaborated.

One of the main differences between this project and a commercial project is that it is voluntary and participants do not get compensated for their efforts by money. Usually, money might be motivation enough for some people to give their best. However, in this project all participants had to stay motivated even without receiving any salary. But if money is not a motivator, what can it be? I believe that under this constraint the team lead should find out for every team member exactly what motivates him to participate in such a project.

This was the reason why I requested every team member to write down his individual motivation for participating in the project in our project kick-off meeting. It turns out that many of us wanted to participate because they would like to have fun, make new experiences as engineers, learn something and contribute to a common project success.

How to plan for individual motivation

Well, what does this mean for project planning and assigning tasks to team members? Basically, considering each individual‘s motivation is most important when agreeing on a new thing to work with. To enable team members to learn and make new experiences, one should consider each individual‘s interests and skills.

Project management is also always about putting tasks into a chronological order and setting up a schedule for the project in close coordination with the team members. In other words, planning has to be done in accordance with each individual‘s time frame. Remembering that the project is voluntary, the available working time might vary a lot from team member to team member and also depends on if the participant‘s expectations to the project are met.

As with all projects, it is beneficial to keep the information flow transparent to spark discussions. Although discussions take time, solutions worked out by teams are usually better than solutions that are worked out by individuals. A transparent information flow also prevents misunderstandings and contributes to a fair and democratic decision process where everybody has a chance to take part in.

Special requirements of student projects: Be easy, cheap and efficient

From the previous paragraphs we know what we need to take care of when planning for such a voluntary project. One next thing to think about are project management tools that we can use for planning. Our goal is that the project management effort is be kept to a minimum but still ensure that the goals stated above are met. We want to minimize effort to be able to focus on the technically challenging tasks in the project. Minimizing the effort can be achieved in three ways: First, use as few tools as possible. Second, it is a good idea to use tools that everybody knows so no time needs to be spent on training how to use them. Third and most important is that without a lot of effort information can be understood, so misunderstandings do not occur. We call this third criteria efficiency. The difference between efficiency and transparent information flow is that while efficiency focuses on how the information is processed, transparent information flow means that there is a possibility for everybody to access information.

A student‘s budget compared to the budget of a company is almost zero. From this fact, a further difference arises which is also a requirement for project management tools: The price matters, they should not cost a lot. At best, all tools are freely available.

So we want few tools that everybody knows and are freely available yet make accessible planning without misunderstandings possible.

Focus: Which project management tools we are looking at

While we previously took a rather general approach talking about “tools“, let us get more into detail here. It was said that we would like to put tasks into a chronological order and set up a schedule and that we would like to keep the information flow transparent. Tools serving these purposes are the tools we will be looking at in the following sections.

What could be missing here? Sure, we did not lose a single word about project accounting or tools used to come to decisions e.g. the brainstorming method in meetings. While the meeting organization worked out quite nicely during the project, we could have done better with the accounting: We did not use an appropriate tool to track our budget and our about 50 orders because we did not take that seriously enough. The price we had to pay was that we had a hard time figuring out if we paid all the bills. Also, it was a huge problem to find out about how much money we still had left to spend in the last, critical phase. So here is my suggestion:

Use an accounting tool (e.g. a software) to keep track of your budget.

State of the art: A selection of project management tools

There are tons of project management tools around. In this section, I would like to introduce you to my personal favorites and briefly describe their advantages  and disadvantages for efficient and cheap project planning with transparent communication. The tools are divided into two categories, project planning and communication. If you need to be efficient, directly have a look at the comparison table here.

Project Planning

Microsoft Project

Project 2010 logoThis tool is without a doubt the most powerful and stable project planning tool I have come across so far. Gantt charts, resource planning, extensive reports, links to team member contact details, you name it! It has it all. I also like the user interface which is rather intuitive if you are comfortable with other Microsoft products such as Microsoft Office.

Looking at the capabilities of this software, it might be just too capable and an “overkill“ choice for our scenario. Take resource planning for example – because the time frame of our team members is quite flexible and nobody is paid for the time spent on the project anyways, it makes little sense to use resource planning features that allow semi-flexible timeframes and can determine the cost to hire employees for a project.

A problem for some team members might be that Microsoft Project only runs on Windows computers. A further and rather big downside as to our requirements is definitely the price. A quick research reveals that the most recent standard version of the software costs around 630 Euro. Of course, there are free student versions available at some universities. But before we fall for these, let us see if there are some products with less restrictions around that could also possibly be used after graduation.

OpenProj

OpenProj-screenshotIt goes without saying that the open source software “OpenProj“ is less capable than the well-established Microsoft Project software. But it also has the possibilities to produce Gantt charts which is a perfect feature for planning our project. It is easy to assign names to the tasks on the Gantt chart, so that basic planning functionality is given. If you want to play around, there is also a resource planning module and a net plan module available. But I feel that a proper Gantt chart that can be updated easily is really all we needed for this project.

OpenProj is written in Java which means that it can be used on almost every operating system and is not limited to Windows. However, the user interface is neither as intuitive nor as beautiful as the one of Microsoft Project. 
Version 1.4 of OpenProj is available for free download here. The only downside of this free version for our purposes is that PDF export for Gantt charts is not supported. However, one might still use the print function and could save the print as a PDF.

Because OpenProj meets all our needs, it is our software of choice for project planning in the HOLI 300 project.

Information exchange

In this section a lot of ways and tools to exchange information are described. Meetings and personal, spontaneous talks are excluded from the overview because they are assumed to be a common way of information exchange in student projects. However, some other and equally common trivial ways such as Email or Phone Calls are explained to compare them to other, alternative methods.

Email

E-MailEmail is a standard way of communication. Most students check their email inbox quite frequently, so it can be considered a fast way to transmit information. Also, if the email subject is constructed properly, emails are sure to draw attention. A typical subject could be “HOLI 300: Announcement of Team Meeting this Thursday, Aug 8, 3pm“. The downside of emails is that they might not necessarily enable transparent communication. It might easily happen that somebody forgets to include all previous recipients when sending his answer. Aside of the missing transparency, the result is that any discussion might lose its structure quite fast. Of course – there are mailing lists. But if you have files to share then they might get lost within the flow of replies or be difficult to access when writing and reading follow-up emails. Finally, Email is a good choice to get attention relatively fast and transmit information that does not need discussion, e.g. meeting announcements.

Phone Calls

DSC01816The fastest way to exchange information with someone remotely is without a doubt via a phone call. They are efficient because the conversation partner can immediately ask questions and thereby clarify doubts efficiently. However, only non-visual information can be transmitted via phone calls which limits their efficiency for engineering projects where often important documents like technical drawings need to be exchanged and discussed. Phone calls are also not really transparent unless their content is documented which means additional work. Phone calls with more than one participant often cost money which we do not have in a student project. The structure of a phone call depends on the participants. One does not have the possibility to go back in a phone call or review what has been discussed before unless one remembers it. To summarize, phone calls are good to quickly clarify individual organizational doubts but are not a good option to discuss something in a group or talk about visual information. It can be hard to keep phone calls structured sometimes.

Skype

Skype-iconSkype is a reasonable alternative to phone calls. Usually, a Skype call needs to be set up more in advance than a phone call as students might have Skype installed on their computers but not be available and online all the time. However, Skype calls are free and support (even in a non-paid version) several participants. A great bonus with Skype calls is that they allow video transmission which might be used to discuss technical documents. However, we have found that it is almost impossible to use Skype to transmit meetings with only using standard equipment as a laptop. In order to transmit appropriate audio where everybody on the meeting table can be heard one needs a special room microphone. The same applies to the speakers – our laptop speakers were just not loud enough so that our team members calling in via Skype could not be understood properly in the meeting room.

Dropbox

Opened_boxHaving talked a lot about ways of exchanging non-visual information, let us have a look at how to actually exchange visual information. Dropbox is a company which offers a software to share folders on your computer with others. Its great strength is that it integrates seamlessly with the existing folder structure, so one can exchange information by using a structure one already knows. But its biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: Because all information is restricted to files and folders, it is difficult to discuss. In the end, a text file could be used for a discussion. But then it would be difficult to see what has changed after the last visit and with a greater number of participants chances are increasing that people would forget to write down their name and the current time as a remark to their contributions, provoking a loss of discussion structure. The files and folders however can be used to store big pieces of information that are not subject to constant change such as media and information related to documentation.

A similar service to Dropbox is Google Drive. Unfortunately I do not have enough experience with this service to give a proper review.

Basecamp

basecamp logoBasecamp is a paid platform for organizing projects. That said, it offers a lot of features e.g. a file storage, a task calendar, to-do lists and most important a section for discussions. A nice feature is also an individual project timeline so one can see what has changed in the projects over time. All of the above features fit our requirements for efficient and transparent project planning. However, Basecamp is not free and would be about 135 Euro for a nine-month project as ours. Considering that we were looking for a cheap solution it really depends on your budget if you can afford to pay this amount for project management. In our case, we decided against it and wanted a cheaper solution.

Co-Meeting

Co-Meeting LogoCo-Meeting is an online platform for discussion similar to what was once “Google Wave“. It is based on a discussion made up of various threads where hierarchical responses are possible and files can be attached. Its user interface is quite intuitive because all needed features are immediately visible after login. In other words, there are no “hidden“ functions which are essential to the functioning but are difficult to access.

When logging in after a certain time, all changes after the last visit are marked. A nice feature is also that it has a side panel which can be used for taking live notes of meetings. As a user types, all online members can see the typing in realtime on their screens.

These characteristics allow a transparent and efficient discussion. Depending on each user‘s preferences, they will get an email with current changes on a regular basis. This feature also ensures that changes are noted quite fast.

The nicest thing about Co-Meeting is that it is free to a large extend. This means that all features described above are available for free, some advanced features as e.g. a full text search is only available in a paid version. It turns out that the signup page for the paid version is available in Japanese only given the fact that Co-Meeting is a product of a Japanese startup company. Anyways, from my point of view Co-Meeting is the best tool for information exchange for student projects there is at the moment.

Comparison table

In this table, all information exchange tools are compared to one another.
Efficiency means that without a lot of effort information can be understood, so misunderstandings do not occur.
Transparency means that there is a possibility for everybody to access information.
The price should be kept to a minimum.

Tool NameEfficiencyTransparencyPriceMain ad-
vantage
Main dis-
advantage
Email--+Gets attentionDifficult to structure
Phone Calls+--FastOnly one participant
Skype (Free)+-+Many participantsNo visual information
Dropbox-++Perfect for permanent document storageNo discussion
Basecamp++-Perfect toolsExpensive
Co-Meeting+++Transparent discussionsSome information in Japanese

Our selection of project management tools

Having reviewed a lot of possibilities here is the setup we came up with. We used a set of tools from the selection described above.

To write our project plan in form of a Gantt chart, we used OpenProj. It was updated on average every two months based on the current developments and progress in the team and the product.

To have transparent and well-structured discussions, we used Co-Meeting. This is also where we stored most of our files.

Co-Meeting was our central tool, where most of our discussions took place.

As the CAD data we produced were too big to be stored on Co-Meeting we saved them mostly on local hard drives. Especially at the end of the project this was a problem because we needed to access the data from the workshop remotely. As there is a limit in the maximum file size on Co-Meeting (about 25 MB, if I remember correctly), it is not possible to store these data on the platform.

So next time, we need a file storage for big files which is remotely accessible.

For this, Dropbox or Google Drive might be an option. To optimize for transparency, only data which are too big to be stored on Co-Meeting should be stored here (e.g. CAD files or movies).

Important, static information like meeting announcements, to-do lists or test results were distributed via email in our group. Being more like a “wake-up call“ via email, these information were also shared on Co-Meeting where participants were invited to comment.

Especially in the last phase of the project where a lot of the manufacturing was done, often under a certain time pressure, the team communicated a lot via phone calls.

As some team members requested to remotely hold meetings because it was difficult to meet up personally, we also tried to schedule some meetings via Skype. Although these meetings were prepared like regular meetings,

My personal impression was that Skype calls took relatively longer than regular meetings.

Probably this happened because a lot of explanation and summarizing had to be done to prevent misunderstanding. However, the team also saved time because nobody had to travel to the meeting location.

Result: Tools are too many but work well!

WWhile we have already assessed efficiency, transparency and price of our tools, let us see if we used as few tools as possible and use tools that everybody knows. It turns out that we used six tools. From my point of view this is still too much. A closer look reveals that the tools we used can be categorized as to whether they are used in urgent or less urgent information exchange. Emails and phone calls were almost only used to clarify things immediately. The other four tools were used for less urgent purposes or documentation. One can extrapolate that to use fewer tools, one might aim to find a tool for urgent and one for less urgent communication.

Did we use tools that “everybody“ knows? Assuming that “everybody“ knows Dropbox, Skype, Email and phone calls, we only used two tools, Co-Meeting and OpenProj, which are not commonly known. While OpenProj is only used by the project manager and all publicly relevant data is published in commonly known PDF format, Co-Meeting needs to be learnt by everybody. But, as mentioned, the platform is quite intuitive and is used as a central tool, so learning is easy and it is worth it.

From my experience with other projects I feel that the project communication in this project worked quite well because we made an appropriate selection of tools. Previously I have often asked myself which tools would be best to organize such a project but I am confident that with the set of tools presented here one can add an efficient, transparent and in the end free-of-charge project management to a voluntary student project.

One thing which might be important in a project that our set of tools cannot provide is a possibility to hold efficient meetings over a distance. It would be better to find less tools, possibly two, which combine all benefits.

Bonus: Hint on Team Meetings

Team meetings are an essential part of every student project. However, nobody likes to spend his time in meetings that take too long and in which issues are discussed that are not of everybody‘s concern. In our project, the following hints have proven themselves to be of good use for organizing meetings that most people feel comfortable with:

  • Send the invitation via email.
  • Put an eye-catching paragraph in the invitation stating time, date, location, title and purpose of the meeting.
  • Include an iCAL file in the email so it is easy for people to put the meeting in their calendar.
  • Include your contact details in the email so that participants can reach you if they cannot attend.
  • Plan and publish an agenda ahead of time, preferably send it together with the invitation. Check if any team member wants to add a point.
  • Also plan a time frame for the agenda items and state when the meeting will end. Try to use time as efficient as possible and do only allow the meeting to exceed its timespan if everybody agrees.
    • A typical agenda might look like this
    • Introduction (inform about purpose and time frame of meeting)
    • News from the project
    • (Main Items you want to discuss)
    • Miscellaneous (Everybody can add a point here spontaneously, this might take some time!)
    • Review (Quickly review what was achieved in the meeting and what the goals are until the next meeting.)
    • Feedback (Ask everybody for one sentence of feedback as to the meeting. You could also let everybody name one good thing about the meeting and one thing they would like to see improved. The feedback might help you to improve your organization and gives the possibility to the participants to talk about their expectations for future meetings.)
  • In the first meeting of the project let everybody write down his/her individual motivation. If you want, you can publish the results on the team‘s communication platform afterwards. The purpose of this method is that everybody gets an idea of their individual goals and the participants know better how to treat each other to keep their motivation.
  • When you set up tasks it is a good idea to create a table with the columns “What?“, “Who?“ and “Until when?“ so the task list includes all important task information and is transparent to everyone.
  • Either yourself or a team member should write the “minutes of meeting“, a log stating the most important results of the meeting. This log should be published to the whole project team within a short time after the meeting. In clubs and organizations it is common practice that the last meeting‘s log has to be agreed upon at the beginning of the next meeting.
  • Organize someone to bring sweets to the meeting or do it yourself. Not having them was a common criticism in our meetings! We did not have food in the budget, so it was difficult to organize. But a little snack keeps everybody happy and motivated to fight their way through the meetings!

Florian RoscheckAbout the author:
Florian Roscheck
Florian “Flo” Roscheck is a mechanical engineer who loves to play around with microcontrollers in his free time. As an industrial mechanic he also has some manufacturing experience. Being passionate about professional tinkering this is the third student contest project he participates in.

He took over project management and several mechanical and electrical engineering tasks in the project. Florian designed the furling system, the safety microcontroller, the hub connection, the frame and the website.

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