Soft skills every engineer needs to execute a successful project.
By: Ayanna Edwards
I’ve never been a traditional engineer. With engineering as my background, I went into sales and eventually, project management roles. These roles made me comfortable taking charge of a group and being presented with problems in front of customers. However, this isn’t the typical engineering path.
My successful projects are always driven by non-technical soft skills, coupled with industry specific understanding. Many engineers hone their technical skills to focus and solve the problem at hand, but never have the opportunity to develop the soft skills needed to drive greater project success.
The following project management soft skills, in practice, are game changers for a SCADA project:
- Define requirements and understand expectations
- Plan and organize today
- Communicate to everyone
- Customers are humans, not just data users
It’s never just about scope. It’s about understanding customer expectations.
Even when scope is met, I don’t consider a project a complete success if customer expectations were not met. It’s crucial at the beginning of the project to both define project requirements, and also understand customer expectations for the project. Many times, they’re not the same.
Here’s a common example.
The customer scope of work and specification state to integrate a piece of equipment. The customer assumes the systems integrator will automatically report certain points during integration. But because those points aren’t discussed and defined upfront, the integration is completed, but doesn’t include all desired points.
End result: A frustrated customer.
Without true understanding of what the customer wants to accomplish, expectations that didn’t make it into the scope definition can pop up during the project. This is the main component of scope creep.
Customers have an entire pie of a problem. However, when the SCADA engineer only focuses on individual pie slices, one can find the slice of pie heavily loaded with a lot of extra toppings, in efforts to now hit customer expectations.
We believe the onus is always on the systems integrator to clarify each part of the scope. An integrator may not be able to provide all that is desired, but when expectations are established and addressed at the beginning, project success rates are much higher.
Hindsight is always 20/20
In the rush to land a project, many system integrators agree to milestone due dates before they actually understand what’s required. As project work is executed, more questions than answers start bubbling up from engineers. Not only do customers start to see those issues affect their schedule, it often leads to dramatic due date pushbacks.
In our methodology, planning and organizing today saves headaches (and schedule delays, cost overruns, scope creep…) tomorrow.
SCADA engineers and technical support staff have a wealth of knowledge. That’s really where the planning should begin. They are the resources needed to define the steps and time needed to accomplish the scope of work.
By going through this exercise for each project, issues and challenges can be identified by engineers as risks, and a plan to mitigate can be developed before work even begins. Questions are clarified upfront, and additional material costs are fleshed out.
Planning isn’t a guarantee the unexpected won’t arise, but the unexpected will be easier to tackle as the team, budget, and schedule are more prepared.
Communicate to the whole, not just the part
The responsibility of customer communication lies with both project managers and engineers.
Sometimes when a project issue is reported, engineers work tirelessly on it and contact the person who reported the issue to inform them of its completion. Unfortunately, what the engineer and customer contact often forget are the many other people involved in the project that need to know progress updates as well.
To avoid communication silos, we suggest regular check-ins with our customers to both inform and understand project status. This is more than just the initial kickoff. Status update emails, monthly service meetings, and even project team conference calls allow the team to not only understand progress, but also provide the benefit of work prioritization, scope clarification, and roadblock removal that SCADA engineers find during project execution.
We’ve recently established a help desk for one of our largest customers. The help desk allows SCADA issues to be reported to a central location with review and correction by our SCADA engineers. Most importantly, it allows a full communication loop to the entire customer team on issue completion, as well as recommended practices moving forward.
The more frequent our communications, the happier the customer is about the final product, and the better the overall relationship.
The human element: A good indicator of project success
The common denominator of every successful project I’ve ever worked on is the human element. People buy from people.
As a service provider, technical services provided are always very important. Soft skills are often overlooked, but actually make the biggest difference in project progression.
Any role that touches the customer essentially serves as an extension of customer service. System integrators should want to become their customer’s trusted advisor.
Our customers have their choice of many qualified vendors, but continue to choose a company that proves themselves technically, and also provides overall value. We anticipate their needs, understand their strategic goals, introduce new ideas, and support their SCADA system in times of need. Basically, they’ve decided we’re a company that can also provide great customer service.
Putting it all together
By understanding customer expectations as well as requirements, customers feel an integrator can better understand their needs. Through planning and organizing each project, the customer gains trust that the solution provided will be done with high quality. With routine communication on project progress, the customer builds and maintains confidence that the SCADA integrator can support current project needs, and can likely support future projects as well.
When these skills and practices are used on a regular basis to provide integrated solutions, happy customers are made, and repeat business occurs. That, is probably the greatest indicator of a successful project.
As SCADA engineers adopt some of these practices and hone these soft skills, they will solidify yet another way to ensure project success.
Ayanna Edwards is a Project Manager for Affinity Energy with responsibility for power automation, solar services, and account support, ensuring customers receive exceptional service and personal attention to their needs. She joined Affinity Energy in 2015, bringing over 15 years of engineering, technical, and project management experience as a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP) in industries such as electronics, automotive, construction, manufacturing, and clean fossil energy.
Beginning her career as a Technical Sales Engineer in manufacturing, Ayanna’s skills in customer-focused solution development, resource orchestration, and alignment of supplier performance with customer expectations quickly led her into project management leadership roles at AdzZoo, Henkel, and Dow Corning. At CoaLogix, Ayanna afforded customers extended performance and significant cost savings through successful management of her portfolio valued at over $20MM.
Ayanna graduated from North Carolina A&T State University with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and enjoys an active lifestyle of jogging, dance, volunteering, and travel with family and friends.