These last two weeks, while very busy, have been pleasantly reminiscent of my former life in technology where the week before going live with a system brought a flurry of activity and some late nights!
- An idea or problem had presented itself: Sciency/math, gifted kids looking for an educational experience where they can be themselves with other kids.
- The problem was analyzed, solutions were brainstormed and a path was selected: Open a school that challenges these kids at their own level, catering to their interests while providing the range of educational experiences they will need in adulthood.
- An implementation plan was defined: Aah, the project plan. That's what sat behind the Friday updates. The project plan included the curriculum, the build out of the space, the hiring of the faculty, the purchasing curriculum, materials and furniture, marketing the school and going through the admissions process are some of the top-line tasks of our project plan.
- The project budget was established: Where is the money coming from and how much is this all going to cost? Scenarios were run and contingency plans were defined.
- Identify and manage risks: The biggest risk in this plan was permitting by the county. We assumed a realistic certain number of weeks, but there was a real risk that the County could take longer to approve the plan and give us the green light to commence construction.
- Implementation takes place: This is where everyone working on the project rolls up his or her sleeves and gets to work.
- Regular executive updates against the project plan: The families who signed contracts and committed to coming to the school is who we answer to. We made a commitment to be ready to open school on September 8. The Friday Updates were our weekly updates on our progress.
- Issues: There is no project where issues don't present themselves. There were construction issues - the light that lined the collaboration area was delayed by one month, a mistake in the plan had the cabinetry being installed after the inspections, but needed to be installed before so that the county could inspect the plumbing, a vendor changed their interface. These are some of the issues that came up during the project. The key is to manage through them: Manage the budget, manage the scope, make decisions quickly, rework the plan.
- System testing: This is the area that was the most difficult to perform. Software testing makes sense. But how do you test with kids? We tested our ideas through the observation sessions of the admissions process, through socials with the families over the summers, by having regular communications and by asking the faculty we had recruited. Anything that allowed us to get feedback as quickly as possible, was how we tested our ideas.
- Bug fixes: If there were things we learned about through our testing process, we made course corrections.
- User Acceptance Testing: Open Houses before the start of school! We could see the kids interacting with the space, with the teachers and with each other.
- Pre-production: There was one step we had in software, the Go/No Go decision, where you determined if the software was ready to implement. This was not a luxury we had. School was starting for this group of kids, so prioritization became paramount. For example, would neat architectural details hanging from the ceiling make things more beautiful? Yes! Do we have the time to install them? No. Are they critical to the students' learning? No. Therefore, they get moved to after school starts. Or, it's the week before school starts and the whiteboards haven't arrived. Do teachers need whiteboards? Yes! Are the whiteboards critical to the students' learning experience? Yes! So? We improvise. Buy whiteboard panels from Home Depot and screw them into the walls.
- Production implementation/Go-Live: That was today! We had excited teachers and excited kids show up at school today. We were all a little nervous because we weren't sure how it would all come together. Did it come together? Yes! Today's first day went as well as it could go.
The parallels between starting a school and software development projects are astounding! That's why I strongly believe in what we're doing in our school - teaching kids how to solve problems. Whether the problems are engineering problems, math problems, community challenges or designing experiments, giving kids the challenge, but not the answer or the predetermined design and letting them work through it, find issues, find the fixes and continue to work through those challenges is what we believe will serve them best in life as they grow up. Whether it's the scientific method, the engineering design problem or the math steps to solving a problem, it's all variations on the same theme.
When I think about what it was about my education that best prepared me for my career (or should I say careers?), it was the ability to take a problem that has no clear answer, structure a solution, and work through the solution, while dedicating time to communicating with the people who are impacted by the work that I am doing.