About Me

My photo
I'm a life-long New Englander, father of 4 challenging kids (I know: I'm supposed to say "wonderful", but while that'd be true, technically speaking, it'd also be misleading), and fortunate husband to my favorite wife of more than 20 years. I've got over 20 years experience breaking things as a test engineer, quality engineer, reliability engineer, and most recently (and most enjoyably) a Product Safety / EMC Compliance Engineer. In the photo, I'm on the left.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Formula for success of a project

I do a lot of DIY projects around the house. Seems to me that if you're even remotely mechanically inclined you would end up doing some, and if you're a cheap old fart like me, you'd end up doing that many more.

I have remodeled my bathroom (as in down to the studs, big hole in an exterior wall, no floor...THAT kind of remodel), my kitchen (same as above), laid hardwood flooring, pergo (which is an awesome product, really), and many other DIY projects. Having grown up in apartments my whole life (until I bought this house with my young wife and burgeoning family...then only 1 ½ children), my DIY skills have been a learn-as-you-go education.

Over the years, I have concluded that the success of any project can be boiled down to an equation (as an engineer, I like equations). I don't know what that equation is, exactly, but I know the variables, and I know that some of those variables are more important than others.

First, the variables, of which there are four:
I = Information
Ti = Time
To = Tools
Ta = Talent

Information is just that: information. When embarking on a DIY project, you should have a lot of this on hand. Things like 'how do I ensure that my shingles line up tight to each other?' Or 'how do I cut melamine without it chipping like a tortilla'? 'What sort of support is needed for the over-hang on this granite-top that is going to hang in mid-air for two feet?' In some cases, this might become "Can they really sew that back on? Will it work again?"

Research can be performed on the internet (youtube is a surprisingly helpful ally in this area), reading, asking questions of friends, family, or the fellow at the huge home improvement store. I like to ask a large number of people who I think should know the answer. Over the years, I've developed a few favorite folks, as is natural. As I ask a number of people, I figure that if I get the same answer repeatedly, that must be the right answer (or is more likely the right answer). Mind you: not all the experts will have the same answers. Keep asking, look for duplicated advice, and use what's right for you.

Time, I think, if fairly self explanatory: if you want a better result, you have to take your time and do it right. Rushing a project is a certain way to destroy the end result. Or at least, the end result will not be as good as it might have been had you taken the time. You also have to spend some time in getting information, from above. There is a point of diminishing returns, of course; you take too much time, and the job will never get done! I do that all to frequently...there are lots of jobs that I'm still working on.

Tools is an interesting subject (and the subject of another blog: “When to buy that tool”). Having the right tool can sometimes make a job a lot easier, and can sometimes make the job possible. That is, there are some jobs for which you absolutely need to have a specific tool or two.

In the simplest form, this can look like 'you can't drive a nail without a hammer'. Or, similarly, 'you can't drive a screw without a screwdriver'. Ok, you can do both of these things sometimes, but if you're going to be driving nails, get a hammer; if you're going to be driving screws, get a screwdriver.

Having the right tool for a job isn't always necessary. There are many times when you'll be able to get the job done with a close stand-in (for instance, I'm often tempted to, instead of tromping down to the tool chest, use my straight-blade screwdriver as a stand-in chisel when I need to trim out a small piece of wood that's going to be covered up anyway), but it'll nearly always save you time and will very likely get you a better end result. Also, with the right tool a rank amateur can get some things done that they couldn't without that tool.

Talent is actually a two-dimensional facet here. I lump skill in with talent, and I differentiate between the two (else, no need for lumping). To me, talent is some ability that a person is born with: they just know how to draw or sing, or they are really good with numbers, for instance. Skill is something that's learned through study of some sort, whether that be formal training under a teacher / instructor, or whether it be self-learning through trial-and-error.

At the end of the day, for the purposes of this equation, Talent and Skill are put together.

Having a talent for DIY projects can make up for a lot of things. For instance, a person who's got talent can get things done faster than a person without talent; the talented DIYer can make do with not-quite-the-right tool. They also might not have to do a lot of research into how to do a certain project: they just know how to go about doing it.

As a “for instance” to this, when cutting certain acute angles on baseboard, your compound miter saw might not be able to get a small enough angle, but the talented DIYer knows that if you reorient that work piece and change the saw's angle to one that's complimentary to the one that you're after, you can get there. That talented fellow can see this. I, on the other hand, have researched this point, have played with getting it to work, have drawn it out, have measured it, have applied a fair amount of trigonometry to understand it, and I just don't get it. I'm a bit of a talentless hack.

By the way, I've learned to try to NOT get information from a talented individual. I'd rather get it from a skilled individual. This is because, I think, the talented individual has an expectation that everyone can see things the way that they can see them. They tend to answer in not-quite-complete sentences, and expect you to know what they're talking about; they often come across as derisive, apparently appalled at your lack of know-how. Talented people tend to not know how they know what they know, and therefore don't know how to communicate what they know (especially to me: an over-analytical square-peg engineer).

So putting this all together, I've got an equation wherein:
Talent is the most important factor; probably an exponential factor here.
Time is critical...anyone can screw up a project by rushing it.
Information is probably the next most important variable.
Tools are important, but there are usually ways to get around not having quite the right tool.

What does the equation look like? I'm not sure, but I think that I have a handle on the variables and their relative importance. As I've mentioned, I'm a bit of a talentless hack: I take lots and lots of time, I ask upwards of 20 folks the same questions, I look online for information, and I almost always ensure that I've got the right tools.

I also happen to think that DIY projects are very similar to craft projects in general.

So I'm wondering if anyone else has thoughts of how they get through their projects? Where do you go for information, or are you one of those folks who just knows how to do what you're trying to do?


  1. As a man overly familiar with construction, I have to point out that there is a fifth (and arguably most important) variable: Money :)

  2. When in doubt, hire it out.

  3. A-ya...money is an important factor. All my projects are done in my "free" time with my "extra" money.

  4. You know, it's funny... as I read through this, several times I thought I came up with a good comment, only to find that you cover my point a paragraph or two later... For instance, looking through your variables, I was going to mention that Skill should be in there, but you said that later. I also was going to point out that talented folks can't always explain how to do the things they do, since they just do it, don't think about it... but you got that too...

    So in essence, this rather lengthy comment was just to point out that I had comments, but now I don't... and yet, I do!

  5. I'd like to see a list of DIY projects for the new homeowner *NOT* to try!