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The Dollhouse and The Dresser: A Lesson in Project Management

Andy Johnson
・4 min read

The Dresser

After moving to our new house, my kids no longer were sharing a room, and thus needed dressers of their own. Instead of buying a flat pack Swedish hex bolt puzzle, I decided that I'd dust off my woodworking skills and make them myself. I had a few tools and the space in the garage. I figured with a router, a Skil saw and a straight edge I could build the whole thing.

At the time, I was being a bit naive. Back then I hadn't done much woodworking since high school and I lacked the experience to properly estimate what would be needed to build a dresser. Undaunted I went to the hardware store, bought the needed sheets of veneered plywood and hardwood and begun work. I had my Skil saw, my straight edge and my router. First step was to rip down the plywood into the correct widths. I clamped down a straight edge and tried my hand at long Skil saw cuts. The board sagged on the saw horses and bound up the blade. Attempted it again - same results. I flipped around the setup to cut from the other direction and finished the cut. It looked like it had been cut with a cheese grater. I set aside everything and faced the reality that I needed more tools.

These tools weren't in the original budget. Thus, every pay period I'd buy a few items, slowly accumulating a proper shop. My Dad donated an old table saw to the cause. I studied, researched, binged YouTube woodworking channels. As a researched I kept building. Night by night, weekend by weekend, the dressers started to take shape. I learned ways to improve my process cheaply and effectively; for example, sheet goods need support when cutting them so they don't bind, so I put a sheet of foam insulation under the work as I cut it. I salvaged my original cut that would have been waste. The deliverable was delivered, albeit far past the original estimate.

I delivered on the project, but way over budget and past time. I learned about proper estimation and I learned more about building cabinets. I know now that with this experience I could build anything with a Skil saw, a router and a straight edge. I know this because I've built other projects with minimal tools.

Poplar and Alder Dresser

The Dollhouse

I had kicked around this idea in my mind for about 5 years. A crystal clear picture of a brownstone loft Barbie house for one of my daughters. Complete with elevator, Brooklyn style brownstone facade, perhaps even a party patio. I had been planning this idea in my mind for years, but none of my daughters wanted a doll house during that time. A week before my youngest daughter's birthday, she asked me if I could build her a dollhouse. A week. Before her birthday. She wanted a dollhouse.

I could have gotten online, paid 2 day shipping and gotten a press board behemoth that would suitably resemble a doll house. But an engineer has to engineer, right?

I drew up a basic sketch at lunch on Monday. My wife and I drove to the hardware store that night. I sat on a lumber cart for an hour in the store sketching the final dimensions and doing the cut lists in my head.

We brought the materials home and loaded them into the garage. I began work the next day. Every night I'd come home, head to the shop and start work, break for dinner, and then work until I felt I'd be annoying my neighbors with power tools. I delivered a doll house carcass with no styling details the day of her birthday. It was the only deadline I've ever missed. (The dresser never had a firm deadline.) However, she was thrilled. She played with the doll house for a week and I took it back to the shop to be finished.

It features a two story Brownstone loft, with working elevator, party patio and swing out Barbie Bodega shop.

Brownstone loft styled doll house

Conclusion

I've built a lot of software projects over the last half decade of being a developer, and I've never failed to deliver on any single one of them. To me, it's a point of honor and loyalty, and I don't intend to fail on a deadline. The managers I've had in my career have partnered with me to ensure my success, so I'll do everything I can to ensure that success. However, if there are constant tight deadlines, improper prioritization and daily escalation, you're going to get burned out. Make sure to take care of yourself. Take breaks and time off to recharge. Set reasonable deadlines and update expectations all the way from the customer to sales and project managers.

The Dresser analogy teaches that if you don't understand how to solve the problem, then you better do more research before you estimate the work. Because the alternative is blowing out scope, time and abandoning the project.

The Dollhouse analogy teaches that even the most seasoned builder can have a deadline foisted upon them. Knowing your strengths can help assess the work to be done and better communicate an estimate. However, sometimes the situation is escalated, the project is due and you just have to push as hard as you can to deliver on the deadline. And if you're not sure how to estimate the work because it's all new to you, then get help from a more seasoned veteran that's done similar work.

Neither of these situations are ideal. Prioritizing the work is key to ensure longevity of the long term project. If everything is important - then nothing is important. Managing expectations of all stakeholders and setting reasonable deadlines is key to a successful project.

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