Making an integration project both pretty and functional

Presentation sometimes takes a backseat in the heat of a project, but it’s worth considering because how something appears on the outside has an effect on the customer and their impressions of the work and care than went into creating the final product.

By MayAnn Stroup, Maverick Technologies October 19, 2016

Maverick, like many companies, starts meetings with a safety moment. Recently, we’ve added the practice of having a quality moment as well, and in one recent case, it delivered an unexpected teaching moment. A coworker was asked to give a quality moment. As a joke, he said, "Make it pretty." He was kidding, and we knew that. Then we started talking about it.

The guideline "make it pretty" is useful for reports, e-mails, and presentations. If we go to the trouble to write something down, odds are good we hope to communicate it to our target audience. For the target audience to understand it, first they must read it. If the content is easy on the eye, it’s more likely to be read. It also gives a good impression of the writer and inspires confidence in the reader. Going to the trouble of making something look good makes the audience predisposed to believe the content on the page is also good.

Similarly, "make it pretty" is a useful guide for appearing professional. It’s unwise to judge a book by its cover, yet people persist in that practice. Wearing clothing that is appropriate to our work and consistent with a given profession makes it more likely that we will be taken seriously and creates positive impressions on other people within our field.

In the controls business, no matter the appearance, any technical solution provided must work. It’s possible to create a technical solution that works and doesn’t look pretty. A marshalling cabinet looks tidy when closed, but when opened it looks like a wire factory exploded.

Imagine configuration created to solve a particular process issue. Whether programming in structured text, ladder logic, or block configuration, reaching the final solution may take several attempts. When the final solution is discovered, the program may still contain stray logic from previous attempts that is no longer used. Blocks that are used may have been crammed in without regard to the overall layout. The code may not, at that point, be perfectly documented.

In both cases, the solution works. However, it gives a bad impression of the people who did the work. The untidiness may be the result of work done to solve a time-sensitive problem in a great hurry, in the middle of the night. Rare as that might be…

The mitigating circumstances, however, won’t be evident to the next person who comes to the messy marshalling cabinet or the undocumented configuration. Especially if that person must solve a time-sensitive problem, in a great hurry, in the middle of the night. Rare as that might be…

Finding the technical solution is not enough. The next person who needs to do troubleshooting in our cabinet or in our configuration is our customer. A system is most functional and most maintainable over the long term if the cabinet and the configuration look orderly and are properly documented.

Orderliness gives customers confidence that we thought about what we were doing, and followed through on our implementation. The wiring may have looked messy after everyone left in the middle of the night, but the next day the wires were dressed, drawings were marked, and changes were submitted for the permanent cabinet drawing.

In the same way, the code may have looked less than perfect, but the next day unused blocks or commented out code were removed. Comments that explained the problem and its solution were also added. We thought about the future. We thought about our customer.

Sometimes, our customer turns out to be us. After all, wouldn’t we rather have a pretty place to start?

This post was written by MayAnn Stroup. Mayann is a senior engineer at Maverick Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. Maverick delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization, and more.

Maverick Technologies is a CSIA member as of 10/19/2016.