The “Perfect” Cup of Coffee: The Project Cycle
Let me admit something up front: I didn’t start drinking coffee until I turned 40.
In our current caffeinated society, where 32-ounce morning coffee thermoses are the norm, this must sound pretty backwards or maybe unsophisticated. Truth be told, I thought coffee tasted bitter and had an acidy aftertaste. Unless I put so much sugar and milk into my coffee that it started tasting like coffee ice cream, I wouldn’t drink it.
It came as a bit of a surprise when my office mate, Oscar, announced that he wanted to try making coffee from scratch in our office. It surprised me, because Oscar was not known as a great coffee connoisseur in our organization (I am not even sure if I ever saw him drink coffee). But Oscar had a natural curiosity about how things work (probably why he was as good of an engineer as he was). Oscar grew his own chili peppers and tomatoes, made his own bread and pasta, built his own addition to the house, and was always willing to roll up his sleeves and learn something new.
Oscar started coming in an extra 20 minutes early every day to get the coffee going. The process was pretty simple. He would buy wholesale unroasted coffee beans (they can be bought by the pound and look like little green peanuts and have a vegetable like smell), measure off how much he needed, roast the beans using a little portable roaster, let the beans cool, grind the beans, and then depending on how he felt, either use a French Press (making coffee without a paper filter) or a brewing coffee pot (making coffee with a paper filter) to make a cup o’ Joe. Should be simple to make a perfect cup every time.
When I came into the office on the first day of Coffee Making 101, the whole office smelled fabulous. Between the roasting, grinding, and brewing, the beans released a wonderful aroma that, regardless of your taste in morning drinks, made you want to try some. It took a few tries to learn how NOT to set off the fire alarms during the roasting, but eventually we figured it out.
I slowly got involved in making and, later, drinking the coffee too. At first, the process, which appears to be very simple, but involves decision making at every step, appealed to me more than the drinking of the final product. But eventually, my taste buds must have changed, or maybe being part of the process made me more open psychologically to liking the taste – I became a coffee fan. Not a 32-ounce type of fan, but a real fan nevertheless.
From this simple act of doing something different and making coffee for ourselves and our co-workers, I unexpectedly learned a lot about my interactions with people and even started seeing parallels between our technical work and the process of making a good cup of coffee.
Before I go any further, let me just say that what I “learned” is all common sense stuff, that everyone reading this already knows, but we can’t all be omnipresent like Planet Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, so it is good to be reminded of some things:
Know Your Product, Your Process, and Yourself
The thing about coffee that is exciting, for a geek like me, is that there are thousands of varieties of beans grown in different geographical locations with different climates, soil, and cultivation methods. In fact, coffee beans are like wine and cigars, sometimes it feels like someone is just making up names to sell you something new.
In reality, only certain types of beans were realistically available to us. We were either limited by our ability to find exotic pre-roasted green beans or by the astronomical prices. No matter how much I like coffee, I have a problem paying $10 for a cup (I have a problem paying more than $2 for a cup of coffee!). We had to match the varieties of beans that we could get, with the roasting times that we could implement on our little non-industrial portable roaster. Some beans are higher in caffeine, some beans are more acidic, some are more flavorful, and all of those characteristics can be either accentuated or downgraded by the selected roasting time.
So we had limitations, set by our budget and equipment constraints. But within those constraints, if we knew the qualities of our raw material and the process we could put them through, we had a wide range of possible products. Oscar called it “wiggle room.”
Nothing makes your customer feel more comfortable than talking with a person who can give them a clear path forward for choosing their cup of coffee, can give them a simple run down of the process involved, and can assure them of the result because of their familiarity with their product. Confidence AND appreciation develops all around.
Every time I go into a meeting with the stakeholders of any of my projects, I keep that in mind.
Everyone Can Have a "Bad" Day
Being an engineer and working a lot by myself in the office, I sometimes forget that not everyone always comes into work “even keeled.” It’s nice to believe that since we are all being paid a salary, we will all perform our duties with good humor and grace, but that is not always true. People are affected by their lives outside of work and by whatever else makes us individuals. Everyone can have a day feeling “off,” and it is during days like these that my job as a barista (and a human being) was to recognize that and see if I could do anything about that.
Keep Customers Engaged and Involved in the Process
In order for them to understand what’s going on and be satisfied with the final product, it's important to remember to keep your customers involved, engaged, and in the loop during the entire process.
Have you ever heard of an engineer who was given an assignment and disappeared into the lab for three months without communicating with anyone? Who needs multiple design reviews, when you can just hold one final design review?
We all know that engineering doesn’t really work like that. You first have to engage the end user to figure out their requirements. That is an “art” and deserves a whole write-up in itself, because the journey of discovery that results can be exciting and TOTALLY unexpected. But even after the requirements are decided upon (and we all know they will change before the project is over), it is vital to keep the customer updated on your progress, to honestly describe your challenges AND your achievements. Nothing develops more confidence than an open communication between all parties.
To re-phrase the famous Tolstoy line: “All successful projects are alike; each failed project has failed in its unique way.”
And what all successful projects have in common is a deep understanding of the project at hand, which is always developed by clear communication between all parties.
With coffee, it’s easy. The whole process only takes from three to five minutes from the Requirements Phase to the Delivery Phase, and most of the communication is disguised as morning chit-chat (but don’t be fooled, it’s all important stuff!). For a project that takes 2-3 weeks (months? years?), it is a lot more challenging (and important) to establish the lines of communication and the protocol of information exchange.
Understand Your Customer and Their Requirements
Don’t give a flavorful acidic brew to someone with a sensitive stomach, just because YOU think it tastes great. Don’t make a strong earthy tone cup for someone who tells you they like lattes, just because YOU are convinced that is the right way to drink coffee.
Listen and try to educate your customer, but always communicate and be clear about final results.
Tweak the Process: How to Make Things Better?
The wonderful thing about making coffee is that it’s an “analog” sort of process. The quality and quantities of coffee involved, the speed of the grinding, the timing of roasting, the delay between roasting and brewing, and the method and duration of brewing are almost all infinitely adjustable. The experimentation is required to acquire working knowledge of possible results. The experimentation can be endless – and endlessly fun.
I liked the fact that by being precise, we could pretty much duplicate results for those customers who just liked one thing day after day, but at the same time we had plenty of “wiggle room” for those customers that were adventurous and wanted to try something (slightly) new every time.
Processes are put in place because having a set procedure takes the guess work out of producing a consistent product, but blindly following a procedure, without thinking and without understanding what every step represents, erodes an over-arching awareness of what is being done. That in turn will eliminate the ability to change the process to either make it better, when new technology arrives, or to be able to change the process in response to new requirements.
Always know not only “how,” but also “why” – and always keep thinking about how to make things better.
"Sell What You Got" and "Manage Expectations"
Even before I started drinking coffee, I have always enjoyed the smell of it. I am not just talking about the coffees that have been infused (like taking a whiff of vanilla hazelnut flavored coffee that smells like a slice of a cake), but just the rich deep earthy aroma tingled with a subtle chocolate flavor that regular roasted coffee beans have. I always expected coffee to taste smooth, thick, and chocolaty, just based on the smell. Now I appreciate the smell for itself and the taste for itself. Both play off each other and contribute to the pleasure of drinking coffee, they also contribute to realizing that sometimes it is easy to build unrealistic expectations based on incomplete data.
If you sell coffee to your customers just based on the smell, you might end-up with many unhappy customers. It is very important to make sure your customers see the whole picture of what your product is. This comes back to the very first point about being knowledgeable about your products/processes and being willing to communicate with your customers.
And, Finally, Who Doesn't Enjoy a Good Cup of Coffee?
As companies and organizations grow bigger and staffs increase, it is easy to lose a sense of community at your work place. What happened to the bosses who knew everyone (and their kids and spouses) by name and kept track of how old your kids were? They knew everyone because when they held BBQs at their place, they personally served everyone.
I don’t hold BBQs (I live in California where my house and backyard is the size of a postage stamp), but I can make coffee. I get to know everyone on the team and their preferences in their morning coffee routine. And even though everyone makes jokes about the “coffee making project manager,” I never have a shortage of folks asking to join the team.
So…can I make you a cup?
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About the author: (Alex Sheikman)
I work at Ames Research Center, which is a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facility located at Moffett Field, California. Currently I am serving as a Project Manager for the development of Tiltrotor Test Rig (TTR), a test bed that will provide the Department of Defense and NASA with a new national test capability to conduct technology development, test and evaluation of new large-scale proprotors. Rotors up to 26-ft diameter will be tested up to 300 knots. More information and pictures of the TTR are available at the Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology (RVLT) web site at: https://www.nasa.gov/ames/feature/unique-tiltrotor-test-rig-to-begin-operational-runs-at-nasa-ames I have also contributed stories and art to "Robotika: For a Few Rubbles More" (Archaia), "Legends of Mouse Guard" (Archaia), "Dark Crystal: Creation Myths" (BOOM!), and self published "Kristo."
All posts by Alex Sheikman