by Leon Rosenshein

Engineering Project Risks

I’ve mentioned Gergely Orosz before. He currently writes the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter and has worked at Uber, Skype, and other places before deciding to write his newsletter full time. He’s written about lots of interesting things, so check out his newsletter if you get a chance.

For those who haven’t subscribed to his newsletter, he also posts teasers and summaries on Twitter. One of them is about Engineering Project Risks. 7 types of risks and how to manage them.

  1. Technology
  2. Engineering Dependencies
  3. Non-Engineering Dependencies
  4. Missing Decisions/Context
  5. Unrealistic Timelines
  6. Not Enough People/Bandwidth
  7. A “Surprise” Midway Through the Project

All very real and valid risks. And the mitigations are pretty good too. There’s another one though, a combination numbers 1, 2 and 4, that I wanted to bring up.

It’s the New Domain issue. Consider the case where you’re part of a new team being formed to address pain points in a domain no one on the team is familiar with? Someone with domain experience has identified a very real pain point. They’ve also identified a direction for a technical solution. The team now needs to figure out how to design and implement something that eliminates the pain point(s).

There are multiple things you’re dealing with at once, and all are important. I’d say they break down into 3 major areas:

Team Dynamics

It’s a new team, so all the issues a new team has are in play. The team will go through at least the first 3 stages of Tuckman’s model. Critical at the beginning is building trust. Trust that the idea makes sense. Trust that the team has the support it needs. And most important, trust within the team.

The best way to build that trust is Honesty and openness. Everyone saying what they know, and admitting when they don’t. With a foundation of trust the forming and storming is minimized and the team can do its norming.

Domain Context

Not only does the team not know each other, they don’t know the space they suddenly find themselves in. There are folks in the domain that are using existing technology. They’re using jargon and acronyms that the team doesn’t know. They have a set of shared beliefs about what they can’t touch and why.

Here, that lack of context is also one of the team’s greatest strengths. Asking questions to learn, and then sharing the new info across the team helps generate trust within the team and between the team and stakeholders/partners/customers (see above). The lack of context also lets the team look at things in new ways. After all, one of the 4 categories of information is the things we know that just ain’t so. As a new team without context you don’t know those things, so you ask the questions and approach things without those blinders on.


Sure, there’s lots of ambiguity, and there’s no existing code. You probably think you’re working on a greenfield project. But really, it’s a brownfield project. Unless you’re doing something entirely self-contained, you have dependencies. If nothing else, there’s the hardware and operating system you’re using. And way more likely, there’s a lot more you depend on. You’re using libraries and tools and systems that are developed and supported by other teams. Other teams with their own goals and priorities.

Here the lack of context and ambiguity is working against you. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you need to clear up the ambiguity. You need to figure out what you don’t know, then identify you’ll figure it out. You need to identify the dependencies and their limitations. How you’ll work with them. Again, openness and honesty are your superpowers here. The more open and honest you are, the better the answers you’ll get.

And of course, once you get through the special risks of a new team working on a new project in a new space, you still have to deal with the same set of risks as any other project. For that, I refer you back to [Gergely’s list (above).