Rapid Sprints and Careful Collaboration Keep Smart Home Projects on Pace
BY MATT ALDERTON
ILLUSTRATION BY BEN THE ILLUSTRATOR
Smart homes promise to free their owners from monotonous tasks. Today, connected devices can clean floors, order groceries and maintain optimal temperatures—and soon they'll be able to do so much more.
By 2022 the value of the global smart home market will reach US$53.5 billion
With operating systems like Amazon's Alexa emerging as hubs that could unify the Internet of Things (IoT), third-party developers and device makers are ramping up the competition to create connected devices that are controlled with voice commands. According to Gartner, 8.4 billion of these devices will be in use in 2017, up 31 percent over 2016. And by 2022 the value of the global smart home market will reach US$53.5 billion—more than double today's figure, according to Zion Market Research.
“It feels like paving the road at 100 miles per hour. There's a lot of pressure to launch, integrate and announce new products.”
—Marco van den Bosch, PhD, PMP, Philips Lighting, Eindhoven, the Netherlands
Project managers tasked with shepherding smart home products from conception to consumption must stay on their toes as they navigate this shifting landscape. Ever-changing requirements, compressed schedules and a growing cadre of external stakeholders call for close—and constant—attention to detail.
“Business requirements, budgets and customer expectations are only some of the areas that are always in a state of flux,” says Tanya Sinha, PMP, program manager, engineering/R&D, Harman Connected Services, Gurgaon, India. “This heightens the need for good project managers.”
Devices in a smart home system are interconnected, which means product development teams must often build to fit partner requirements. Effective collaboration with these stakeholders—from traditional home appliance manufacturers to high-tech voice-command newcomers—is a must-have on these tech projects, says Romain Paoli, a program manager at Netatmo, a maker of smart home products in Boulogne-Billancourt, France.
“If you want to exist in the smart home space, you have to play nice with others and be open to interoperabilities,” he says. “You have to first understand what potential partners and other companies are providing, what are the strengths of their technology and products, and what is the best way to develop valuable interoperability with their products.”
Talent IQ Tested
The growing appetite for connected devices is forcing companies to compete for project talent with valuable competencies, such as cloud engineering and mobile app development. Here are three ways organizations can attract team members with in-demand skills, says Tanya Sinha, PMP, program manager, engineering/R&D, Harman Connected Services, Gurgaon, India.
Develop from within. Deploying small project teams to work on pilot projects helps organizations grow expertise internally and organically, while also accommodating steep learning curves.
Share resources. Large organizations might be able to borrow experts from elsewhere in their company. For instance, an organization's IT division can loan out its specialists to fill tech talent gaps—or help train others to expand the team's knowledge base.
Outsource. Assigning specialized tasks, such as security, to outside specialists makes sense when organizations don't have limited or short-term technical needs.
For instance, Netatmo's smart home thermostat is compatible with Apple's HomeKit, a framework that allows users to control smart home accessories via iPhones or iPads. Achieving that integration requires project teams to interface with Apple early on to ensure their devices are compatible with Apple's technology.
“When your product goes through the Apple HomeKit certification process, you have to understand what that process is and take that into account in your schedule,” Mr. Paoli says.
Close collaboration also helps smart home device makers anticipate and manage change. For projects involving the Philips Hue smart lighting system, for instance, a business development manager oversees relationships, and a system architect engages technical team members from partner organizations in order to streamline compatibility conversations, says Marco van den Bosch, PhD, PMP, program manager, Philips Hue, Philips Lighting, Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
This process paid off last year, when Philips launched a 4.5-month project to allow Hue users to control their lights with Alexa voice commands. That meant the team had to ensure voice recognition compatibility. Dr. van den Bosch's team had frequent calls with Amazon's team, members of which visited the Philips Lighting team twice during the project to gain better knowledge about lighting, facilitate market discussions and build a strong project relationship.
“There were frequent changes in insights and requirements,” he says. “When you start, you really don't know what you'll end up with, so you have to co-develop with your partners. We learned from them, and they learned from us—and that's one of the things that did the trick.”
“Business requirements, budgets and customer expectations are only some of the areas that are always in a state of flux. This heightens the need for good project managers.”
—Tanya Sinha, PMP, Harman Connected Services, Gurgaon, India
Embedding project team members with partners can also facilitate quick and clear communications when requirements shift abruptly, says Gordon Lui, PMI-ACP, PMP, senior program manager, Honeywell International, Melville, New York, USA. During a 15-month project last year to launch the company's Lyric T5 smart thermostat—including a companion mobile app that had to be approved by Apple to appear in its app store—Mr. Lui's team relocated some team members to Apple in Cupertino, California, USA.
“Having people on-site working closely with Apple helped get the needed approval for our mobile application more quickly,” Mr. Lui says.
Smart home technology is evolving at a rapid clip, which means ROI often hinges on first-mover advantage. Embracing an agile approach, especially on software development projects, helps maximize speed and efficiency when timelines are tight, Ms. Sinha says.
“Everything we do is new, and there's no one to tell us how to do it,” Dr. van den Bosch adds. “For project managers and teams, it feels like paving the road at 100 miles per hour. There's a lot of pressure to launch, integrate and announce new products.”
“If you want to exist in the smart home space, you have to play nice with others.”
—Romain Paoli, Netatmo, Boulogne-Billancourt, France
Given this intense schedule pressure, Mr. Paoli suggests project teams focus on achieving a minimally viable product. “The strong advantage we have as an IoT manufacturer is that our products have the built-in ability to be upgraded from the start,” he says. “It is better to go to market quickly with a qualitative and essential feature set and upgrade it later with new features, via software updates.”
“In the smart home sector, change is part of your daily job.”
—Marco van den Bosch, PhD, PMP
Agile can also help organizations better manage continual change, Mr. Lui says. When Honeywell International launched its first Lyric smart thermostat in 2014, it leveraged agile approaches— including sprints and daily scrums—in order to shorten the product development cycle. The company provided agile training for existing employees and hired new staff with agile experience to get everyone up to speed.
“The message from the CEO is clear. He wants to transform Honeywell into a software company,” Mr. Lui says. “We have had to internally change our culture to be more technology-focused. It's just a matter of getting people used to the new practices.”
Speed-to-market is key, but being first will only get a product so far. Project teams must also manage the user experience to deliver a device consumers can't live without. Getting feedback from end consumers in the age of IoT and smart homes is essential to make sure highly touted products deliver what's promised, Ms. Sinha says.
At Netatmo, the typical smart home product development project includes internal testing with employees and external testing with trusted parties, including employees’ friends and family, industry partners and loyal customers the company knows well. Such feedback helps the project team fix bugs and refine requirements—while mitigating the risk that proprietary details could be leaked. And in the months immediately following a launch, Mr. Paoli's teams analyze user feedback from product reviews, app store ratings and customer support tickets to develop a list of desired product upgrades for future releases.
Netatmo's R&D staff spends approximately 70 percent of their time on current projects and 30 percent on maintaining and improving launched products, Mr. Paoli says. That means teams often must juggle projects at different stages to ensure over-the-air updates can be promptly executed for years after product launch.
But some smart home product features must be flawless from the start—whether it's protecting personal information or ensuring that the device accurately translates voice commands. That's why project managers must review privacy requirements, then develop testing schedules that help the team identify flaws and ensure that products won't create problems for users when they hit the market.
For instance, there's little wiggle room when it comes to cybersecurity. Early risk assessments can help teams identify and mitigate critical issues, but third-party security experts and researchers often continue the scrutiny after the product is launched. That means project teams must be ready to hustle when a vulnerability is discovered.
For example, in 2016, researchers from Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science and Canada's Dalhousie University discovered a security flaw that could have made Philips Hue smart bulbs vulnerable to hackers—a threat that could have allowed attackers to control the lighting from up to 350 meters (1,148 feet) away. The researchers notified Philips, which then patched the flaw with a security update. The urgent need for the fix required Dr. van den Bosch to lend team members from an active project to the update. To keep the project on schedule, he shifted certain activities to a later stage.
“We have had to internally change our culture to be more technology-focused.”
—Gordon Lui, PMI-ACP, PMP, Honeywell International, Melville, New York, USA
“In the smart home sector, change is part of your daily job,” he says. “In order to deal with that, the most important thing is to have the right mindset. Change shouldn't demotivate someone—the only way to succeed is to be agile and embrace it.” PM