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Three Years on Mars! How to Give a Progress Report Like JPL

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Curiosity Rover

I chose to use this video because it’s a good example of the 5 things you need to know when presenting a project progress report.  It’s a little tongue in cheek, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.  Best of all, it’s a short one so it won’t take long to work your way through the article.

So…  What can we learn from Ashwin Vasavada in his report on the Curiosity Rover’s Three Years on Mars?

Know your project

Ashwin first gives a background story about the previous Mars Missions that lead up to his project the Curiosity Rover.  He then introduced the achievement of his project to date, that the Rover had travelled 11 kilometres from its landing site to Gale Crater.

With the introduction finished, he was able to expand on some more of the events, that the Rover spent the first year ‘traversing ancient stream beds’ and drilled samples from the lake floor.

During the next year, the Rover travelled a great distance to Mount Sharp and that’s when some setbacks regarding the wear and tear on the Rover’s wheels were discovered.  Ashwin didn’t try to hide this as a problem, instead he made a note of it and then explained how engineers had to overcome this challenge in the future.

After reaching the milestone destination of Mount Sharp, Ashwin began to describe what the Rover did when it got there.  That gave an explanation for going there in the first place.  As you’ll have seen from the previous article and the headings below, it is important to know where you are, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there.

In this case, Ashwin literally talks about where the Rover is, where it is going and how it is to get there.

As with almost every project, not everything is done by one person.  At two minutes into the video Ashwin introduces the rest of the team, and the fact that there is also a reconnaissance orbiter taking pictures so the team on Earth can plot a safe route for the Rover to follow.

A short explanation of what the other team members do and how they do it is given and they have their moment on video too.

Even though this was a short and sharp update, we are left in no doubt the enormity of the task and the effort required to get this far.  We are also left with a positive note that there is more to come and that we can leave feeling optimistic about the project.

Know your audience

This video is clearly directed towards the general public who may have little more than a passing interest in the Curiosity Rover project.  Notice the preparation in making eye catching graphics.  Note also the choice of language, almost no technical language was involved and the more complex words used would still be understood by anyone with a little High School education.

The video also serves as a point of public interaction with the project; it is something that is easily shared and freely available.  This ease of access by the public lets the Jet Propulsion Laboratory get their message out to the wider world as this video is intended for more than just the stakeholders such as employees or those providing funding.

Know where you are

We can take this heading in two ways, knowing where we are spatially and knowing where we are temporally.  In this report in particular we are referring to both.

We heard Ashwin make comment already that the Rover has made it from the landing site to the foothills of Mount Sharp.

We also heard Ashwin give a timeline of events that places the Rover at three years into its journey.

Part of knowing where we are is also knowing where we’ve been.  By including past events, places and times we give context to our current circumstances.

Know where you’re going

Throughout the video we hear Ashwin talking about the geological formations that the Rover investigates.  We can tell from this video alone that the purpose of the Rover is to investigate the makeup of the planet Mars.  Several times we hear Ashwin talking about the chemical makeup of the planet being able to support life as we know it.  This search for new and interesting formations and chemical signatures is the reason the Rover is travelling to where it is going.

Knowing where you’re going is also as philosophical a question as it is literal.  We could be going where we are going for no other reason than that we’ve never been there before and want to know what is there.

Not all project managers will have the flexibility or budget to do things just for the sake of doing them, but then again, some project managers will do things only for the sake of doing them.  It really does come down to knowing the project and knowing what you should have by the end of it.

Know how to get there

Knowing how to get where you’re going is often the most difficult task of all.  In this short video we saw the immense time and labour that went into exploration before this project even began.  Starting 50 years ago with the Mariner mission, the Mars Curiosity Rover can only do what it does with the years of knowledge and research that was made in the many projects beforehand.

We see in the video the direct way that the project managers draw the maps to get the Rover from where it is to where it is going.  A team on Earth analyse and compute routes based on data submitted by a satellite orbiting Mars.  That alone is a pretty incredible concept, but at the same time it is so fundamental to the rover’s success it almost goes without saying that you’d have such a setup.

The engineers had to overcome problems with the wear and tear on the Rover’s wheels, and determine if they could even make it to where they wanted to go.  I’m sure that wasn’t part of their original plan, and they had to improvise as time went on.

Conclusion

Here we have seen Ashwin Vasavada give the public an update on the progress of the Mars Curiosity Rover project.  Ashwin’s report could be broken down into the 5 points given in the previous article on how to present a project progress report:

  1. knowing the project,
  2. knowing the audience,
  3. knowing where the project is at,
  4. knowing where the project needs to be, and
  5. knowing how to get there.

By using this video, we have been able to see first hand how the 5 points can be used to present a project progress report.  I hope this article and video give you some inspiration on how to present your own project progress report sometime in the future.  If it has helped, please let us know in the comments below.  Because when you share your own experiences we all learn something new and become better people.

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