Pumpkin Carving 101: A Project Management Lesson

When the water-cooler talk at GAI Consultants turned to Halloween preparations, the get-it-done instincts of GAI Director of Project Management Dan DePra, PE, BCEE came to the fore. Sure, we’re only talking about carving some jack-o-lanterns for the front porch—but Dan’s professional gift for task organization to ensure timely and high-quality project completion is a great takeaway that illustrates the GAI approach to every project we undertake.

Here’s how guest blogger Dan tackles ‘Project Pumpkin Prep’:

Get Your Pumpkins in a Row

Determine Project Specifications & Deliverable Date, Check Your Inventory

Carve pumpkins!
Dan’s project management challenge: Carve these four pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns by Halloween!

This is how my mind works when entering into a project, regardless of how familiar or simple it seems. It’s how I’m wired—and I think you’ll find this kind of thinking common to most project management types, and certainly to the people who I help guide here at GAI.

First: What exactly is the project you need to get done? That is the key thing you need to determine with the guidance of your client. To me, knowing exactly what the client wants is always critical.

At my house, the client is my wife, and the broad spec and timeline for the project is that four pumpkins need to be carved into jack-o-lanterns in time to greet the trick-or-treating kids on Halloween.

OK–so it’s time to nail down the specifics of the job: Will the jack-o-lanterns be lit from the inside? If so, do we want to use real candles or LED candles? Do we want the jack-o-lanterns to have scary faces? Funny faces? Will two be scary, two funny? Your inventory for completing the project comes in here, too: Do we have the pumpkins? Knives? Rubber gloves? Candles? LED lights? A bowl for pumpkin innards?

Now, what do we use as guidance for our jack-o-lantern faces? Me, I’d mock up a few drawings first using some ideas from the Internet and the eager input of my kids. That brings me to my next point—assembling the project team.

Scare Up Your Specialists

Assemble and Assign Your Team

My team for this project is pretty much already set: There’s me, my 14-year-old daughter, and my 11-year-old son.

So, my project management wiring tells me that next we need to figure out what everyone is good at and start assigning tasks. Now, if I left it up to my 11-year-old son to do the actual carving, he’d just grab the biggest knife in the kitchen and I’d have to schedule additional time for a trip to the emergency room—so that’s out.

Taking into consideration everybody’s strengths and specialties, my daughter will be in charge of drawing the jack-o-lantern faces on the pumpkins, I’ll be doing the carving, and my son is assigned to digging out the gooey pumpkin guts. Plus, those guts have to go into a bowl so the client—my wife—can roast the seeds. We all have our role to play.

Dan’s gift for task organization to ensure timely and high-quality project completion illustrates the GAI approach to every project we undertake.

Create Your Monster—But Don’t Let It Run Away From You!

Get your project rolling, and know your risks

Trusting that the job is well mapped out and the proper team members are assigned to tasks that they can perform well, all should proceed as planned. My daughter is drawing great faces, I’m hacking away at her designs, and my boy is having the time of his life getting up to his elbows in pumpkin goo. But, there are a few risks to getting our jack-o-lanterns done successfully, and like any good project manager I’ve taken these risks into account.

One risk is time. One or two pumpkins could be carved into jack-o-lanterns if we start working the night before Halloween, no problem. But to complete four by the time the kids start coming around, I’ll have to build in some extra time. Most likely an extra day will do it.

Staffing is another risk in my pumpkin project. Typically, my kids are going to get bored and flake out before the job is done. That leaves me to get the pumpkins carved.

So, I can mitigate the extra workload by building in still more time at the beginning of the carving—but, in my view, I’d rather spend less time overall and just work a little harder myself to get those jack-o-lanterns carved. That’s my role as a dad and my obligation to my client: Getting the project completed and done on time, and making my client—which is my wife—happy is the important part. So I just get ‘er done!

Happy Halloween!

Now everything is ready for a nice Halloween: The trick-o-treaters know we’re ready to receive them, my kids’ creativity is fulfilled, my wife thinks the porch looks great, and I’m enjoying some freshly roasted pumpkin seeds. Mission accomplished.

As a project manager, there’s just one thing left for me to do: preparing my ‘lessons learned’ brief so Project Pumpkin Prep can go even more smoothly next year!

Contact Director of Project Management Dan DePra, PE, BCEE at 412.399.5586 with questions or for additional information about GAI’s Project Management Excellence program.


GAI Director of Project Management Daniel DePra PE, BCEE leads the ongoing development, implementation, and execution of GAI’s Project Management Excellence program. Dan has more than 24 years of diverse experience managing large civil and environmental projects, directly managing PMs and project teams, and leading companywide initiatives to improve project delivery and empower project managers.

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