It Wasn't a Dark and Stormy Night

by Anthony McNelly, PMP

2007 Project Horror Story Contest Winner

In fact it was bright and sunny as I flew into the airport to take over a major project as a contract PM.

I have heard these sorts of comments before, but that afternoon at the office, I started to get a little worried as I was continually introduced as "the guy who is taking over the FCM project" (not its real name), and had to smile as time and again the hearer smirked, laughed out loud, and made some asinine comment.

By that evening, I had a pretty fair inkling of the truth.

  • The deployment date had been delayed twice already.
  • The client was losing patience.
  • It was our company's major client.
  • The "final and absolutely unmovable deployment date" was dreamt up by someone on restricted substances.
  • I didn't have a team resourced to the project at all. I had a spreadsheet with a list of 24 names -- only one of which beside myself admitted to be fully resourced to this project, and he also had Production fixes responsibilities which could suck him away at any time.
  • The whole architecture design had to be rewritten as the original design was totally wrong.

All would start resolve itself over the next few days though, and I was assured that this project was now absolutely top priority for the company and money was no object. It soon proved to be correct as I looked at the project funding and did a rework of what was needed to complete it.

To be brief, the total funding for the project was 1700 hours; spent to date was 1450 hours; my new estimate based on the new resourcing plan was 14,000 (yes, fourteen thousand) hours. This project was huge, with three systems being totally revamped, each and all having to be flash-cut because a back-end database was changing at the client site. My new estimate went up to the executive board and came out approved with virtually no comment at all.

With new team in tow, and through daily touch-point meetings and new Gantt charts, things started to move. However, logistics issues continued to daunt us.

The team was truly virtual with members in every time zone of North America, plus software development teams in Asia and Africa. Finding acceptable timeslots for the many and various conference calls became my major work activity. Getting people to attend was another matter.

The technical lead was constantly disappearing to fix production issues, so many times I was left to deal directly with these programmers -- who just imploded my brain with all their jargonese and their fuzzy impressions of which issue was a major roadblock and which were minor options. It appears that in the eyes of a developer, everything is a disaster until someone else decides otherwise.

Oh, and did I mention that the culture of the company was, "don't keep to the timelines? Just fix the schedule and issue another MSProject version." I started off at version 9, and was up to version 16 in the first two weeks before I put my foot down and said "no more *$&%# re-issues, work with what we have!" I got a lot of pushback on that one.

Finally, we were ready for QA. BUT we apparently didn't have a QA or Staging environment that worked, properly anyway, and never really had. And most of the QA was done half a world away through our nighttime, calling into our local QA environment. There was no off-hours support for QA environments, so many a morning we were to learn that the QA team stopped after an hour or so because the system went down. They still managed to charge all the hours for the entire night to the project.

After all this heartache, the flash cut-over happened successfully just two weeks after the original target date I had been given, mostly because of the hard work of the team and the graciousness of the ever-patient client. We did overrun the 14,000-hour budget by another thousand or so, but I think management were so relieved to get the thing done, they pretended not to notice.

Then it was off to start all over again on a Phase 2 implementation of enhanced services.

The major Lessons Learned that the whole team agreed upon were:

  • communicate, communicate, communicate;
  • a Project Manager has to be a real SOB when tracking who is charging what to their project because that quickly gets out of hand;
  • oh and don't have project personnel also responsible for the daily upkeep of the production environment -- something that management took seriously to heart.

Anthony McNelly, PMP, works and plays in Ontario, Canada, where we hope the vast majority of his projects are less horrific than this one was.

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