Damage Control

BOSTON (05/08/2000) - One of the biggest project management disasters of late would have to be Boston's Big Dig underground highway construction project. Slated to take 14 years at a cost of $10.8 billion, the project's total price tag is now estimated at $14 billion. Little wonder Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci recently demanded that Big Dig chief James J. Kerasiotes hang up his hard hat - for good.

Of course, projects don't have to be this monumental to go awry. When it comes to IT projects that are notorious for high failure rates, you don't have to have an expensive deployment to have a disaster in the making. Sometimes even a run-of-the-mill network upgrade can transform overnight into the project from hell. Take the case of Ken Garcia, network information manager for stereo manufacturer Kenwood Americas.

In February, Garcia was about to migrate a Novell Inc. NetWare 4.11 LAN to Microsoft Corp. Windows NT 4.0. Most of the 325 employees at Kenwood Americas' Long Beach, California, headquarters had already moved to NT, but Garcia needed some outside help in switching the last group of 100 users, as well as moving about 50G bytes of files to NT. He contacted a systems integrator that shall remain nameless to discuss the project.

As any good IT executive would be, Garcia is exacting - to the point of picky - even when it comes to selecting a contractor. For one thing, the company must be a Microsoft Certified Solution Provider. Moreover, he insists that the contractor provide five to seven customer references - and he calls all of them. Garcia figures the more people he contacts, the better the chance of getting a balanced view of the contractor's work.

In this case, Garcia called six customer references and asked specifically about their experience with the person he had been working with. Everything checked out, so Garcia engaged the systems integrator to proceed with the project. Although, because of a fluke, the parties did not sign a written contract. "We agreed the project would take no longer than four weeks at a cost of $18,000, including documentation," Garcia says. The project kicked off on a Monday in mid-February. Unfortunately, the first red flag came right at launch time.

"The person I was expecting to see did not show up," Garcia says. His confidence was shaken further when the contractor began asking a lot of questions that Garcia thought any experienced network professional would have known.Says Garcia, "His skills weren't strong enough. He didn't seem to know how to do this." Garcia himself is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and Microsoft Certified Trainer, and it became clear that the contractor probably was not. But because it was only the first day, Garcia decided to give the guy a chance.

Ominous developments

Although the project scope was small, Garcia had created a project plan with clear milestones. The first week was to be spent documenting the users and shared files on the NetWare servers, as well as creating user groups in NT. By the week's end, this hadn't been done. "[The contractor] started migrating the information without documenting anything," he says. Apparently the contractor didn't follow NT's naming convention and instead used spaces in names where NT requires that there be none. Disaster hit full force.

"Users were losing their map drives, the logon scripts were not working. People were losing files, screaming," Garcia says. Chagrined that he had not kept close enough tabs on the contractor, Garcia called a meeting early the second week with his boss, the system integrator's account manager and the person who had been doing the work. Garcia stressed that he needed documentation, but first users had to be able to get back on the network. The account manager agreed to send in a senior engineer at no charge to monitor the situation. "I was not feeling good about this," Garcia says.

Pulling the plug

By the middle of the third week, the users' plight had worsened. Garcia was beside himself. Despite repeated phone calls and impromptu meetings, the contractor did not seem able to make things right. The documentation never did appear. "The problem was we didn't know exactly what [he] had done," Garcia says. Disgusted, Garcia called a meeting with his boss (the operations manager) and the rest of the network team. Everyone agreed the project was a debacle.

Garcia called the CEO of the systems integrator to deliver the bad news. The CEO pleaded for one last chance, and pledged to work at a reduced rate. Says Garcia, "He wanted to send the engineers back to finally do the documentation.

I said:'No. You were supposed to do that a long time ago.' " Garcia decided to juggle a few people in-house to get the job done.

A few days later, Garcia received a bill from the systems integrator for $20,975, for three weeks of work (including charges of $150 per hour for the senior engineer who was supposed to have been free of charge). This was more than 15 percent more than the total estimated cost of the project - and the job wasn't even done.

"I was so outraged when I saw the bill. How was I supposed to justify that to my chief financial officer? They messed up my network and then had the nerve to charge me that much?" Garcia says. He ended up paying nearly $6,000, which he figured was a fair price for the small amount of work that was actually done.

His team has completed the documentation and expects to finish the migration early this month.

Garcia is relieved that the relationship with the systems integrator is at an end, and that he did not give the company one last chance. "When the network is down, it's a nightmare. Thankfully we're back on track and we didn't lose too much time," he says.

Garcia has become philosophical in the aftermath of the failed project. The next time he hires an outside organization to do some work, he pledges to keep close daily tabs on the work as it progresses. Next time around, he will insist on a contract spelling out in great detail exactly what work is to be performed and on what timeframe. And he'll insist on a damage clause providing for reduced compensation if deadlines and expectations are not met. "That way they're motivated to make sure the project stays on-time and on-budget," he says.

Garcia is sorry things turned out this way with the systems integrator. "I like to have long-term relationships with the vendors we work with. It's important to me to have a good working relationship with my vendors."

Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer in Waban, Massachusetts. She can be reached at laurenpaul@ mediaone.net.

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