thomas

@thisisthomas

When project delivery goes bad

Projects spawned in the mouth of hell

Who is there, my friend, can climb to the sky?
Only the gods dwell forever in sunlight.
As for man, his days are numbered,
whatever he may do, it is but wind.
-Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George
The sprint retrospective was going about as well as could be expected

Hell is empty and all the devils are here

Don’t trust those smiley affirmative the-universe-will-provide types who go -I have no regrets.

Only sociopaths have no regrets. Presumably, sometime after man’s first disobedience brought woe unto the world, mortal taste and all that, even god, 1000 yarding it through the bottom of a whiskey glass late at night, be like –oh, maaaan!

I got plenty regrets. And in computers, those regrets generally come somewhere in the middle of the how many-eth night you’re trudging on a death march against a towering deadline you don’t have a hope in hell of making, stacked empty pizza boxes a greased monument to your failure to build anything more meaningful than trash that’ll go into the recycling next time you get round to cleaning. I don’t even really like pizza. But it’s passed into lore that techies perform to pizza like dolphins to sardines and so managerial types keep on running the math that cardboard pizza adequately compensates for all the overtime.

The customer loathes you, you despise the customer, the project manager thinks the technicians are lazy bums, the technicians wonder out loud if the managers, given an accelerometer and an orienting frame of reference, would be able to find their own backsides — an inability all the more surprising when that’s where most of the deeply unmotivating motivational speeches seem to be coming from. But everyone involved, everyone really hates the salesman.

The salesman doesn’t hate anyone, because he’s off somewhere sunny enjoying his bonus. Because he already got his bonus on signing the deal, not on actual delivery, nor even for making promises that’re even vaguely realistic in a continuum where parallel lines never meet.

You regret the corners you have to cut to make it over the line, you regret your bleeding fingers, you regret your irradiated raw eyeballs, you regret how good it could have been if you only had a bit more time, you regret the life you’re missing out on, the birthday parties you didn’t attend, the concerts you didn’t go to, the restaurant bookings you had to cancel, you regret the love interests to whom you can’t even really explain the why without getting into heavy tech specifics that they have no interest in anyway, you regret the whole sorry state of an engineering industry pretending to be a customer servicing business, you regret the sense of pride and duty that won’t let you do a half-ass job even under these goddamn circumstances. And no one will be positing rhetorically that your glory can’t fade either, because whatever you have just busted a hump getting done will be superannuated in less than 5 years. And no one will care. You won’t even care. And you will regret that too.

You wonder idly, if you left for the airport now, you could be somewhere sunny before tomorrow, track down that bastard salesman, throttle him in his sleep, make it back before anyone even knows you were gone. Even if they caught you, no court in the land would convict you, right? You got cause.

Redefining the measure of success

It’s a quintessential human trait: we stumble ball-deep through sewers of our own making, mired in foetid excreta, and we still take the time to stop and to ask -just how did we get this far into the shit? Organizations take the time to call meetings on this right there in the stygian gloom, wallowing in their effluvia as they choke in the miasma. Never again, they say, lessons have been learnt, celebratory flagellants. At this point you don’t need a paddle, you need a steamer. Try slipping that by procurement.

The worst start redefining what success means until they can hail blatant failures as heroic successes. Governments are pretty good at this sort of thing.

And here you are, in the dead of night, you ask -Where did it all go so horribly wrong? And it’s one of those worldly ironies that it’s not normally all that difficult to answer that question either, all other things being equal. Because you know. . . like the man said in impeccable dactylic dimeter: someone had blundered.

The difficulty is more normally to get the right people to admit what caused the problem, given that the right people are usually the ones who catalyzed the cascading failure in the first instance. The right people being the right people in that they’re the ones who could have done something about it, but in all other respects they are the wrong people. Dunning Kruger writ large.

Hell, I’m not even naive and idealistic enough anymore to hope that the jabronis who cause the problems will have a moment of clarity, if not basic decency, and actually admit that, yes, in hindsight, yes there is a problem here and yes in hindsight that problem is one that we created and having said all that, here’s a vaguely realistic plan for how we’ll fix it. I’ll settle for them just not doing it again. A teachable moment, of sorts.

Fat chance, sonny jim. Whisper it, I’m also not always all that convinced that maybe I didn’t have a bigger hand in the failure than I thought I did. Should have fought harder, been smarter, quicker off the mark. There’s an Xtina song in there somewhere.

As an employee, there’s not a helluva lot you can do about this dynamic. Yours is not, usually, to reason why. As a freelancer, or a business owner, assuming you’re sensible, you get warier about barging in with timbs where angels more normally fear to tread. Even so, keeping with Pope, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

Hellmouth projects take on a life of their own

it’s alive! it’s alive!

Hellmouth projects achieve biogenesis by evolving a malevolent homeostasis of sorts. The hellmouth maintains its perverse momentum by endergonic metabolic reactions that suck any chance of achieving positive results out of its hosts as a precursor to full-blown metamorphosis into a facultative ectoparasite.

It lives, in short. Like Swamp Thing. It’s hungry too. The hellmouth consumes energy for its own parasitic political purposes, energy that should have been spent delivering the end-product instead. Sort of like the Straumli Blight, once woken unstoppable by nothing short of a destructive spasm in space-time that destroys both contagion and host.

And then while you’re there, wondering how it went so wrong, you marshal the sorry remainders of your synapses to extricate some sort of redemption from the doom: satisfy the stakeholders, satisfy the customer, survive this thing somehow. You wonder with former District Attorney Dent whether you can be a decent man in an indecent time?

Baobabs start out by being little

The time where you get to fix a project where everything goes wrong is before it starts. Anything later than that is too late. Measure twice, cut once. There’s no Buffy to save you once the hellmouth opens.

I’m not even going to bother with the numbers. If you’ve worked anywhere within the ambit of IT you’ve lived this, nevermind seen it. If you thought it was just you, take heart: see the various stats from the likes of Gartner and Standish’s CHAOS over the years — something in the area of 70% of IT projects fail. The bigger the project, the bigger the fail. You could probably nitpick over the data gathering methodologies of these studies, so let’s just say that the number is way too high, whatever it is.

Given those mistakes that you laughably name your experience, you get better at spotting the signs of trouble in advance. Assuming you don’t spend all your time justifying previous failures instead of learning from them, you develop a combat mindset, tingling spidey-like in the presence of implausible project objectives, duplicitous salesmen and enervated project managers. Like a quaker, you don’t swear oaths. Oaths, not oats.

All promise outruns performance

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you don’t understand empirically what promises you can keep, you shouldn’t be making them. Especially if those promises are what a civil court would refer to as a “contract”. That’s not quite the same as promising to eat more vegetables and do more exercise this year. Also, if you’re unclear what empirical means, stick to the golf.

Sometimes this means saying No to customers. This is hard. Customers come to you in need, and in their desperation they can push hard to get to hear answers they want to hear, rather than the answers that they need to hear. They’ll put you on the spot to commit to a guaranteed fixed price and a deadline when you don’t fully understand the full scope of the delivery yet.

Unknown Scope of Delivery, Fixed Price and Immovable Deadline, three horsemen of the project delivery apocalypse. The Fourth Horseman is the idiot who is willing to engage on those terms. At best the idiot is jejune, committing the crime of credulity and unwarranted optimism, at worst it is deliberately and disingenuously profiteering in the short-term even though the long-term cost & reputational damage far outweigh any overall benefit.

The Fourth Horseman: “. . .and Hell followed with him.”

postscript:

Wow, that took a dark turn pretty quickly, huh? I wrote the above while I was thinking about how a lot of companies generally behave when projects go wrong, and the flashbacks that overpowered me somewhere around para. 4 weren’t your pleasant Woodstock type.

None of the above refers to any project past or present of 345. I was thinking of the time I spent in the trenches way back in the beginning of my career — sadly probably an all too common malaise in this industry — when you’re still junior enough to have to put up and shut up.

In fact, not following the script for these nightmare scenarios is sort of the point of 345. I was fortunate enough to meet great business partners some years ago and we all share a vision of doing things differently: a large part of the reason that we started 345 was that we want to deliver great software that makes all the difference for happy customers, rather than being yet another IT consultancy that specializes in politicizing excuses for non-delivery.

If you too are sick and tired of IT projects that fail before they even begin, and want to talk about how we can work together to buck the trend and have great IT project delivery instead, get in touch here.

Stay safe,

-T x

Originally published at www.345.systems on March 31, 2017.

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