Advanced IT Project Training...Who Really Pays?

Well, here we go again...

I just finished up a quick assignment, which was to figure out what was going wrong with a major IT project and make a recommendation on how to fix it.

Naturally I can't go into the details, but I can say it's a Fortune 500 company buying a top line ERP system, installed by a Tier 1 IT firm.

Now what could go wrong with that? (Cue evil laugh...ha ha ha ha!) project initially budgeted at a little under $60 million. As of now it's hit $141 million, they're 9 months pass the due date but looking at least at another 14 months and probably $35-37 million more. The engagement contract T&C make me wonder if there was a relationship bordering on S&M between the signing parties. There are so many other things I can mention, but I will focus on one obvious thing which seems to be repeated far too often when I get that call from a worried CEO/CIO...

The project team looked like the cast of Glee...if a little less photogenic. But most of them appeared very young, as in early to mid 20s. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a kids gain some experience.

But not with a project has run off the tracks and desperately needs some experienced hands to guide it.

And not when many of those people actually don't come from an IT background. Now, these were not dumb or lazy kids: they were spending over 70 hours a week trying to get things back on track. But smart is one thing: experience is another...and experience in a RELEVANT capacity is something else. I have little doubt many of these guys could go on to fine IT careers. But with this project, they simply did not understand enough of the detail to comprehend the real risks. They were not able to truly resist scope creep...and they were not getting the leadership they needed.

Yes, there were some senior and experienced people there and they had been for a while working through the issues, but it appears that they were dividing their time between this recovery effort...and trying to land another major project in the EU area.

I mentioned the engagement contract earlier: simply put, it was a disgraceful testimony as to the competence of the individual who signed it on behalf of the client - I am relieved that individual has moved in to "pursue new opportunities".

But enough - I wanted to get a real handle on what was happening. So, I turned back to my old days of working in shipping...and got one of the project team members more than a little tipsy at a bar to find out what was really happening and why.

She was a smart and charming lady who went to an Ivy League school...which partially explains why it took a lot of fine wine to get her to explain what was really happening.

Firstly, a little about her. She had a degree in History and was one of the top in her year. Impressive in one sense...but is that relevant? The IT firm she works for is a global colossus and has a long history of simply hiring exceptionally smart people - which she unquestionably was - and then training them up in various IT skills. She had gone through the corporate training program, and she had her PMP. But as it turned out...she took this job because she could not get a position in what she really wanted, which was a researcher for a think tank.

Sadly, she was not unique. I found out a few other people on the team were not really IT people...either in desire, degree or inclination. A few more interesting things I found out about the IT firm, and I have a few select bits below...these are her quotes.

"They tell us the first one or two (projects) are more like advanced training. We go through the simulations, but it's nothing like this...We're tested mainly on multiple choice type questions: some are really very hard, but you can pass by just getting the straightforward ones right...we're never brought in at the start, especially pre-sale...they always tell us never, ever to admit to anything wrong to a client, to always push things aside, refer it to our managers, no matter what..."

Most of the above is not unknown: during the sales pitch and project ramp up, the client sees skilled and experienced people...but then the real work comes and the young kids appear, often on their first or second engagement. But what really surprises me is that this multinational firm tells those kids that their first few engagements are really "advanced training".

Don't think the clients would be too impressed to hear that. And also, the reality is that many of these kids have a background and skillset which may not be ideal. Sure, in some cases individuals from a non-IT background end up doing superbly in a challenging IT role, but the truth is, they are not as common as many IT firms would have you believe.

At this point, I'll focus on 2 of my key recommendations:

1) Contractor would allow the client to see the complete CV of every individual appointed to the project team, or likely to be appointed to the project team.
2) That prior to commencement, the client would be able to test any individual for relevant knowledge (both in an IT and business sense). If the individual passed, they were allowed on the team as a paying resource. If not, they would be allowed to work but either at a reduced rate or not at all: this certainly caused some...animated discussions :-).

Right now, there are lawyers circling on all sides: people are trying to keep a lid on things and I do hope all can be fully resolved amicably. But I do wish the reader to understand this...

An engagement is not a training exercises for graduates. It's not the place where an IT firms leaves inexperienced individuals with marginal support while their most capable people try and gain more revenue from new work whilst existing projects fall apart.

Clients deserve what they're promised...but having said that...Caveat Emptor.