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Sunday, September 26, 2010

My Project Is Slipping - And Everyone Except Me Seems Surprised!

Well, what I have predicted since the time I started working on this project has started coming to pass. The project is getting mired in technical difficulties and has started slipping in its timelines. This is a very complex project, and is the first project of its kind in my company. Everybody is alarmed that their carefully drawn-up project plans are having to be modified as the project proceeds.

I am not at all surprised. Right from the beginning, I have been telling everyone who would listen that the project timelines were nothing more than guidelines. The problem is that the project uses a data source that nobody in the company uses. Nobody knows how complete and accurate the data is. We also rely on a bunch of data from the users, and the users have not been very diligent in giving us the data.

Moreover, the business problem is not as well-understood as other problems I have worked on. Some assumptions we made early on turned out to be bad, and the project had to be rejiggered to take the correct facts into account. The problem is that we are not the subject-matter experts, so we sometimes don't even know the right questions to ask the users to uncover such problems.

We are also using a data and system architecture that has not been used in the company before. We are programming in Java, which is a new language for my team and me. Given all these uncertainties and unknowns, I am quite pleased with where the project is. But my manager insisted on putting down a week-by-week timeline early this year that went out all the way to May of next year. Talk about a waste of time! I protested as loudly as I dared, but my department seems to be getting more and more anal when it comes to benefit estimates, timelines, project plans, etc., so I couldn't talk him out of the insanity.

Now, it is the end of September, and some things that should have been completed by the middle of this month are not yet done. The problem is that the underlying business problem has changed in significant ways, and this has necessitated reformulating the problem to be solved. This has added time to the project that was not anticipated in March of this year.

I have been telling my manager every chance I get that the project timeline is unrealistic for many reasons. This is not one of those projects where we have already completed a half dozen projects in this area, using the same data and this is just another flavor of an existing project. The area is new, the data is new and untested, and the formulation of the problem is unfamiliar to us. In spite of that, we have toiled on it, and made significant progress.

Our IT department cleverly found an excuse to just drop the project and head for the hills. They couched it in terms that were quite convenient and sounded genuine, but basically, they have decided to let us be the pioneers who work with the business area and data first, sanitize what needs to be sanitized and teach them what we learn. They can then jump in and do more stuff in record time, taking the credit for fast turnarounds. It is like people using a road to get through a swamp after it has been drained first. We are the swamp-drainers and everybody thinks we are making poor progress even though they are afraid of venturing into the swamp until it is drained by us!

They are giving us the infrastructure and access to the data, but they have given up on building us a good front-end for the project. Building the front-end requires a lot of access to the data, and the data may or may not be of good quality. So, they did the smart thing by leaving the data-checking and cleaning to us instead of being mired in the effort with us. Our management has decided the program we create can be run in an automated fashion without a lot of user involvement because user involvement would require a working front-end, which they are now not going to get.

But this abandonment by IT has not cooled my manager's fervor for the project. That is not bad by itself, because I do want to go through with the project. But I wish he would lose his fanatic grip on the project timeline and give us some breathing room to get things right the first time. I am pretty sure the modified timeline is not very realistic either. I had to put in very small time increments for significant portions of the project because my manager was getting quite shrill about "missing our deadlines" and "delaying the project".

Now, the next time we hit a road bump (and we will, I am absolutely certain of that), I have to decide whether to do the right thing and take a delay to work the problem out correctly, or to just go around it the quickest way possible, and leave it for somebody else to solve the problem the right way later on. The latter would undoubtedly involve a lot more effort, but I am sick of being the person who "delays the project", so I might just decide to deliver the project on time, even though it might be shoddy under the surface and require a lot of rework later on!

So, work has been quite a drag lately. Every day I go in, I have to wonder how much progress I am going to make, and how many new problems I am going to uncover. Then, I have to decide what to do about all the problems that come up: just ignore them, pretend they don't exist and continue with my work, or take time off from work to solve the problem the correct way. The risk with the second option is not only that the work gets delayed, but also that existing work may have to be torn up and redone to account for the problem correctly.

All this would be quite exciting, even pleasurable, when management appreciates what you do, and is willing to go to bat for you to defend your thoroughness in solving the problem the right way. Instead my management is more interested in blaming me for delays and wants me to adhere to the timelines and project plans rather than making sure the solution we get is correct. That is just postponing problems for later, when they will be harder to solve, but that is an inconvenient truth nobody is interested in hearing. So, I will ignore it, just like they do, and concentrate on getting something that looks like a plausible solution out on time. My sanity may depend on that!

My tax course is covering topics that are not as familiar to me as the topics we covered in the first couple of weeks. The material is still quite easy once the rules are understood. The actual filling of the forms, worksheets and schedules is not challenging, but requires a lot of concentration and attention to detail. We took a quiz in the class, and we have to take another test this week. The quiz was quite easy, and I hope the test is the same way too. We have not lost anybody from the class as of now, but that has more to do with the fact that everyone has paid money to take this class, and they don't want to lose that money by dropping out. I can see several students in the class already making quite rough weather of the topics so far, and I can't wait to see how long they can hang in there before they decide taxes are for the birds (and the pros).

But the homework for the class is taking quite a bit of time. I thought about 3 or 4 hours a week would be sufficient to take care of the homework and required preparation for the upcoming class, but I might have to make adjustments to my schedule going forward because of the increasing amount of time required to do the homework justice.

I added a couple more posts to my blog this week. The first was a celebratory post about completing half a million steps since I got my pedometer. The second was a review of a pair of two-way radios I bought this week. My blog was also visited by someone from a new country this week. The new country was Nicaragua, bringing my country total to 151.

Now, as usual, it is time for me to have dinner, complete my weekend chores, and get ready for work tomorrow. Maybe I will have better news to report next week about my project, but I am not getting my hopes up too far!

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