A lot of people ask me what I do for a living. I tell them I work in Information Technology. Here’s a typical working day.
The week has been busier than most. We were supposed to be deploying new interfaces this Wednesday. On the morning of the previous Friday, I had to break the news to the project team that it wasn’t going to happen.
This was a big deal. Those interfaces were critical for getting stock booked into our warehouses. The Operations Manager had been busily placing orders with suppliers to ensure we had sufficient stock to meet consumer demand at launch. His timelines for getting the stock booked in was fixed. Any delay would result in a delay to launch. And a delay to launch would end up costing the company in lost sales revenue.
So we hurriedly sketched out a workaround. It meant more work for me, but we would be able to get the stock booked in. I needed to deliver on the workaround and I gave myself one and half days to build, test and deploy it. I’d be rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck into some programming. It’s like a senior consultant suddenly being asked to do the job of a junior doctor. I hoped I hadn’t gotten too rusty.
I chalked this down to the pressures of working in the retail industry, where the payback period was king and projects always seemed to be end-date driven. For the uninitiated, that means: (a) investments have got to be paid back quickly, either in increased sales or cost savings; and (b) projects need to be delivered to some arbitrary date – usually fixed to some sales opportunity or another (think Christmas or Mother’s day).
Today was the weekly project board meeting, where each work-stream manager would report progress to the Project Sponsor, the senior executive who bears ultimate responsibility for delivering the project. My work-stream is ‘Integrations’ and my role is to make sure information gets to the right place at the right time and in the right format. If you’re finding this difficult to conceptualise, then think of me as a plumber. I fit the pipes and plug any leaks. I make sure the pressure is just right, so that when you turn the tap, hot, warm or cold water flows out. Except I don’t deal with water, I deal with information.
At one point I had a whole team working for me. From specialists in gathering requirements, to solution designers, to testers who made sure things were built according to designs. But as we got closer to launch, my head count was whittled down until I was left with a single tester. Perhaps, I’d downsized my team prematurely, but there was pressure from the boss to get costs down.
I’d given the programme manager advanced warning that I was going to bring bad news to the meeting, so he extended the length and pretty much gave me the lion’s share of time allocation to say my piece. I used the opportunity to give a detailed account of outstanding activities, issues, risks and mitigations. In a nutshell, I told the project board that we still had two month’s work left but only a month in which to do it. Something needed to give.
In projects, you have three key levers you always work with– time, cost and quality. If you hit any obstacles to delivery, you can extend the time you have by delaying launch. You can throw money (i.e. people) at the problem and hope that makes a difference. Or you can make compromises on the quality of what will be delivered. The launch schedule was sacred to the sponsor, and getting new people involved at this late hour would be a counterproductive distraction. The boss ultimately chose to sacrifice on quality. That meant we wouldn’t get as many sales as expected, but would still end up making more than if launch was delayed.
I would have preferred a delay to launch. But once a decision is taken by my sponsor, I am obligated to implement it as if it were my own decision. The alternative is to walk away. But I wasn’t ready to leave the project just yet. I had already given notice that I would be leaving the company in three months’ time. This would see us beyond the post launch ‘intensive care’ period. The sponsor hadn’t taken it well. Given the circumstances, I was perceived as an asset to the team and the sponsor had wanted to retain my services for upcoming projects. But as a self-employed consultant, I’m eager for a fresh challenge elsewhere.
Immediately after the project board meeting, I checked in with my sole tester to confirm progress on the remaining set of tests being run. The news wasn’t good. Several new defects had been raised with our developers. I helped the tester to reprioritise outstanding tasks and asked for a report on progress by end of the day.
I then attended a series of scheduled conference calls to review progress on launch preparation with my developers. Some reported obstacles and, as the project manager, it was up to me to remove those obstacles. I gave myself until the following afternoon to get the resolution they needed.
This was followed by a review of work stream costs and projections with a member of the programme office. The timing wasn’t good, but I had the information to hand so the review didn’t take long. I had burned through my contingency and was running over-budget, but I had managed to get my spending down significantly in the last month. This posed its own challenges. But the sponsor had kindly offered to release more money should I need it.
Finally, I checked in to confirm the status of my warehouse workaround. Again, the news wasn’t good. After staring at code for a while, checking the data, diagnosing the error and making some minor tweaks, there was success. With a sigh of relief I learned that stock was finally being booked into the warehouse. Another bullet dodged.
All this had unfortunately taken up precious time. My priority for the rest of the day was to re-formulate the launch plan so as to somehow squeeze two months’ work into a month. The plan had to be presented for review and signoff the following morning at 9am. The sponsor would then brief the Chief Executive and Chairman at 10am. For the new plan to work, I will be relying on a lot of people who each have their own priorities. That meant several phone calls and impromptu meetings to negotiate resource and costs. I was up against the clock.
But I have a personal rule that I don’t work past 7pm. Work life balance is important to me, especially as I have children that also deserve my time and attention. I left the office that day with significant work still to be done. I still had no presentation prepared. But I was confident that if I could get into the office early in the morning, I could complete what was outstanding.
I did. And, thankfully, the presentation went well.