The fringe benefits of proprietary software

Alastair Aitken 18 February 2013 0

Working on a greenfield project is often seen as one of the most exciting challenges in IT but being dropped into an already running project in pre-launch has its own particular excitement and challenges: picking up new work culture, familiarisation with practices, learning new names. A while back I, along with hundreds of individual contractors and many third-party suppliers, was parachuted into a huge project where every month was costing tens of millions of dollars.

Over its course, large numbers of team members were drip-fed into the project – a huge task in itself. To ensure that integration into the project was as smooth as possible, every potential team member was vetted for their experience of using the very specific tools that were being utilised on the job. There was no time for training, all members were expected to be productive within hours of joining.

Then a very strange thing happened.

One month prior to the hard launch date a completely new change management tool was implemented that affected every part of the project. This required migrating everything from the existing, well-understood tool – the cumulative results of the work of hundreds of man years. Being an unfamiliar tool, all project members had to be retrained in its use.

The tool revealed itself to be neither feature-complete nor production-ready. The company that delivered the new tool was overrun with support calls from the project. The problems were initially determined as being purely that of education, so a top trainer was flown trans-Atlantic to act as both on-site trainer and troubleshooter.

But education did not solve the various issues surrounding the tool. This was the largest implementation of the product and it was struggled to cope under heavy usage.

Problems became delays. Must-have features were still missing from the project so the launch date was delayed with resultant costs incurred.

Inevitably questions were asked as to who would enact such a change and why. It was a particularly puzzling as the existing tool was well known by all staff and, whilst not popular, it was trusted.

And your mother too!

The change decision was traced to a “change manager” who had been agitating for such a change for sometime. To use the word pugilistic would not be understatement of the character involved: only once have I seen a meeting where someone has offered to literally, physically fight anybody who contradicted him. This was a meeting that subsequently degenerated into a standing shouting match, with insults being traded regarding each others’ mothers.

It didn’t take too much digging to find out what sort of relationship existed between the supplier of the new tool and its belligerent champion. Flights and accommodation were the very least that had been traded to inject the tool into the unwilling host.

Would such a situation arise were open source software usage the preferred path? Probably not; the arrival of open source software into an enterprise isn’t often greased with money. Also, software developers are rarely a physically aggressive bunch and probably don’t care too greatly about your mother.

Alastair Aitken (124 Posts)

As a contract developer and manager I’ve worked in a wide range of enterprises in a variety of countries where I’ve encountered everything from great work, awful work, bizarre work, all the way down to quasi-legal work. If you think that you recognise your own organisation within my articles then you’re undoubtedly wrong, where you work isn’t that unique.

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