Inside the project from hell

Witness the chaos when a new development gig turns out to be 'hell on Earth'. Names have been withheld to protect the innocent

I spent my first seven years in the IT sector as a midrange consultant, doing custom programming for IBM AS/400s. Years of successful projects left me confident in my skills — I did everything from warehouse management systems to accounting. I guess you could think of it as custom ERP, but long before ERP became a buzzword.

Shortly after Y2K, I left a comfortable job to sign on with a transport company. Hell on Earth! The company had hired me as the project manager of a million dollar payroll and HR implementation — basically to decommission some homegrown software and install a new commercial package — but when I came on board I quickly found myself in the middle of a war. There was little buy-in from the people who'd be using the new software: In fact, HR and payroll hated it. Also, the original developers of the old software were still there and hadn't even been consulted. So you can imagine their level of support.

The IT director was such a colossal jerk that no one wanted to speak to him, much less cooperate with him. And a staff of four consultants from the new software vendor was recklessly running up $10,000 per day in expenses and producing no work of any noticeable value. Then, in the middle of this catastrophe, after a month's worth of meetings, the vendor's project manager quit, leaving us not one scrap of documentation. (I figured all the typing he'd been doing on his laptop was working on his CV.) Then his replacement worked for exactly one week before leaving the project. It was a disaster!

I rallied up the troops, drew on my technical knowledge, and put together a 60-page proposal to scrap the implementation, bail out the team, and save the company at least $500,000 by using my local people — sending home the high-paid guys — and writing custom software. I could see that the project the IT director had laid out was never going to fly. The CIO presented my proposal to the board and executive management. He had encouraged me, and I was eager to produce.

Oh, how naive I was! When the executive sponsor read my recommendations, he became irate (as did the rest of the company's C-whoever-Os), and the CIO quickly turned on me and labelled me a loose cannon. I lost all support and got transferred to a data warehousing team, where I worked as a web developer for a few weeks before I left for another company.

You can guess how the story ends. Shortly after I bailed out, the CIO was fired, the IT director was demoted, the software vendor sank all its money into the ASP craze of the early 2000s and was acquired by another company. And now, five years later, the project is still not fully live. It has ended up costing the company millions, and the company is still running the same payroll software it started out with. What a waste!

As for me, I have never been happier than where I am now, holding down a senior management job at the corporate office of a regional retailer. I have decision-making power, and I can assure you, there will be no off-the-shelf software in this house.

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