Thursday, June 11, 2015

It's a technically elegant solution

This is a true story. The company names have been changed.

The schedule

Acme Corporation, a European manufacturer, was implementing a new billing and accounts receivable system. Acme engaged their implementation partner, Standard Consulting, to develop the data conversion programs.

Acme’s legacy billing and accounts receivable system was more than twenty years old. It was running on hardware and an operating system that were no longer sold. In addition, it was custom software, developed by a person who was no longer available to support it or explain how it worked.

The client team made high-level decisions about what data they needed converted to their new system to support internal and external reporting, as well as long-term billing needs. They wrote these requirements in a strategy document, which they gave to the Standard Consulting project manager.

Standard’s project manager assigned a technical team lead to review the strategy document, and prepare a schedule and cost estimate. Standard’s project manager was satisfied with the schedule and cost, and so was Acme. The data conversion programs were to be ready for testing by the client team in five weeks.

Falling behind schedule

After three weeks, the data conversion budget was half used. This was about as expected. However, the technical team leader had not submitted her status reports, and when pressed, provided only vague verbal reassurances that everything was under control. She seemed unclear on how she would know that her development team was finished.

Although there were several components required to convert the billing and receivables data, there were no components ready to test by the five-week deadline. Again, the technical lead was vague and assured the project manager that the programs were progressing.

After about seven weeks, programs were ready for testing, and the client lead was asked to review the sample data in the new system. The client lead was shocked. This data wasn’t even close to what was required. There were significant differences between what was stated in the high-level requirements document and what had been developed. In addition, there were several components that had not been built at all.

The technical team lead was disappointed, as she had developed a perfectly elegant solution to the technical challenge of extracting data from the legacy system, and the client was not appropriately appreciative of the effort or outcome.

Getting the programs corrected for go-live

The Standard Consulting project manager added a business analyst to the technical team. He was to review the design of the conversion programs compared to the requirements, and determine what re-work and new development was required. However, there were no detailed design documents to review, only the original high-level strategy document. The business analyst assessed each component by developing the detailed design, working with the technical lead and billing lead to solve discrepancies between what was needed and what had been built. Standard Consulting was committed to delivering what had been committed to Acme. Significant parts of the data conversion programs were re-written, and the missing components were developed.

Testing was very time consuming. The programs had not been built for the volume of data and complexity that was really required. As a result, whenever one bug was fixed, others would appear. More than a dozen rounds of testing and re-work were required for some components. The client couldn’t keep up with the testing, so Standard had to provide additional testers. The data conversion costs went three hundred per cent over budget. The client and the technical team worked nights and weekends to complete testing and program revisions.

The go-live date was not delayed. However, only the basic functionality could be used right away, because not all of the conversion components were ready. The technical team continued to work for another month to complete the remaining components.


The project schedule prepared by the technical team leader should have been the first sign to the project manager that something was amiss. The technical lead had been focused on the technical complexities of extracting data from the legacy system, and had planned only technical deliverables. She had included a task for preparation and a milestone for sign off of technical design, but no preparation and sign off of detailed requirements.

The next sign of a problem was the lack of status reporting from the technical lead. When she tried to give just vague reassurances, the project manager was rightly concerned, but should have pushed harder and earlier for proper status reporting, with progress described for each component. This would have allowed the project manager to identify earlier that components outlined in the strategy document were missing.

In the end, the client go-live deadline was achieved, and all of the components were finished. The data conversion programs ran successfully and loaded correct data into the new system. However, the client was not happy. Acme was not interested in the technical elegance of the delivered programs. What they wanted, and didn’t get, was programs that met their requirements and were delivered according to the originally agreed schedule.

Copyright 2015 Debbie Gallagher