Friday, June 5, 2015

Musical chairs

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

The project

Acme Corporation, a software vendor, was implementing their Sales Order and Payment Processing application at Standard Limited. The product was very flexible, but was also being customized to Standard’s needs.

The contract between Acme and Standard was structured so that there were no progress payments. Payment from Standard could only be requested after a successful User Acceptance Testing (UAT) phase.

The Standard project was estimated to take six months to complete, but at the five-month mark, development was still under way and the testing phase had not started yet.

A few resource changes

Acme had several staff on site doing the implementation and custom development work at Standard. During the fifth month, the project manager and architect were removed from Standard’s project to work for another Acme client. A new project manager was assigned to the Standard project, but the architect was not replaced.

Acme started to worry about Standard’s ability to pay them, as Standard’s business was struggling in the marketplace. Acme wanted to deliver the software and get paid before Standard ran out of money. In addition, Acme was concerned that Standard might sue Acme for non-delivery of the software if they didn’t finish soon. The new project manager was charged with ensuring the project was completed as soon as possible, in order to avoid the potential lawsuit, and to reduce the risk of non-payment.

The project manager assessed her team and discovered they were poorly trained and had learned very little on the project so far. The architect had been providing specific answers to questions from the developers, without explaining the business and software design background that would help them understand the product and their own work better.

The project manager also learned that the development team was sometimes building additional functionality than what had been agreed in the contract.

Getting the work moving

The new project manager immediately re-focussed the development team on the contract as the definitive guide to what was to be built, and directed that no additional work was to be done.

In addition, the project manager realized that a new architect, although not available to the project, was critical to getting the job done. She evaluated the developers on the team and found that one was a resourceful, determined person with good analytical capabilities. This developer was re-assigned to the architect role.

The new architect did whatever analysis was needed to resolve issues and was also able to teach what he learned to the other developers. Progress was being made.

More resource changes

As the developers became more competent, Acme management caused more staffing issues by reassigning them to other Acme projects where there was a greater likelihood of being paid for the work. The project manager had trouble maintaining any stability in the development staff on the project.

During the sixth month, Acme announced job cuts and laid off three of the project’s seven developers, without any notice to the project manager.

At about the same time as Acme’s job cuts, Standard announced that they were dissatisfied with the early results of UAT and would do no further testing until the existing defects were fixed.

Although the client was not contractually entitled to stop the testing phase, the project manager agreed because she didn’t have enough developers to complete the fixes. Having the testing stop allowed the corrections to be completed without new bugs being added to the work list.

The project manager needed to get the bugs fixed but was critically short of resources. Because the project was at the bug-fix stage, the project manager decided that short-term resources were adequate for completing the work. She approached other project managers at Acme and asked to borrow resources for short periods of time. For example, if a developer was not assigned for a few weeks prior to taking vacation in one or two weeks, the project manager used that developer on the Standard project.

When the existing defects were fixed, UAT resumed. The project manager continued to borrow developers for very short periods to correct deficiencies.

Time to pay

When the UAT was completed, Acme requested payment from Standard, but. Standard said there was no money to pay Acme for the software implementation and development fees.

Acme issued a legal notice to Standard that due to non-payment, Standard was not entitled to use the software.


The developer assigned to be the new architect had been reluctant to take on the role, as he felt under qualified. However, he was a good choice because he had the skills to figure out the solution to issues, and as he learned, he shared his knowledge with the developers.

Developers who temporarily could not be used on longer-term projects were a good solution to the problem of staffing the Standard job. These resources were not earning fees on other projects; so there was no additional cost to having them work on the Standard project.

The project manager had no support from her own organization to provide adequate resources to the project. However, her novel staffing approaches allowed her to complete the work so that a non-delivery lawsuit was averted.

The project manager was wise to ensure that the team delivered only what had been specifically contracted. Additional scope takes time, and time was critical to avoiding a lawsuit.

It was common for Acme’s projects to require significant customization and then run late and over budget. Acme management frequently made things worse by removing resources before the work could be completed.

Copyright 2015 Debbie Gallagher