Hardware

A military mission: IT project in the U.S. Air Force

His boss is a three-star general. His budget is about $30 million. Talk about stress! Learn how this IT manager turned enemies into allies so he could complete a huge project while on military duty in Korea.


By John Sitek

As program/project managers, we are constantly bombarded with terminology like stakeholder, customers, project scope, project charter, and timeline. I'm not going to go over those lessons, which are frankly boring.

My concept and formula for project success is to create the win/win situation. Look for it, embrace it, and once you've found it—run with it. If there isn't a win/win situation around you to use, then make one.
This article was written by Master Sergeant John Sitek who was chief of program management at Osan Air Force Base in the Republic of Korea during this project. Sitek said to complete this assignment, he supervised a staff of 14—including three managers. Among the contractors, six additional IT managers reported to him. His plan of attack to complete this assignment: Create a battle plan and win over new allies to support it.
A five-year project that cost $30 million
During a staff meeting, my boss handed me a seemingly small problem that turned into a five-year, $30 million project. He asked if I could look for some additional floor space in our area of operations to help out on a relocation project. The disgruntled remarks from the rest of the staff gave me the first clue of the uphill battle I was about to wage.

As I mulled over potential locations for a network of about 20 graphics workstations, I came up with a unique solution.

We processed several different types of raw signal data, and our sister unit processed several types of graphics data. But the ultimate customer was the same—a three-star Air Force general who worked next door and who was trying to run wars.

Here was my plan:
  • Put the two sides into the same work area.
  • Through ergonomic floor space use, force the workers themselves into coming up with a new way of doing business.
  • Merge all the data into a single, concise, easily understood visual report that would be dynamically updated as the situation changed.

I prepared my idea based on its strength as a solution to the relocation problem. The solution quickly marched on up the chain.

Lots of obstacles
Okay, so I had a win/win situation. Now what? All of a sudden, I had a major project on my hands with lots of obstacles to overcome, such as:
  • There was no money, no charter, no scope, and so on.
  • All these various systems were mid-lifecycle, with programmed upgrade and replacement activity through different contractors and agencies.
  • None of the systems talked on the same network or in the same language.
  • Nearly everyone below the level of command authority was opposed to the idea.

Finding the money
Slowly but surely, I overcame the obstacles and created the various timelines.

We had a suite of five workstations all being run off a bank of seven servers and data storage tape units. I'm not talking about your little DAT drive. These were the giant glass reels you often see in movies. (At least you would have seen them in the old movies. In today’s films, any bad guy with a laptop can take over the world with a few keystrokes.)

These processors were upgraded annually. One year, they underwent a software upgrade; the next year, a hardware upgrade. These actions are programmed into the annual operating budget.

I looked at the out-year cost projections. I surmised that if we were to eliminate the annual upgrades for several years, we would have enough money to complete this segment's final configuration requirements. I went straight to the operators themselves to gather my supporting data.

After explaining my plan and bringing them on as stakeholders, they quickly gave me the ammunition I needed to make a case against the annual upgrade process. Of course, the contractors were not so keen on the idea. To convince them, I explained that they could forgo all the interim changes. Instead, they could concentrate their efforts for the next several years on building their dream machine.

The plot thickens
The annual fiscal battle for funding kept the project and the dream alive. I continued to refine and merge timelines for a half dozen companies and one very patient general. He only had one constraint. There would be no system downtime allowed for any of the systems.

The year of installation was upon me before I knew it. We had chosen an asynchronous FDDI fiber ring to ride all the systems on. That way, if one segment failed, the remaining segments would be unaffected. All the systems happily chugged along while my install teams put fiber and electrical troughs under the floor using the existing maintenance aisles.

The contractors were getting a bit nervous about meeting their deadlines because they had to do their respective installations just in time. We had all the systems preassembled and loaded at their plants before shipment. This made it much easier for the installation teams, who would basically roll the system to the designated location and plug it in.

Preparing for battle
I oversimplify the site preparations. We had several crack engineering and installation teams working power, lighting, and cooling. The ceiling and lighting were replaced in a phenomenal effort. The old drop ceiling was taken down completely in one evening so that mission work could continue uninterrupted the next morning. I owe these guys a real debt of gratitude because without their dedication, nothing would have gone as scheduled.

Because the contractors all depended on each other to meet their respective deadlines, they kept the pressure on their colleagues and offered complete hands-on support.

Anyone who has ever dealt with the major defense contractors knows how highly competitive these companies are. Imagine opposing armies bilaterally throwing down their weapons and digging a water-well for all to drink from. That image describes the atmosphere on the operation floor.

How it unfolded
  • The first systems arrived and the old mainframes were pulled off the floor, making room for the new processors.
  • Segment by segment, the old systems were carefully pulled offline and removed.
  • Segment by segment, the new systems were put online and tested, before taking over the functions of the old systems.
  • Nearly the entire summer, the work schedule continued around the clock with 12-hour days of two shifts for everyone involved in the installation.
  • Nearly 70 crates were brought in, and more than 20 loads of demolition/reclamation material were removed. In the mornings, ductwork was piled in the hallways waiting for disposal after it had been removed the night before.

The big chill
We ran into one final obstacle. After all the old mainframes were removed and the floor tiles were replaced, the operations room was extremely cold.

Although our thermal calculations indicated that our overall heat load would be reduced from 25 tons to about 17 tons, we had not calculated that the ambient temperature leaving the top of the equipment bays would be five degrees colder. In other words, the cold air going into the equipment was 64 degrees and remained at that temperature.

But rather than leaving the top of the bays at 78 degrees as it did before, it was now leaving it at about 72 degrees. So in effect, we needed only about 13 tons of cooling capacity.

Out of money, out of time; install teams packing and leaving. What's a PM to do? Turn the problem into a win/win situation. Would anyone like to buy a 12.5-ton chiller for a bargain basement price?

Does it really work?
The summer drew to a close, as did the project. The final acceptance testing went remarkably well.

There were some minor glitches, as there always are when dealing with major system components, but acceptance was not a problem. We finished nearly two weeks ahead of schedule and without losing a single minute of processing time.

Not all heroic scenes are on the evening news. Not all wars are waged on battlefields. At the next staff meeting, the boss asked me if I could look at another little problem. And so, without much fanfare, I began my next series of projects.

What I learned
  • Recognize when you are up against entrenchment in old ways of doing business.
  • Turn adversaries into stakeholders.
  • Create a win/win situation for each stakeholder and for yourself.
  • Learn the value of creating a situation rather than allowing the situation to run the project.
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