Hardware

The surprise network installation: An IT manager describes his dream project

A project manager in the U.S. Air Force submitted a request to manage his dream project. He was shocked when the military approved his plan.


Every once in a while, a project comes along that is simply fun to manage. I’d like to share details about one such project I had the pleasure of supervising. It involved creating a new office automation network.

The project was a pleasant surprise right from the start. Convincing the U.S. Air Force that we needed a new office automation network was a high hurdle we didn’t believe we could clear. But it was the season to submit a wish list.
Master Sergeant John Sitek has worked in IT for the U.S. Air Force for more than two decades. He has managed multimillion-dollar projects overseas and in the U.S. As a contributor to TechRepublic, Sitek shares the lessons he’s learned from his past assignments.
Brainstorming for the best
Here’s some background information. I was working at the U.S. Air Force base in Osan, Korea, where we had about 55 workstations. Locking up your floppy disks and parking your hard drive before you went home were part of every office-closing checklist. At the time this project took place, Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95 were just gaining popularity and had not yet become the evil Goliath.

During a strategy meeting, I joined the staff in drawing up plans for the best network we could imagine. Our brainstorming session held no boundaries. Team members uttered comments like these:
  • “We could really use more drive space.”
  • “Gee, I wish we had one of those new CD-ROM drive towers.”
  • “Oh you think those are neat—you should check out those new hubs.” (Smart or Intelligent hubs were on the leading edge of network technology at the time.)

I was quickly caught up in the technical marvels everyone was describing. It was like the ultimate gift list for computer gurus. Xeon and multiple processor servers were considered the ultimate high-tech toys to have. Why not ask for two! Or perhaps we could build the entire network with fiber.

Someone on our team had heard of a new Ultimate Sun (Sun Ultra) workstation. Yet another tech described new software that allowed Sun workstations to emulate and network directly with i386 platforms. Why not ask for fifty of those and the software to go with them? By the time we finished the meeting, everyone was laughing and joking, caught up in the exuberance of a dream we knew could never come true.

File it and forget it
I combined all of our wonderful plans into a request known in the military as the “requirements submission draft.” The strangest thing happened—no one questioned the submission. Did the budget people not understand the implications of what we were asking for? Or was the request so technical that no one dared question it? The dollar figure was about $250,000 for all the toys we wanted.

I made an effort to spell out the needs of the project. That’s an essential factor to successfully navigate the gauntlet of review, scrutiny, and resource advisors (accountants and money managers).

Despite my sincere efforts to sell the project, I did not get my hopes up for several reasons. Did I mention that the U.S. Air Force requirements process was lengthy? Typical lead time for a new project is about two years. So in this case, I filed the fantasy request and pretty much forgot about it.

Christmas in the spring
One spring morning I received a call to pick up two pallets of computer hardware. I was puzzled because we weren’t expecting any shipments. No one had ordered anything that would fill two pallets. (About two tons of stuff can fit on every pallet.)

I checked with the logistics people. They didn’t order anything. Network shop? Communications? No one knew about the mystery pallets. Curious, I drove down to the airfreight terminal. On the loading dock was a pair of pallets that were piled high with computers, roles of fiber, and boxes.

I looked at the receiving bill but it didn’t give me any clues. I sent the pallets to the staging warehouse. The scenario repeated itself the next day with two more pallets. The next day, another pair of pallets arrived.

Then, I learned that a team of six contractors was arriving for a site network installation. Alarms went off in my head. These materials and the install team were arriving for our new office automation network. The dream project that I had requested—two years earlier—was becoming a reality.

It’s time to wing it
In management, you sometimes reach a point where things have gone too far and it’s best to just stand aside and see how they unfold. This was one of those times. It was too late to try and build an install plan; besides, we didn’t know what we were installing.

There was another problem. The drawings and diagrams we had were based on two-year-old information. During the past two years, we had added another 50 workstations to our LAN and migrated operating systems, among other changes.

But the money was spent. The hardware was on site. The cable installers were ready to pull fiber. I gathered the team together in the conference room along with all the network topography drawings I could put my hands on.

Let’s build a network
Crude by today’s standards, the plan essentially replaced the existing network—terminal for terminal—and added an additional 50 Sun workstations.

The plan called for point-to-point fiber installation. That is, one terminal, one strand of fiber, back to our new smart hubs. Each smart hub was capable of handling 50 input lines in their delivered configuration. Expansion slots were available, but the price tag per expansion card was too costly.

Fortunately a company called ODS had an off-the-shelf solution for switching fiber. Amazing! One switch could handle 24 terminals. Our solution fell into place:
  • Segment the network into the same workgroups we were already using.
  • Replace the router boxes located throughout the facility with these new switches.

I ordered several switches to replace the old routers and had them sent via express overnight delivery.

Meanwhile, the install team and network shop were placing new computers next to old, laying duct, and pulling fiber. As I signed for the fiber switches, I breathed a sigh of relief. I stood back and watched the new network being built before my eyes.

Lessons learned
  1. No one person can know everything in today’s wide-ranging IT industry; therefore, it’s essential to foster and build on a climate of trust with the people throughout your organization.
  2. Don't fear change; embrace it as the only constant.
  3. Don't stifle the power of enthusiasm with micromanagement. Know to step aside and let the momentum carry the project.
Share your project success story with TechRepublic. There are many reasons why you should:
  • It provides more proof of performance when it’s time for your review or when you want to change jobs.
  • It’s a great way to show your staff that you appreciate their hard work.
  • It allows other IT pros to benefit from the lessons you’ve learned.
Just post your comments below or send us an e-mail and describe your successful project in a sentence or two. We may contact you to learn more.

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