By John Sitek

Many project managers would envy me—my project budget was enormous. But the menacing threat I had to overcome was my deadline. I was ordered to complete the work in about half the time than originally planned.

The assignment involved completing two projects:

  • Upgrade the message handling system to increase the speed and capacity of the information manager. Add more input and output circuits along with the requisite processing capability to carry the increased load accomplished this.
  • Relocate the entire system without incurring downtime.

Master Sergeant John Sitek, who has worked in IT for the U.S. Air Force for more than two decades, wrote this article. He has managed multi-million-dollar projects oversees and in the U.S.
IT in the military
When you’re dealing with military spec integrated network systems of a different design, manufacture, operating system, etc., you’ll find some form of a switch or switching manager handling the message traffic between systems. This is especially true of the larger, older networks.

At the Department of Defense (DoD), we operate some of the largest and most extensive wide area networks (WANs) ever built. Most of them were originally designed during the Cold War era and evolved from there. I’m talking about growth that could span the globe several times.

The DoD never relies on a single circuit. Redundancy is intentionally built in. When you’re charged with handling traffic that has the potential of waking the president of the United States at 3:00 A.M., your duties aren’t taken lightly. Additionally, downtime is not allowed on these networks. One stop along the way of this vast interconnection of fiber and copper was our million-dollar information-switching hub.

Putting a plan in place
I’d been working on upgrading our workhorse information managers for about four months. I’d also spent several weeks determining how many circuits we’d require during the next five years.

With today’s intelligent hubs, adding network capacity is fairly simple. However, since the work on this project occurred during the early 1990s, each circuit added meant there was probably going to be some poor technician drilling new holes in a punch block and another poor technician carefully labeling and wiring the individual strands of copper.

I was in the process of developing the transition installation plan. This involved mirroring the system bays across from each other so that each circuit could be cut over individually once the new processors were online. It was a simple equation: set up the new system, get it running, test it, accept it, start plugging wires into it, and finally, remove the old system.

Station clock time
One detail was station clock time. Whether you’re moving traffic from point A to point C, D, or K, everything has to be set on the same clock. Otherwise, things get lost in the shuffle. We set up the new system off the same station clock. However, the only available port to the station clock was located in the old system.

The stock solution is to open up MS Project and add a subtask to your timeline. This problem was sent to the engineers instead. They developed one of those mysterious signal and bandwidth-splitting calculations only people who live inside a calculus formula can derive. This solved the problem, and we were back on track.

Get it done yesterday
It’s the question every project manager dreads: “Could we move up the timeline?”

The project that started in November was scheduled to be completed in July. Now my boss changed the deadline to the end of February.

He also decided that we were going to put the entire system in another building across the street. Despite my objections, more than a few Gantt charts were dismissed. It came down to, “Yes sir, I’ll have the project completed by the end of February, is there anything else?”

Luckily, I saw light at the end of the tunnel—literally. A tunnel connects the buildings I was working in. Moreover, all the communication lines run through the same tunnel connecting the two facilities.
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Walk it out
You’ve probably heard of “management by walking.” A decision-maker does this by walking from office to office and chatting with his or her employees for input. I conducted pedestrian project management similarly by following pipes around the buildings.

As a PM, I’ve learned that well-maintained facility drawings and plant records are invaluable tools. I traced the pipes from the old facility to the new facility. They passed through the new room and could be terminated at that point.

Devising a plan of attack
I was fortunate to have on-site support for the system I was working on since one of the original design engineers had been charged with maintaining the system.

We began with an extensive dialogue. I played the role of the customer. Here is how we mapped out the project groundwork:

  1. Trace all the lines going into the system in order to ensure we could locate a point of origin and account for them.
  2. Remove all the extra lines and pull them back in order to make room in the pipes and take any excess load off the system.
  3. Direct the cable dogs (laborers who pull copper and fiber for a living) to open up the pipes in the new facility and start splicing, doubling, and pigtailing drops into the new facility. This would give me the physical design flexibility I needed to accelerate the project.

Here comes the glitch
Cooling became a problem, as the new room was inadequately chilled to house the new system. We went back to the drawings again.

The communications center was divided into two sections. The first section (the rear) was originally set up as a storage area and was being cleared for my project.

At the very back of the second section was an area called a “sound well.” This 10’X10’ space was set into the back corner of an otherwise rectangular-shaped room. It was designed to reduce the echo that often accompanies large, open rooms with high ceilings.

Chilled water in a facility is a finite commodity. You only have so much around and it moves only so fast. In many buildings, entire floors are cooled with the same piping. This means shutting down the entire system to add more capacity or another chiller. Did I mention downtime was not allowed?
Sitek develops clever solutions to overcome several problems he encounters. In the second article, he reveals the risks and rewards of finding shortcuts in order to meet his challenging deadline. Read the conclusion to this story in ManagerRepublic on April 7, 2000.