The IT profession where are they when you need them most?

The background and the big debate.

There has been a lot of discussion lately from entirely different quarters and from across the globe that carry the same fundamental messages and I am struck by the opportunity to achieve something of value if only we can bring some of these ideas and people together.

I took part in a global discussion recently  involving almost thirty project managers around the world  about the nature of project management and why IT projects go wrong.  The insights and collective ideas were fascinating and thought provoking.  Parallel to this there has been similar conversation about the issues with the IT profession and it’s relationship with business.
The BCS has re-launched in the UK amidst various noises that recognise these same problems.  World leaders are all appointing  IT Tsars and learning the buzzwords.  The US has the first highly IT enabled president and innovative ideas are beginning to gain some audience again.
Project failures, the reduced numbers of young people entering IT and the critical role of IT in the future of the world are hot topics just now and rightly so.
Against this backdrop, we have dedicated and enthusiastic IT professionals out of work in record numbers, many suffering extra hardships due  to the insecure, cyclical nature of their normal employment and to add insult to injury the IT projects that are continuing are often in jeopardy due to being managed by untrained people.

There are two sides to this.

The IT profession, must shoulder it’s share of the blame for these problems.  IT people at the top of their profession too often and in too large numbers come across as  anoraks.
Failure to take an interest in their customers and the needs of those customers has left them out of touch, in the basement, playing with their toys happily and hoping someone will figure out why they need one and come asking.  The anorak will then reluctantly part with his baby, offering no help in it’s adaption and seem to take pleasure when the new owner runs into trouble.
This lack of foresight and fortitude has not only alienated intelligent young people looking for a rewarding career and especially women, but it has left the door open for the “one eyed man in the land of the blind” (OMB).
The one eyed man is the customer turned geek, the game keeper turned poacher, the guy, or occasionally girl, who was sucked in out of necessity and now lords it over all. Equipped with a few buzzwords and firm grip on the board, he or she drives fiasco after fiasco , wastes million after billion and IT as a profession shoulders all of the blame for his ineptitude.

Business leaders too are culpable and deserve most of what they get.  A CEO who didn’t understand finance and didn’t have a CFO, or other equally trusted (and trained) adviser would be rightly ostracised and.
Nobody even questions this for a moment, yet CTOs and IT directors are the exception rather than the rule and outside of the IT industry itself, a CEO who understands technology is rare indeed.

The CEO who chooses a legal adviser because that adviser doesn’t have a legal vocabulary and therefore can be understood, would rightly end up answering criminal charges, but this is precisely the approach he/she takes to technology advisers. The results speak for themselves

Which catastrophes should have been avoided?

There are in particular three types of IT disaster that arise specifically from the inability of IT professionals and Board directors to engage meaningfully and share knowledge.
1. The gap filled by the  “OMB” who understands neither IT nor business, and is not accountable, having  IT as a convenient fall guy, results in business  failing to start the right projects and failing to deliver too many of those they do start, or the costs being far too high.
2. Clever networking and marketing by the big vendors offers the beleaguered executive a sense of security that she/he is receiving unassailable advice from this big brand.  Not very likely and not very affordable. This is a key driver of inappropriate IT  investments.
3. The IT profession is alienated and discredited further, de-motivated and demoted to the basement with a prestige level marginally above that enjoyed by the caretaker, they skulk and take occasional pleasure in the mistakes of their peers. After all it is human nature.

So we are all to blame, how can we make it better?

As individuals

As individual IT professionals we absolutely must concentrate our minds on solving problems and making improvements that customers want and will pay for.  Tinkering with technology is a great pastime for those with a passion and it leads to innovation and creativity, but in business, at work, we need well focused solutions, well understood and  well delivered.
Above all we must be conscious of our image and credibility, professionalism, helpfulness, a real interest in our business  as part of the team and a willingness to translate the jargon and to spread enlightenment.

As a profession

It is a young profession and in reality there is no GP of the IT profession there are many specialists, education and career development needs to provide this missing overview and interface to the world as the core skill.
We need to improve our collaborative skills to embrace business and recognise their leading role as the financiers and drivers, listen to their needs and grab their attention to enthuse them about the possibilities.

We need to open and lead a dialogue with business that earns and keeps the respect we crave and deserve and places our profession in the position of trusted advisers in and out of the boardroom and educators at every level.

We need new disciplines to fill the role of selecting, buying and implementing technology professionally as opposed to relying on lifecycles and frameworks designed to support  software development way back when and management frameworks designed  for a Public sector  environment alien to the commercial environment, both of which are hopelessly inadequate and inappropriate for the current needs of business and public sectors.

Business

The ultimate responsibility is yours and you know where the buck stops.  Alienating the IT profession has not delivered the goods. Encouraging ambitious young managers to stray into territory they don’t understand attracted by sizeable budgets is the worst kind of mistake, because you won’t even know what it is costing you since you have nothing to compare it to. Taking advice from suppliers about what you should invest in is really not clever and will not leave much of the value on your side of the fence.
Take your responsibility seriously and learn enough about IT to be able to take advice and take a key role in decisions.  Ask your IT people, organise briefings with them for the whole company.  Have them report regularly on new potential opportunities and technologies and learn to innovate together.
Develop trusted advisers in your boardroom and take IT seriously as an enabler and as a critical force for maintaining competitive edge and an opportunity for gaining advantage.  Don’t gamble with something so fundamental to your success.
Ask yourself this, what is the likelihood of Finance, HR, or even Ops discovering  a twenty percent competitive advantage for the business next year?  There’s only one place you can realistically expect that this might happen and you need to be awake and listening and at the front of that queue.

Concerned politicians

Provide more support and opportunities for innovation in business.  If innovation is done in a business setting it will tick all the other boxes and drive successful products. We need universities too and we need them staffed with people who have spent at least part of their professional lives delivering in a commercial environment.

Create the environment where IT people can learn more about business and business people about IT and showcase this within the public sector.
Nowhere is IT treated more poorly as a profession than in the public sector, leading to only a tiny number of well paid IT professionals being employed there in influential positions, but an army of transient day workers,  described as consultants, but rarely consulted  with neither status, nor very much influence.
Nowhere has more money been spent on so little, or more blame been passed on to the IT profession.
There lies  an enormous opportunity to bring IT in from the cold and put it at the forefront of Government.

Start doing business with innovative growing small and medium local technology businesses that can deliver value to the tax payer  without cutting corners, or taking our revenues abroad  and reduce the reliance on global monsters that outsource 90% of their operations, draining both wealth, opportunities and  skills away from the local workforce.

World leaders

In dealing with the overwhelming problems that face us as a  global family from Global warming, to receding supplies of carbon fuels and the collapse of the financial system and more poignantly our confidence in it, there are few rays of light on the horizon other than those that might be offered, or facilitated by technology and most specifically IT either as a solution or an enabler of that solution.

Put a small piece of the war chest aside to challenge technologists and  accelerate the race towards solutions that can reduce or eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels, help us to cope with global warming and prevent another global financial meltdown.
Place our faith and our investment in intelligent use of technology, for there lies the only likely source of our salvation.

UAT – me, how do I do that?

Previous installments

IT investment for the smaller business
Why the Smaller business holds all the cards
Where has alll the money gone
Requirements gathering the first big mistake
Contract negotiation and on we go

Well here we are, though dragging slightly due to the unexpected holdup when everyone was so inconsiderate as to take a long break in the Summer and get all relaxed. It seems like a very short time despite the months that have passed, but we are now nearing a milestone when the vendor delivers the systems to us and according to both the vendor’s project manager and the IT manager, we are expected to do something called UAT.  Of course it’s not written in law anywhere, but to our project manager, it may as well be because he is following the conversation two sentences behind and trying not to look too foolish.  The vendor is still driving the agenda alone and the IT manager is still sulking, but gaining in confidence as the project approaches his territory.

The problem with COTS purchases and traditional testing methods is just that.

Well, it’s just that the methods were designed for a world where teams of engineers spent months writing code and then began to stabilise it and introduce it slowly into the business environment until it was a stable release and a good match for the tightly defined requirements.  At least that was the theory, there were usually problems about interpretation of the requirements and about how the outcome was actually achieved, but at least the bits did fit together and they followed a well established pattern. Vmodel was and still is the standard.

 That was a simple theory, you had to created business requirements, the analysts translated this into designs, the developers translated that into systems, then it was refined to make it usable and fill the gaps in interpretation of business requirements.

Logically therefore, you tested the business requirements with stakeholders and got it agreed, then the designs with business analysts to make sure it was properly interpreted, then the system to make sure it fitted the design. Along the way, there had to be technical testing to make sure it could run on the clients environment correctly and then a bit of testing to make sure it worked well enough for testers to commit weeks or months of their time.
Finally you arrived at the point where you had a working system that had no major bugs and appeared to meet the needs of users and it was time to let them loose on it.  That was UAT.

It usually flushed out little bugs that had been missed, it also flushed out poorly interpreted requirements that just didn’t work in a live environment. Additionally, it served as a way to win over key users and pre-empt any likely resistance to the process change aspect.

For a simple explanation, that has taken a bit of effort and probably lost me some readers, but it’s not a simple business.

So how does our project manager apply this to a piece of kit arriving on a CD with a few minor customisations and integration endpoints?
Maybe not the million dollar question, at least not every time, but an expensive one often.

Our friend has no detailed requirements to work to, because the initial ones were not adapted, but instead, the sales guy sold an existing package and said it will meet the requirements you described. If our friend hires a tester, he will need to go to the vendor’s and ask them to help him list exactly what this system is expected to do for the client in order that he can test it.
Were he to do that, alarming as it may sound to many readers, at least a start would be made on understanding what has been agreed, what is expected by whom and what the likelihood is of all these stakeholders being in the same book let alone page.
Now I am not a sadist, despite what you may be thinking and I have no intention of bringing up the business case and the business goals at this point, our poor friend is in enough trouble already.

The IT manager is now beginning to ask awkward questions and making apparently unreasonable demands about some sort of complicated and time consuming testing before he lets us install our system on “his” environment.  Is he out to get us? He never really was supportive anyhow, because he felt he should be in charge.

So where have we got so far?

We identified the need for change and made a business case for investment of the businesses capital based on some modest assumptions sound process change and cost reduction due to efficiency and we got the go ahead to do it.  We have not tested these assumptions against the new system being proposed and we have no idea whether any of the goals will really be met other than a stirring presentation and “good feel” from the vendor’s sales rep.

We found a supplier that we felt we could work with and agreed a contract, we know of course that that contract was tipped 90% in favour of the supplier, but we hoping that all will end well.

We are now approaching eminent delivery just a little behind schedule, but nothing to worry about and we are very confused about the communications coming from the vendor’s team. We are expected to complete “UAT” in three weeks and then sign off acceptance and pay the final instalment for services and we will begin to pay the support and other fees immediately. This has a very final and serious ring to it.

We are gathering up a few people and arranging a room where they can sit and “play with” this system for a few weeks. Then hopefully all is well and we are done.

We have met our milestones so far, the budget is at or below forecast and the CEO is very impressed with us, let’ s hope these IT guys don’t spoil the party.

Next:

Whose fault is it anyhow ?

 

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