When IT projects founder, emotions run high

Conflicted feelings are common when big tech projects go awry. Group hug, anyone?

Dana B. Harris still remembers the loss he felt when his project was canned, and it's been 20 years now.

Harris was working on sonar acoustics software for the Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers. It was highly advanced, mathematically challenging software, and Harris "was really into it, really excited about it."

But 1990 was a bad year for the defense industry. The Cold War was ending, and a diminishing threat meant diminishing budgets -- and, ultimately, a diminished project. Abruptly, Harris's part of it was shelved.

"That was pretty depressing," says Harris, now at Computer Sciences Corp., where he is manager of United Technology Corp.'s global program management office. "Not having the excitement of developing that kind of software, it was like I'd lost something. I remember that feeling very, very clearly."

It particularly pained Harris that his team's work was simply junked. "Our efforts, our work, were just cut," he says.

Stung by the cancellation, and worried about the health of the industry, Harris wound up leaving defense entirely to start a business working on commercial application software.

It's hard not to get emotional when lengthy, high-profile technology projects are unfairly killed, mercifully euthanized or launched with flaws.

"A lot of our job satisfaction comes out of seeing your product go live, being used by your business and customers," says Ken Corless, executive director of enterprise applications at Accenture. "If you've been on something for 19 months, working 80-hour weeks for six months before 'go live,' and you're supposed to go live in six weeks and the rug gets pulled out, you feel pretty bad."

Thinking about feelings

Problem is, when IT people feel bad, they tend not to talk about those feelings.

If companies were Star Trek, IT would be Spock, or so goes the myth. And that myth does have some basis in fact, says Bill Hagerup, a senior consultant at Ouellette & Associates, which consults on the human side of IT management. In general, techies "tend to give short shrift to people's feelings," he says. "I know I'm stereotyping here, but our strength is thinking. We're great problem-solvers; we tend to forget feelings."

Hagerup, who spent years in corporate IT, distinctly remembers his depression over a long-ago project that failed to meet expectations. He was a lead analyst on a project at a health insurer, working long days and weekends. Despite the extra effort, the project timeline was simply too short, and what his team delivered at the deadline was about 60% of what the business expected.

There was no joy in IT-ville, not even an "attaboy" for the effort, Hagerup says. Some downheartedness about a poor project outcome was probably inevitable, but it would have helped if there had been some empathy for the IT team, he says.

He wishes IT management had sat down with his team and let them talk through their anger at the unreasonable deadline and the lack of support for the project. Even some simple words of appreciation for the effort they had given would have been a big help, Hagerup says.

As his group eventually proved, the project's scope was too large for its initial deadline. Failing to complete it on time shouldn't have generated such a pervasive air of disapproval, yet it did.

Hagerup and his team, which numbered about 10 people, went into a techie variation of the classic Kübler-Ross grief cycle -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- spending several productivity-sapping weeks in the depression phase.

Through informal talks at lunches or commiserating over beers on Friday nights, "gradually, we came out of it," he says. "We circled the wagons a little bit, took strength from each other and reminded ourselves it wasn't our fault."

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