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Pulling the Plug on Faulty Products

War stories -- and lessons learned -- from IT leaders faced with products that didn't work as advertised.

By Thomas Hoffman
April 12, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Your organization has invested thousands, maybe millions, of dollars trying to install a vendor's product to give your Web site more capacity or optimize your supply chain, and it just doesn't work as expected. Now what?
Senior management wants to know where the money went. End users want to string you up. You'd like to sneak out of Dodge, but you can't.
Here are the tales of six IT leaders who had to deal with underperforming projects and took decisive actions to clean up the mess.
Grounded
Four years ago, the U.S. Air Force tried to replace a 25-year-old aircraft maintenance tracking system with one that had mobile terminals and Unix-based off-the-shelf software that it expected to begin piloting within 12 months.
But after two years and heavy customization of the commercial package, "we realized it just wasn't going to happen," says Air Force CIO John Gilligan.
The Air Force tracks many of the parts used in its aircraft by their serial numbers, and the third-party software it was trying to deploy "couldn't do the kind of serial-number tracking we needed," Gilligan says.
In addition, he says, the software "wasn't mature enough" to handle the Air Force's stringent quality-assurance sign-offs on aircraft maintenance.
In hindsight, Gilligan says the Air Force was partly to blame for what became a $200 million failure -- a price tag that includes software licensing and consulting fees and the cost of hardware and internal labor. He says that the Air Force did a poor job of governing the project and that critical decision-making during the project occurred on "too low a level."
"It was kind of a slippery slope, and we were so far down that it became very difficult to walk back up," says Gilligan.
When the agency decided to cancel the project, end users "were doubly unhappy," says Gilligan. Not only would the system not be delivered, but the Air Force also froze any upgrades to the mainframe system for four years to help free up capital for the modernized system.
So Gilligan and the Air Force team addressed some short-term requirements to improve the end-user experience. Two years ago, the agency developed a browser-based front end to make it easier for maintenance crews to access the legacy system from its 100-plus worldwide bases.

The project team also began collapsing dozens of databases into a single repository. Then the group began to implement middleware tools and portal interfaces to make it easier for top brass to pull maintenance information out of the system.
Cutting the cord with the vendor behind the project wasn't too difficult, says



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