IT's biggest project failures -- and what we can learn from them

Think your project's off track and over budget? Learn a lesson or two from the tech sector's most infamous project flameouts.

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The FBI did use some of what it learned from the VCF disaster in its current Sentinel project. Sentinel, now scheduled for completion in 2012, should do what VCF was supposed to do using off-the-shelf, Web-based software.

Homeland Security's virtual fence

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is bolstering the U.S. Border Patrol with a network of radar, satellites, sensors and communication links -- what's commonly referred to as a "virtual fence." In September 2006, a contract for this Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet, not to be confused with Skynet) was awarded to Boeing, which was given $20 million to construct a 28-mile pilot section along the Arizona-Mexico border.

But early this year, Congress learned that the pilot project was being delayed because users had been excluded from the process and the complexity of the project had been underestimated. (Sound familiar?) In February 2008, the Government Accountability Office reported that the radar meant to detect aliens coming across the border could be set off by rain and other weather, and the cameras mean to zoom in on subjects sent back images of uselessly low resolution for objects beyond 3.1 miles. Also, the pilot's communications system interfered with local residents' WiFi networks -- not good PR.

In April, DHS announced that the surveillance towers of the pilot fence did not meet the Border Patrol's goals and were being replaced -- a story picked up by the Associated Press and widely reported in the mainstream media. But the story behind the story is less clear. The DHS and Boeing maintain the original towers were only temporary installations for demonstration purposes. Even so, the project is already experiencing delays and cost overruns, and in April, SBInet program manager Kirk Evans resigned, citing lack of a system design as just one specific concern. Not an auspicious beginning.

Census Bureau's handheld units

Back in 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau made a plan to use 500,000 handheld devices -- purchased from Harris Corp. under a $600 million contract -- to help automate the 2010 census. Now, though, the cost has more than doubled, and their use is going to be curtailed in 2010 -- but the Census Bureau is moving ahead with the project anyway.

During a rehearsal for the census conducted in the fall of 2007, according to the GAO, field staff found that the handheld devices froze or failed to retrieve mapping coordinates (see Hard questions needed to save projects for details). Furthermore, multiple devices had the same identification number, which meant they would overwrite one another's data.

After the rehearsal, a representative of Mitre Corp., which advises the bureau on IT matters, brought notes to a meeting with the bureau's representative that read, "It is not clear that the system will meet Census' operational needs and quality goals. The final cost is unpredictable. Immediate, significant changes are required to rescue the program. However, the risks are so large considering the available time that we recommend immediate development of contingency plans to revert to paper operations."

There you have it, a true list of IT Ig Nobels: handheld computers that don't work as well as pencil and paper, new systems that are slower and less capable than the old ones they're meant to replace. Perhaps the overarching lesson is one that project managers should have learned at their mothers' knees: Don't bite off more than you can chew.

San Francisco-based Widman is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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