When good projects go bad

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 happened 20 years ago.

Harris was working on sonar acoustics software for the U.S. Navy's 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' part of the initiative was shelved.

"That was pretty depressing," says Harris, who now works at IT services provider Computer Sciences Corp., where he is manager of CSC client 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 your 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 management consultancy Accenture PLC. "If you've been on something for 19 months, working 80-hour weeks for six months, and you're supposed to go live in six weeks and the rug gets pulled out, you feel pretty bad."

Talking It Out

The problem is, when IT people feel bad, they tend not to talk about their 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 Consulting Inc., a Bedford, N.H., firm that offers guidance about matters related to 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.

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