When good projects go bad

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

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And then there are the big, troubled projects that need to be put out of their misery. Emotions run higher on projects seen as significant, Fisher observes, and the prospect of being out of a job amplifies the anxiety.

In the mid-1980s, Fisher was involved in putting the brakes on a two-year project to build an international banking platform to enable the former Continental Illinois National Bank to update its European operations. He was European systems manager at the time, and he came on board after the project was already under way. Despite moments of glory when things looked promising, it became clear that the platform lacked several essential features and that the project's 45-member team wasn't going to be able to fix the problems cost-effectively.

Fisher recommended pulling the plug. "We were all committed to getting it done, and we had a lot of conversations about whether we could we save it," he recalls. But the answer, in the end, was no.

"It was a very difficult decision; it had an impact on a lot of the people," Fisher says. He had to lay off about a dozen contractors in London, the project's base, and junk a data center, since the system was built to run on Prime minicomputers purchased especially for it. Nobody from Continental's IT staff lost their job, though some people on the business side did.

As for Fisher, "I felt good at the time," he recalls. He was, after all, saving the bank money and time. Later, though, he realized that he and the remaining members of his group were tainted. They weren't added to the team working on the new system, even though they had gained what could have been seen as valuable experience.

He received a much lower end-of-year bonus than he had in previous years, despite no drop in the bank's overall financial performance, and some of the team members were shunted to less interesting, lower-profile assignments for a time.

Falling on Your Sword

When she was running IT at a law firm, Sharon K. Gietl signed off on a LAN upgrade, even though it involved some brand-new technology from Cabletron. Her network manager was excited by the technology and was an enthusiastic backer of the project.

But the equipment wasn't working, and the network kept failing. "After a month of trying to make it work, with the lawyers ready to throw IT people out the window, we pulled the plug," says Gietl, now CIO at The Doe Run Co., a metals and natural resources provider in St. Louis.

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