Monday, May 23, 2016

Lemonade from lemons


As always ICT Departments all over the country will be busy with projects of all shapes and sizes.  At some point through a project, many will be faced with some kind of problem.  Problems can arise due to the lack of planning or resource shortages, which almost every school ICT program deals with.  Other issues will be caused by external sources such as vendors/suppliers, unexpected incidents or even extreme weather.

During my time supporting ICT in schools and talking to many other specialists in ICT support I have often been witness to and or part of many potential disasters, which has provided me with the experience to be able to offer some simple pieces of advice that may assist you by turning these ‘lemons’ into ‘lemonade’.

Communication is “King”

You need to communicate

You can end up with a negative outcome should you fail to communicate the current status of projects to stakeholders. If you regularly set the timeline expectations and planned outcomes of projects, everyone tends to become more involved and empathise with you about the effort you seem to be expending.  In 2011/2012 we were deploying a new model of laptop into our 1:1 Notebook program.  As it turned out the manufacture of the computers was delayed by effect of the Japanese Tsunami and flooding in Thailand.  I acted as soon as it became obvious the supplier couldn't meet our planned timeline for students to start the year with a new computer.  I contacted the affected parents, students and teachers and informed them of the delay and the expected delivery time table.  We worked with teachers to ensure curriculum delivery was impacted as little as possible.  Even though the delivery was achieved one term late we had negligible complaints because everyone felt they had been on the same journey.

Your vendors need to communicate

The most frustrating project I have been involved with was another supplier delay issue.  This time the manufacturer of the equipment was promising us and our reseller that the hardware was ‘on the truck’.  This happened right up until a week before school started when they finally let us know there was no stock in Australia and no plans to bring more in.  After more than ten years being our preferred hardware platform we immediately purchased equivalent products from another vendor and that long term relationship ended.  If we had been informed of the supply issue as soon as they knew we could have ordered an alternative item from their catalogue.  The lack of communication ended the relationship which was worth a considerable amount annually. 

Hold your suppliers to account

We spent 8 months planning a complete network upgrade with the engineering staff from a major hardware supplier.  The entire network was designed in accordance with our needs and was specified to be of high enough quality to last many years.  When we started to unpack and configure the network it became clear they had not specified the network switches to be able to provide power to the wireless access points.  This oversight by their design team had gone unnoticed by quality control, it is very easy to miss those sort of details (letter suffixes on switches) when reviewing complex proposals.  Immediately the manufacturer offered to supply us with equipment to power those access points and another set of switches was ordered and sent to us to replace those power injectors.

Manufacturers can afford more than resellers

Have you ever had an issue with an IT project that wasn’t your fault?  You have more chance of relief from a manufacturer who has generated a significant profit from the supplied equipment than from the re-seller who made 5 – 10% in your competitive bidding process.  Always start by communicating with your supplier/re-seller and have them in your corner, if the issue isn’t your fault and you’ve made sure your specification is correct, manufacturers will have many more resources to throw at remediating problems.  Of course I’m only talking about the tier 1 manufacturers, this is why you pay more for Cisco, HP, IBM, Toshiba and similar brands.

Don’t assume – anything!!

The most common mistake I’ve made is assuming that everyone can see the picture.  In the old days (remember them) when we had to order a new piece of hardware for every server you wanted to build I would often order HP servers from their parts list on the web site.  A few times I received servers that were missing important parts of the configuration because I assumed the engineer with whom I had been working would look over the configuration and check I hadn’t missed anything.  Having to order a hard disk controller or battery backup card for a controller was often needed when we came to build the hardware.  I found the best way was to have the engineer from the supplier specify the server and me look over the specification meant far less errors.

Prepare for the worst and be grateful for small mercies

When planning projects in schools I think we often expect the best and get caught out when things change slightly.  Sometimes when we look at the timing for our projects we end up missing a detail because significant information is in silos.  When we plan an upgrade put the plan in place, send the email to let everyone know we will be taking the system off line and suddenly there is an exam, an administrative process running or some event which has happened for years that we didn’t know about.  Don’t panic we can get away with it.  Rule number 1 is important; just communicate.

The lemonade is far more common than lemons

Despite the issues over the past 15 years, the results of my projects and my methodology has actually improved.  The lemons are now down to less than 5% of the projects I have started and I think overall there is a 100% lemonade rate.  I think this has been achieved by just not panicking.