Indonesia … and a “million dollars of problems”

(see also, Jakarta Contrasts)

Many folks have asked me, “how did you get to work in Indonesia?”  Well, it was a small chain of events.  I was doing Lotus Notes development work at the time, and Lotus Consulting partnered with my small firm (they were very keen on their partner network) to do several small applications.   One of their managers asked if I could work on a project in New York.  Turns out it was a “troubled project”, a highly visible project that wasn’t going well, and they were at risk of losing the whole contract.  The client was Ernst & Young.

As one of the Big Six professional services firm, E&Y was a high stress environment.  This project was for some internal knowledge tools,  development was mostly complete, but E&Y was not happy with the results.  When I arrived, tension was clearly in the air, but I ignored it.  I simply concentrated on what that they weren’t happy about.  As a newcomer, I could ignore the internal politics, the past conflicts, the personality clashes, whatever – I just asked, “so, specifically why are you not happy?”.  Unsatisfied with vague complaints and accusations,  I pressed to be specific in their grievances, with a focus on the software application we were delivering to them.

I helped articulate these grievances into terminology more specific to software developers, ultimately digesting it to a “punch list” of fixes and feature changes, in “bite size” pieces of no more than 8 person-hour work efforts.  A week-long task is not a task – at least not in in the  software development world – it’s just a block of time.  Some of the tasks were outside my domain, so I handed them off to other members of the project, with a reminder I would follow up in a few days.  I picked up some of the development work itself – it was clear that the previous developer wasn’t all that expert in Lotus Notes, so I simplified the coding considerably while I was fixing bugs and addressing missing features.

When following up with other developers on tasks they were still missing, I asked “why?”  Was it a lack of knowledge? A limitation in Lotus Notes? A misunderstanding of the requirements? If the first approach didn’t work, what’s Plan B?  Does Plan B even require software development – can we do it with manual labor instead (importing a couple hundred records, for example – do you write an elaborate import routine, or just hire a clerk to enter everything over the weekend)? We’d would work through these questions, detail a new list of tasks (again, nothing longer than 8 hours), then proceed through the next week. If gaps still remained the following, rinse and repeat.

It was a straightforward, methodic, rigorous process.  And, to me, a simple process.  We churned through the next 2 months with tangible, visible progress in how the application looked and behaved.  Tensions decreased, happy hours became more frequent.  Toward the end, with the project end clearly in sight, one of the program managers approached me, “you helped save the project.  So, what would you like to do next?”

Umm, next?  It was clear he was offering a project opportunity as a reward.  Hmmm, but what kind of new project could be a reward anyway?  Well, what about something international?!

At first I was offered an opportunity with the Nagano Olympics.  Unfortunately, IBM Global Services was in the process of subsuming the Lotus Consulting contract there, and the Lotus leaders soon found themselves with little opportunity to place their own folks.  So, a few more ideas were bounced around, until something in Jakarta popped up.  “Indonesia?!”  That sounds exotic, sure, I’ll take it.

What then followed felt like something out of an international spy novel: I interviewed an HR manager in Australia, a project manager in Hong Kong, another developer in Singapore, and then ultimately was asked to arrange a work visa at the Indonesian consulate, then fly up to D.C. to pick up a new laptop and a ticket to Jakarta.  I met this mystery character in D.C.,  he handed me everything for my flight and said, “at the airport, just look for a placard with your name, they’ll take you to your hotel, and you’ll start work on Monday”.

After 27+ hours of flying, I land in Jakarta and …  there’s no one there with my name on a placard.  Hmmm.   This was before the time of ubiquitous connectivity – no cell phone, no wifi connection, no local contact for me to call – now what?!   I searched the airport for a hotel board, recognized a Hyatt Regency that appeared to be right in the middle of the city, and grabbed a taxi.  Once at the hotel, I called all my previous contacts, eventually reaching the HR manager in Australia.  “Oh dear,” she remarked, “don’t worry, you just go to sleep, I’m sure you need it, I’ll figure out where you should be tomorrow”.

In the morning, I receive a local call – the regional Lotus Consulting manager for Indonesia.  He requested two things, “check out of that hotel – it’s expensive! ” And, “you have a 9 am kick-off meeting with the client – I’ll send a driver over to pick you up.”  And the client is?  “Oh, no one ever told you who you’d be working for?”   Hey, I just took the mission, and then the tape self-destructed, okay!!

Coincidently, the hotel was just a block away from the apartment where I later lived, and the client office itself was just 3 miles away. I lucked into the right location. And, while there clearly was a glitch in communications (the driver simply didn’t show up at the airport), it was great working with an international team – sight unseen – that could coordinate and get things done.

The client, Sampoerna, was great, their project very interesting, and living in Indonesia exciting.  Over the first few weeks, I listened to what the client wanted to achieve, drafted an architectural design illustrating all the software pieces that would have to talk together, documented an “API” for the exact interfaces (the “talking”) between systems, cranked out the first punch list of development tasks, brainstormed a few alternative plans in case our first approach didn’t work, and then began cranking on the task list, along with a couple of other developers (one from Hong Kong, another from Indonesia) beside me. I also worked with the client’s systems and network teams to plan the necessary server additions and network changes.

About a few months in, a senior project manager from IBM flew in, to “audit the project”.  He came in with  obvious swagger, declaring, “you’ve got a million dollar project here, and with a million dollar project you have a million dollars of problems.”  I furrowed my brow – what problems?  But, I listened patiently, maybe he knew more about projects than I did – perhaps I was missing something, perhaps I was naive about this big mystery field called “project management”.

After a few days, though, of meeting with the client, regional manager, and local project manager,he swung back around to my office, with a more subdued manner. “Well, looks like this project is going well – I’ll be off now.”

Wait, what about that million dollars of problems?!

After enjoying Indonesia for nearly a year, I next headed to Venezuela for a couple more exciting projects.  By then, IBM had slowly taken over Lotus Consulting’s work, so after Venezuela I was invited to an IBM office in Dallas, to interview with their Elite Projects project management office. This was a special division with IBM Global Services, sort of a crisis team, a “tiger team”, that was called in to address troubled projects in their portfolio.  I guess my work on projects the past three years got their attention.

My conversation with the director of this division was interesting, but ultimately disappointing.  First, he was surprised at how young I was.  Hey, maybe I should have sued for age discrimination!  But our conversation, while cordial, was often at odds – I talked in straightforward terms about how I managed to succeed at projects, while he used the terminology of “professional” project managers, as standardized by the Project Management Institute, which was growing in prominence at the time.  At the time, I was unfamiliar with that terminology.

Lotus Consulting itself had a clear, straightforward project management framework from which I learned a lot as well, but with IBM taking over, that straightforward vision was replaced with Global Services’ more complicated methodology.  It was rather sad – IBM should have been more self-reflective, questioning why they had so many projects with “million dollar problems”, and why they even required a “crisis” project management team in the first place.  The  experiences within IBM, as with most corporations, had come to expect problematic projects, and the corporate culture evolved to accommodate – including a lot of maladaptive behaviors.

I will be spending the next few weeks posting my observations about these maladaptive behaviors, and articulate my own ideas toward effective project management – specifically regarding software development projects.  I hope you’ll keep coming back to read!

Next up:  “% Complete is a Lie – and other project management abuses”