The biggest project of my career was a Y2k project for a state agency. The project was a huge challenge by itself. To make things more interesting, it had a fixed timeline (Y2k) and a customer who didn’t typically do well with fixed timelines. That combination is a near guarantee to make things challenging at times. It was a pretty big opportunity for me and I was optimistic about it, in spite of the obvious challenges.
On day 1, we started by formulating our strategy. We needed a set of ground-rules that would guide our decisions, to ensure success. This was the crux of our strategy:
- Contain the scope (and be vigilant about it)
- Build a solid proof-of-concept (program/prototype)
- Focus on architectural models that would prove each of the elements of the final product (eliminating unknowns and accelerating development)
- Train the staff
- Commit to improvement (within reason)
We figured that if we were committed to those guidelines, then our development would accelerate (meaning: the rate of completing work would steadily increase), the timeline would not be able to outrun us, and the chance for surprises would be minimized. The timeline would be predictable. We could do it, on-time.
We started-off strong with all six of these. Of course, progress always seems to start-off a little slow during the first few weeks of any project. It is a real gut-check until you pick up steam. I was only 30 years old, and I got my first 5 gray hairs during those 3 months.
During that time, my dev lead expressed concern about making the timeline. The task was gigantic and he couldn’t imagine how we could accomplish so much in such a short time. I explained how it would all work (a few times) but he still had concerns. He had never been part of anything like this (and technically, neither had I). He wasn’t as optimistic as me. In fact, you could say he even sounded somewhat pessimistic. I figured, he probably just needed some solid reassurance from me.
After trying a few times, to reassure him, I realized that there wasn’t anything that can be said to reassure a young developer, about a project as big as ours. So, I changed my pitch: “If you honestly don’t think that we can complete this, then we really only have two options: 1) Find new jobs right away. Or 2) Work as hard as we can and do our best, and at the end of it all, if we come up short, we can rest-assured that nobody else could have done a better job than us and been more successful”. (of course, I was being a little sarcastic with the first option).
He acknowledged that there was really only one reasonable choice: do our best, and leave nothing on the table. So he committed to our endeavor. I did point-out that I was personally determined to do anything necessary (within the boundaries of good ethics) to get the project done on time. We had some great support and resources at our disposal. We were even told that “getting a B” would still pass, but we were going to settle for nothing-less-than an A.
We pressed-on with diligence, constantly checking our quality, progress and vigilantly containing scope. One time, our scope-containment effort even resulted in a rather heated disagreement with a serious player. I was a small dog in a fight, but I treated it like the careers of my team (18 of us) depended on this decision. We stood our ground and worked our resources pretty hard. I used up all of my “get out of jail free” cards that day, but prevailed. The scope was contained and we sprinted towards our due date.
In the end, we finished 2 weeks early (Sep 16, 1999) and the program exceeded the expectations of everyone, for performance and stability. Everyone was astounded. We rolled-out the project to the entire state of Michigan, over the next few months. 14000 state workers picked it up without a hitch. Y2k was a non-event for my team.
Of course, I cannot take sole credit for the win. I had a great PM, excellent dev managers, I had one or two certified geniuses on the team and management was behind us 100% (even covered my backside from that dog fight). We couldn’t have done it without all of them. Each accomplished some legendary feats during the project.
I still feel that the winning ingredient in all of it was the solid foundation (6 guidelines) and the commitment from everyone. At times, we got scared and wavered, but that fear also drove us to accomplish things that (I’ll even admit) were pretty colossal. We were driven and that made all of the difference.
Since that project, I have not faced very many challenges that can compare to that one. I am fortunate to have seen how a great accomplishment can be achieved. I was there and I know what goes into it.
If you ever get offered a chance to accomplish something epic, do a gut-check, be realistic about your own resources. If you go all-in, be ready to back it, all the way. It might be the most legendary win of your life, but only if you apply the effort needed to get that win.