Oddball adventures in IT project management

Life as an IT contractor can be full of surprises, such as losing a job because of new business theories or taking part in an expensive Y2K test on obsolete PCs

I've worked various IT jobs over the years, but some of the most oddball adventures happened when I worked as a contract project manager.

No more "projects"
In 2001, I worked as a contract project manager for a large international company. I had been a consultant for several years and had general management expertise, so was able to take on a variety of projects. It was a great position.

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The company provided project managers for a number of clients, but our biggest client was a nearby clothing manufacturer.

After about six months, my boss asked if I would like to work for them as a full-time employee. The salary wouldn't be quite as good as my hourly rate, but it had benefits. I was ready for something more permanent and decided to accept. At his request, I wrote a letter of consideration and waited for the official word.

In the meantime, I heard rumors that our biggest client had bought into new business theories and was unhappy with everything being run as "projects." They thought project management was just too stringent, rigid, and confining, and they wanted to try some new approaches.

About a week later, I received the summons to go into the boss' office. I'm pretty good at reading body language and basically headed the discussion off at the pass. I asked him if this was about terminating my contract. He said it was. Our biggest client had pulled the plug on being project managed, and he had to let at least two of us go. I was one of the last two contractors hired, so guess what?

Thus, instead of being shown a full-time position, I was instead shown the door.

Hey, that's life as a contractor.

An expensive Y2K test
In 1999, I worked as a contract project manager on the Y2K project for a state's department of transportation. Due to my hardware electronics engineering and technical background, I was given all of the non-IT hardware analysis projects.

In Y2K terms, non-IT meant hardware that ran on older PCs and was driven primarily by built-in Read Only Memory programming, as opposed to software programming. In many cases, the PCs were used to send only text information to the non-IT device for display. This meant testing things like programmable road signs, intersection stoplights, road weather systems, and similar items.

Most of this stuff was pretty obvious by inspection, but it still had to be done. I'd conduct several tests, record the results, and later write them up in the correct format for presentation to the compliance office.

Well, one of the sites that had quite a few weather-reporting systems was in an upscale community located about 3 hours by car from our base of operations in the state capitol. The problem: I was not a state employee, and under the rules of engagement, I could not drive a state vehicle or be paid to drive my own vehicle. Though I volunteered to drive without reimbursement, for legal reasons they couldn't let me do that either.

The solution was for one of the state employees (a fairly high-up administrator, as it turned out) to drive me to the center of the state so that I could subject these various weather stations to Y2K analysis. They were based on really old, DOS-based notebook computers. When I tested each PC, setting it for a few minutes before zero hour (23:50, 1999) and letting it roll over, each one found a fun date in the past that it liked the best -- most went back to 1980 or so. The machines kept working just fine. Testing took, as I recall, less than an hour. We had lunch, then drove back.

It took about 3.5 hours to drive each way. The administrator was a really good sport about the whole thing, but it wasn't too long afterward that he was offered and accepted a job in private enterprise. I'm not saying that chauffering me across the state was the last straw for him, but my guess is it probably added impetus to his exit.

So one of my most fond recollections of the Y2K project was being part of one of the more expensive testing procedures performed on obsolete PCs -- yet another example of tax dollars hard at work.

This story, "Oddball adventures in IT project management," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.