System conversions can involve more than software

If IT team isn't careful, it'll be replaced along with the old system

Dear Bob ...

Our management is making so many mistakes that I'm not sure where to begin.

[ Also on InfoWorld: "When you use a systems integrator, who should supply the project manager?" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

We're in the process of converting an old-technology bread-and-butter system (OTB&BS), "in the process" being ManagementSpeak for "We have no plan and are making very little progress."

So of course, as the last three rounds of downsizing swept through IT, cutting the total staff in half (we're down to 150), management figured there was no reason to keep more than a skeleton crew to support the OTB&BS. I'm part of that team (if you can even call three survivors out of an original 15 a "team").

Management recently hired an outside integrator to handle most of the conversion -- everything except the data conversion and the temporary programs needed to keep the two systems in sync during the transition period. Which is to say, everything except for two-thirds of the total effort. That falls on our shoulders, along with all of the business requests that haven't slowed down at all, and for which the integrator charges big bucks since they're all change orders for the new system.

So now, the three of us have become the bottleneck for the conversion effort, and both our management and the integrator project manager are coming down hard on us for not getting out tasks done.

Any suggestions?

- Buried

Dear Buried ...

Suggestions? Let's see: You've been put in an impossible-to-succeed situation. If you succeed anyway, the integrator will get the credit. And once the project finishes, you'll be out of a job.

You did realize you're being asked to work yourself out of a job, didn't you?

I am drawing an inference in saying this. You said nothing about being trained into the new system while describing enough work to keep you underwater without devoting any time to learning it. This means that when you turn on the new system and turn off the old one, you'll have extensive expertise in a system that doesn't exist anymore and no expertise at all in what your department needs.

I think it's a safe inference.

So what should you do? Hmmm...

The answer depends on whether you're willing to play hardball while you still have some negotiating leverage. If you are, your first step is to make sure you and the other two members of your team keep accurate records of where your time is going for the next month -- exactly what tasks you work on and how much effort each required for completion. You'll need this as ammunition.

When you have the data, ask for a meeting that includes your three-person team (or just you if they chicken out), your manager, your manager's manager, and the integrator project manager. Lay out everything you were given to do over the past month and, using your time-tracking data, demonstrate how many hours of effort would have been needed to get them all done (presumably, enough work for at least six full-time employees, but let the data speak for itself).

At this point your management will let you know that "this isn't a 40-hour-a-week job, you know" (if you're exempt) or "we pay you for your overtime, you know" (if you aren't). Turn to the integrator project manager and ask, "Speaking as a professional project manager, what happens to quality when people work those kind of hours?"

If the project manager has even a shred of integrity, you'll get the answer you need.

That's when you say to your manager, "We need the two of you to run interference for us so that we can do our part to help this project be successful. We need you to say no to as many business requests as possible, to give us time to work on the conversion, because otherwise we have no chance."

If your manager weasels, you turn to his/her manager and say, "It appears our manager doesn't have the authority to say no. Can you help make this work? Because otherwise we'll be the ones making the decisions, and that's going to make all of us look bad."

Assume you get over this hump and everyone agrees to a governance process that cuts your task load to a semi-manageable level. That's when you say, "We have one more topic. It's the elephant in the room, and it's time we all acknowledge it's there. The elephant is our future in this organization once the conversion is complete. Do we have one?"

After your manager's manager finishes the traditional polite hand-waving, say, "What you're saying sounds terrific. Can we put something solid behind it? Because as things stand, no matter what you say about loyalty and gratitude for hard work, when we turn off the old system, the three of us will have none of the skills you need us to have to be productive members of the organization. You're asking us to work long, hard hours. That's fine -- now what will you do for us so we're part of the new system team when we turn it on?"

This is a high-risk, high-stakes negotiation. Not everyone has the appetite for it, and no matter how well you handle it there's a good chance it will blow up in your face. The only good news about the bad news is that unless your manager's manager has an ego so big that he/she is willing to commit career suicide so as to save face, your job is probably safe until the conversion is over.

And as things stand, you'll lose it then anyway.

Here's one other alternative. Be aware that it's just as risky and, from some perspectives, more unsavory:

Approach a local systems integrator (not the one that's handling the conversion) as a team. Let the integrator know that the three of you are willing to join their staff as a team and only as a team, and that once you do the integrator will be pretty much guaranteed your employer's business during the course of the conversion. The terms of your joining: Signed employment contracts guaranteeing jobs for the three of you for a full year following completion of the conversion contract, and training in a new technology with significant market demand.

I mentioned at the beginning that these alternatives are open to you if you're willing to play hardball. If you aren't, here's what you do: Cut your lifestyle back to a minimum and save everything you can. Put it in certificates of deposit or someplace else safe.

You'll need it to cover your period of unemployment once the conversion is finished.

Good luck. You're in a situation that has no good alternatives, so the best you can do is to choose the least of the available evils.

- Bob