Why many software projects fail

Trapped in the middle of a municipal culture war, an IT professional fights for survival

Several years ago, I was hired as IT manager at the convention center of a well-known Gulf Coast metropolis. There was plenty of action, with one big show after another. For the first few weeks, my job revolved around repairing recalcitrant PCs, riding herd on the Exchange server, and making sure the wireless network was operational so conventioneers could get their e-mail and exchange files.

Then “Sue,” the convention center director, asked me to take on a special project. Eight months earlier, the center had spent $60,000 for customized software designed to speed and simplify operations. This system had the capability of booking, billing, assigning resources, and so on — and could be accessed internally or online.

The only problem: No one was using it. Convention center staffers were still doing all their booking and equipment reservations manually, mostly via entries in a large, loose-leaf scheduling book with pages falling out and yellow Post-its everywhere.

I figured I’d start by installing the software on the server, rolling it out to the desktops, and setting up classes to show people how to use it. But to my surprise, Sue told me that the software and hardware were already installed on all the desktops. The only missing element was user participation.

I discovered that there was a culture clash going on. Sue was a typical bureaucrat. She came in at 8, left at 6, and if she needed to study a software manual, she could do it in the evening. She expected the convention bookers to work the same way.

The bookers, on the other hand, were highly independent and wildly busy. Because they had to be there when their shows opened and closed, they tended to work lots of weekends, long hours, nights, and so on. They had no time for reading manuals or learning new systems.

I couldn’t really blame them, since the software would have required an enormous amount of prep work. Their clients would have to be set up on the new system, and items such as tables, chairs, digital projectors, catering services, and so on would have to be entered and configured as well. Equally daunting, for several weeks, the bookers would need to use two sets of books at the same time.

When I explained all this to Sue, she insisted that “Charles,” the center’s financial officer, was responsible for lighting a fire under the bookers’ behinds. I took a meeting with Charles, who assured me he was on top of the situation. But when weeks went by with no visible progress, I decided that it was no longer my problem. I was 100 percent prepared to support all the technical aspects of the new system … if anyone ever started using it.

Then Sue was fired. I suspect the failure of the system launch was partly to blame. Charles resigned rather than face an investigation. Then someone from City Hall started sending me ominous e-mails. I had been responsible for making the new $60G system operational; why had I failed to do so?

I considered submitting a detailed explanation, but the prospect of spending months dealing with politicians looking for a fall guy was simply too discouraging to contemplate. Two weeks later, my contract with the Convention Center was terminated. As far as I know, the bookers are still using that funky old loose-leaf binder.