Six ways to save your IT project from the scrap heap

Tight times require new strategies for keeping your IT projects on line and your career moving forward

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Zwartz knew the answer to many of his problems lay in virtualization. But explaining what virtualization actually meant to his technophobe bosses, let alone the benefits, was nearly impossible.

So he began lobbying for virtualization in November 2007. He started by giving his bosses a running countdown -- what month the Exchange e-mail servers were going to run out of storage and what was likely to happen.

He showed them photos of physical servers next to virtual ones, and charts illustrating the cost of knocking down walls to build a bigger datacenter versus using blade servers and VMware. He sent them articles on virtualization and links to Web demos. He gave them jump drives with images of virtual desktops on them. In April 2008, when complaints about Exchange, cooling, and space problems began to mount, he had a 90-minute powwow with the bosses.

"I swear I was looking at ghosts," he says. "Their jaws sagged open, their eyes glazed over. They still could not get their heads around the concept of one virtual server replacing seven physical ones. To them, it seemed like magic. If I'd had any hair left, I'd have pulled it all out."

Then, out of the blue, he got a call from SunGard, which offered a free 90-day beta test of its Virtual Server Replication Services. Zwartz jumped at the offer. He says the service worked so well in his tests that he retired the physical servers at the high-availability site and moved his entire disaster-recovery plan to SunGard last October.

Now, with a successful high-availability virtualization project under his belt, Zwartz was able to convince the insurance firm to go virtual at the production site. The other two firms are waiting to see what happens.

Bottom line: IT managers may have to work extra hard to sell the benefits of technological change without overwhelming decision makers with the details.

"The result of doing -- or not doing -- the project must be clear to the CEO or manager without them having to read a novel or translate tech," says Glenn Phillips, president of Forte Online, an IT consulting and services firm. "If you cannot do nerd-to-English translation, get someone that can."

And if push comes to shove, practical results from a project put in motion can provide all the explanation you need -- assuming you can get away with it.

IT project survival tip No. 6: Murder your pets
Sometimes to get a key project approved, you need to kill one of your pet projects -- or several of them. The ability to choose the initiative that's more beneficial for your business over the long haul will ultimately earn you more support for projects when times are flush.

"Offer to cancel a project that's being supported in exchange for the strategically significant one," suggests Blackbaud's Lant. "This will show that you believe in the value of these key projects and are willing to sacrifice to protect them."

You need to be willing to take a hard look at every new initiative, even those you desperately want, says Johanna Rothman, principal at Rothman Consulting Group and author of Manage It!: Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management.

"Be honest and ask about each project, 'Should we do this project at all?'" she says. "If not now, put your project on the project backlog or the parking lot or kill it outright. Senior managers are more likely to fund a project if they think you're optimizing at the organization level rather than at your group's level."

The problem is that managers tend to kill the wrong things, says Nelson. They'll cut longer-term projects that cost more money in favor of cheaper, short-term projects that produce quick wins. In many cases, the success of that short-term project may depend on two or three others that didn't make the cut. Instead, Nelson says, IT managers need to look at their entire portfolio of projects and select those that map closest to the business's long-term strategic objectives.

The good news is that all this slashing can be better for your long-term career prospects.

"Even as R&D and investment projects go away, IT managers should be able to prove every project's worth and not give up," notes Keane's Nelson. "Managing a reduced budget is a better career builder than spending an increase."

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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