The First Time I Experienced True “Project Management”.
During the Berlin PM Camp, I told the stories of four projects from my vintage timethat were very important for me. And I also announced that I was going to write about all of them in the IF blog.
Project # 3
So here comes my story of the third project:
After my change of positions inside Siemens away from UB D WS DF 131, I shared the technological responsibility for a relevant and absolutely innovative huge project called DISPOL with a new colleague working with whom soon became my true pleasure.
Siemens had won the bid for replacing the telex network of the Bavarian Police Force by a trans-data network based on modern circuit switching. At the same time, the card index boxes were to be replaced by a database in a central host (mainframe – it was a BS 1000 system). Also, modern display units were to substitute the old teletype machines.
That was roughly between 1979 and 1981. I was still a regular Siemens employee, but I had just fled the “bureaucracy” that had started at the development department of Transdata/PDN, looking to have better luck with sales at UB D V S 3. That was short for “department data processing, sales and special projects 3“.
See also my article on Vintage Projekt #2.
My move from the laboratory to the special projects necessitated that I now had to leave the private environment I had learned to love so much and found so nice at the Ortenburgstrasse (near Siemens Hofmannstrasse) and go to Neuperlach. And it did not take long for me to understand why the new building near the Neuperlach S-Bahn station was spitefully called “data sibirsk” or “Lego City” by many people.
For me, it was even worse: I had to move into a cold skyscraper surrounded by a fenced area that reminded me of barracks. Concrete and cold high-tech were the dominant features. And I also felt billeted. The only thing that looked halfway human in the entire areas was a fruit vendor who offered his goods on a stall inside the compound.
From day one, I felt uncomfortable in the concrete bunker that only looked colourful from the outside but was rather grey inside. Mind you, this was regardless of the fact that you actually could still open the windows and that there were quite a lot of green areas inside the fenced region. Yet, even the green was domesticated in a very prosaic way – it did not look as nice as you would, for instance, imagine it on castle grounds. Instead, it was techno-utilitarian.
But I was lucky. After all, I belonged to “special projects” – and they did not happen in the office. They happened outside, in the world. And since I was quasi equipped with privileged information, I felt like I was my own master and a little king.
Consequently, I preferred to mostly be where the customer resided (Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation in the Maillinger Straße) and to hardly ever be available in Neuperlach, except when it was absolutely unavoidable. To me, the rooms at the police station, regardless of all the very strict security regulations looked a lot more human than the new Siemens AG high-tech venue.
My flight from the “laboratory” that had fallen victim to bureaucracy had been a success and now I was allowed to experience real life. And the project DISPOL was a great thing. A total innovation. Together with the excellent partners of the Bavarian Police, we were a wonderful team. We cooperated with a maximum of efficiency and at eye-level. But I have to say that the project was already well under way at the time I became part of it.
And there were a number of birth defects – in all imaginable dimensions of the project. Consequently, the first thing to do was overcome a series of hurdles. We had a totally stupid design which had already been partly implemented (they wanted to realize a fixed system, which was totally against the dynamic connection technology), there were diverse architectonic mistakes with both the hardware and the software that had to be corrected quickly (systems with no local storage for quick reload, inadequate testing environment,…), the total absence of a component that had been promised (one example is the telex port which was quite good at doing the protocols of the postal service, but not for the police, who were “electronically” different) and many other “normal” challenges you meet when you are doing something for the first time.…
And there was also a requirement in the contract that was rather hard to meet. Because the new product DISPOL was supposed to replace a teletype machine network. And these kinds of teletype machines had (at least in Bavaria) an availability of a hundred per cent over years, if not decades. In other words: they NEVER broke down.
And, of course, that is what the customer expected of the new solution, as well. Justly?! Since, (at the time), Siemens was, of course, not stupid, they had negotiated in the contract that the system at least did not have to be a hundred per cent available. Once in a while, it was allowed to break down. Perhaps they had a hunch that electronic data processing had its limits. But then, it said “once in a while”!
Consequently, it had been written in the contract that the product was only considered functioning if the system ran a certain amount of time (I think it was two weeks) without interruption and that the “down-time” during this time had to be only very few hours (I seem to remember it was only one).
The only problem was that re-starting our computers also took a little more than one hour. Which meant that even if one single system shut down, the two weeks started anew and thus all attempts at delivering the product were in vain after a few days, or at the least a few days before the deadline…
(Note: we solved even this problem. If you are interested, I will gladly tell you how).
Basically, there was always a shut-down, because we had a number of sporadic and hard-to-reproduce errors, one of which would always occur shortly before those four weeks were over. Well, we just had to isolate them individually. But then, isolating errors takes time. Because you have to implement traps that catch the error and make it reproducible. And due to the contract, we did not have this sort of time.
Here is a note that might be interesting:
The test was designed in such a way that the normal police procedures ran twice during the acceptance phase. The real run with the real data continued with the old technology of the well-functioning telex network. But then, the original data (punch strips) ran on the new system 1:1 after a little time had elapsed. For testing. To keep up appearances, critical data were made anonymous and less drastic, but this was not always possible. And (of course), nothing happened. We all knew that those were highly sensitive data and that we had a lot of responsibility. Today, the gentlemen of data security would probably make a huge ado about it.
But back to the topic: The stability problem of the system only arose during the end phase of the project (which had already gone on for quite a long time). Due to the aforementioned factors, there had been some problems earlier, as well.
Consequently, our management panicked. That was also the reason why they had made me join the project. Then they understood that there was a lot left to do and we got additional resources: consultants and young persons who had been sitting around somewhere in the concern and had not known what to do with their time. And:
A project manager was installed!
Let me first tell you about my experiences with the consultants and young persons, later about the project manager.
There were several of them. They were supposed to help us, but that was not really what they usually did. I particularly remember two colleagues from the PSE (that is the Austrian Siemens daughter for software development). One of them was from Vienna and the other from Graz. They both held doctorial titles, one of them in psychology, the other in physics.
They were both really nice persons. They were both not happy to be far from home. The one missed beautiful Vienna, the other Graz. To me, they both seemed extremely intelligent, if not ingenious. Both had first names beginning with an M. and both had not much knowledge about the system, and even less an idea what a good code should look like.
Yet I never told them, because I really rather liked them. Consequently, we let them play along, which they both did quite well. Except that they never really made their way to the middle of the project. One of the reasons was that, in this project, they were like mercenaries, “away on a construction job”. Which actually does nothing to increase your motivation and readiness to make a huge effort. Consequently, their added value was not really relevant.
The young people
I remember a young lady and a young gentleman who were added to the group. Both of them were terribly young (early twenties, at the time, I was not yet 30). They both had trained in the IT sector somewhere at Siemens.
They were both highly motivated, listened carefully, did what they were told and thus they quickly understood the technology and their task. I assume that they were also quite cheap – especially compared to the two consultants with their doctorial titles – and they contributed enormously towards the project success. Incidentally, they both went on to become a success story. But not at Siemens.
Now the only thing remaining to talk about is
The Project Manager
The project manager was an earnest person who always wore ties and struck me as extremely nervous from day one. Said nervousness was easy to understand for me: after all, he was supposed to solve a problem he knew basically nothing about. He sat in our room a lot of the time writing reports. The rest of the time, he had meetings in Neuperlach. His role was something like being a translator between the worlds of management and the project that consisted of technology. Since he did not know the language of technology, he never understood the project. I assumed that he did not know the language of management, either. After all, during my time at the laboratory as a supplier for a huge project, I had learned some of it. He was a lonesome wanderer between two worlds.
Our project manager had a strange voice and consequently, he was soon stuck with a nickname (Schnarrie). The idea had come from our two ladies (W. and C.), who did a good job with the coordination and customer service. Perhaps because they were angry about their roles having been cut down.
For us, Schnarrie had a double positive effect. Firstly, we no longer needed to tell management why we did what we did – which had cost Hans and me, and sometimes also our two ladies, quite some time and nerves. And he also had a budget! Which was something totally new for us. Consequently, we managed to celebrate several “victory parties” on the Siemens budget when we had found a sporadic bug or some such.…
So much about this. Incidentally, the project DISPOL was a huge success and ran for decades to the greatest satisfaction of the Bavarian Police Force. And in its wake, it brought quite a few good customers to Siemens AG, as well.
(Translated by EG)