June 9, 2007
Montreal has the nicest people in the world. Maybe it’s because springtime has shaken off the winter blues for all of us northerners. I’m here collaborating with my good friend Tim Lister for a client. They have a huge project with a tight deadline, and the risks are high. We’ve got a strategy to help.
Meanwhile – lucky me – it’s great to be here for work, but along the way I discovered that it’s also the weekend of the Canadian Grand Prix. All the world’s top Formula 1 race car teams have descended on this lovely cosmopolitan city – their cars will be screaming around the course, battling it out in front of thousands of international spectators lining the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve. There were Honda Formula 1 adornments all over the streets, Ferraris parked curbside, young women wearing midriff-baring race team outfits, rock and roll bands, and everyone was speaking French into their cellphones, or English with French accents. How cool is that?
After a long work day (I awoke earlier that day at 3:30 am to make my 6:30 am flight), I decided to unwind for dinner in a cozy seat at the Sakura sushi bar on Rue de la Montagne, a short stroll from my hotel. I was exhausted, but I quickly forgot about my fatigue with the first bite. The food was superb, and the atmosphere inside was as though I’d stepped into a Star Trek transporter and beamed myself to Tokyo. The staff was speaking Japanese and the women were in traditional dress. A large group of about 25 young Japanese settled into two tables near me. I knew I was in the right place – the locals had descended in droves.
(I recalled a time when I once traveled to Tokyo to give a speech, and with my Asian descent, I was frequently mistaken for being Japanese in the shops and restaurants. People would start speaking in the native tongue, and I’d simply shrug my shoulders and say “English please…” To this day I remember their puzzled looks on why this “Japanese” couldn’t speak the language. That didn’t happen today though.)
After getting really happy on otoro, unagi, and hamachi, I paid my tab and strolled back into the chic streets of Montreal. Two streets down from Sakura was a big outdoor festival dedicated to the F1 race. A rock band was jamming on concert-worthy portable stage at the head of the street. Young and old were dancing. (One singer was an up and coming Canadian named Pascale Picard. She was like a young Natalie Merchant – amazing!) I looked to my left and the Budweiser race team girls (wearing tight midriff-baring outfits) were posing with people for pictures. Outdoor cafes were brimming with folks laughing and smiling.
Later on I text-messaged a family member that I had a brief moment, where I wished I were Canadian. (Cingular Wireless cell roaming rates were a buck a minute!) She asked why. I replied that Montreal was “very European and hip, but also Asian/multicultural, the people were incredibly friendly, the place was prosperous, streets were clean, and there were far fewer politicians flouting fundamentalist religiosity for votes, quoting their deity, and making war upon the world. She laughed with that “LOL” thing. All around me were people from just about every ethnic background you could conjure. French was being spoken everywhere. I wished that my multi-ethnic Asian/Irish/Greek English and French-speaking children were with me. They’d love Montreal; I promised myself to bring them here someday.
Back to Formula 1 racing.
I actually was driven (pun intended) to write this blog entry in part, because of an article I caught earlier in the Globe and Mail newspaper entitled “The Race for a Real Time Edge.” Did you know that an F1 team records and analyzes 8 gigabytes of data after each race, collected by 120 sensors placed in an F1 car? The Williams AT&T Toyota car for example, has a team of engineers following the race in real-time along with a dozen people in the pits. Streams of data on oil pressure, air pressure, engine temperature, and chassis stability are analyzed. They make instant decisions on when to pit-stop, how much fuel they should take to optimize power-to-weight, and countless other decisions to help them win a race.
By contrast, many IT organizations today have at least one big tech/software project spiraling out of control. Team sizes typically range from 12 engineers and business analysts to one project with (gasp) 350 people; all racing against the deadline. Some teams are in one physical location, but more often than not, many teams are split across vast distances, often experiencing extreme communication difficulties. There’s lots of overtime, as well as many missed birthday parties and kids’ soccer games, and way too much travel.
My point is that few have anything close to “sensors on the race car” to obtain readings on the performance of their team, and the project. Many say they’re too busy to spend time on project measurements. Most are not making their deadlines. The smallest cost overrun is about $3 million. The largest looks like it will be about $100 million. Some (about 1/3rd, based on project cancellation statistics) will not finish the race.
Setting up an “instrument gauge” using automated software measurement methods can involve as little as a few thousand dollars for a given project. I often ask teams if they track even the minimal, basic, project measures like elapsed time, staffing/effort, amount of software built, and the defect counts (only 4 sensors vs. 120). Most only collect two. They keep records on time and effort, but not on the amount of functionality they’d built, or the number of defects found during testing, or after the system us deployed. Many IT teams I’m talking about here get stuck inside the debate on using progress measures and whether they need them, as their projects crash and burn.
After 20 years in this business, I sometimes wonder if we’re living in a strange movie. Thank goodness for things like sushi, race cars, street festivals, and rock and roll bands.