Project impossible

The Millennium Dome might go down in history as a costly white elephant, but for the people who turned it into a reality it was...

The Millennium Dome might go down in history as a costly white elephant, but for the people who turned it into a reality it was not all doom and gloom. The IT director of the New Millennium Experience, Gary Bettis, tells Computer Weekly how he implemented the IT strategy on time and in budget

A little over three years ago I gritted my teeth and accepted one of the toughest challenges in the IT industry in recent years - the role of IT director at the Millennium Dome.

In September 1998, I was asked to advise on the IT strategy of the New Millennium Experience, the company which was set up to run the Dome, and assess the overall management of the project. I made recommendations to the board and was offered the job as IT director of the New Millennium Experience. I was 28 years old. The Dome was already making headlines in the national media and pressure was building to deliver a successful project.

The decision to take the job was, of course, a difficult one. I knew that if I failed, my career in IT would effectively be at an end, having worked hard in all the roles I had undertaken to date, I was not prepared for that effort to go to waste.

When I joined the New Millennium Experience team the chances of delivering a project on time and within budget were slim since some elements of the project were already more than five months behind schedule. With a deadline that could not be changed and a stretched budget, the route to success was not obvious.

The key projects, including the ticketing system, the call centre and the asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) network were between three and five months behind schedule. Given that these were to be some of the largest projects of their kind - the ATM network was the largest in Europe - it was clear that things would have to be turned around rapidly. The situation looked bleak, with sponsorship deals unsigned and most areas of the project a long way off plan.

From the outset, it was evident that there was no clear project management and the quality and speed of decision-making had to improve if deadlines were to be met. The first decision was to rebuild the team to give greater control to the right people.

It was also essential to revisit all the projects and rethink the working plans. It was clear that deadlines would never be met.

The workload was necessarily a heavy one. I felt that the best way to recruit additional staff of a high enough calibre was to encourage sponsorship. The working relationships developed with Compaq and 3Com brought the extra manpower and expertise needed to make the project work, as well as providing additional funds to cover the cost of the equipment.

There had to be tighter control over the whole project management process and principals. A full understanding of the deliverable aspects of each project, risk and issue management and strict change control all played a major part in ensuring the projects had a better chance of success.
Our first major deadline, 22 September 1999, was the launch of the largest online ticketing system in the world. Given the level of the press and media attention, it was an ideal opportunity to prove that the Millennium Experience would be a success. After careful project management, and many 48-hour shifts, the ticketing system was finally ready to go. The tight timeframes had meant that the system had not been properly tested so the first customer call was to be the measure of our success.

At 7am on 22 September, the system was turned on and the silence was broken by the sound of agents answering calls. The first 20 minutes went smoothly enough, as calls came through and the system worked as planned. However, Channel 4's Big Breakfast programme decided to test the system. Johnny Vaughan had come across the number when scanning the morning newspapers and decided to test our nerves with a quick call to the ticket hotline. We knew that the call had to be answered as quickly as possible, and hurriedly tried to find the line he would come through on. Perhaps fortunately in the circumstances, a commercial break was imminent and the Big Breakfast went off-air just as he got through.

After a few minutes of winding us up on the phone Vaughan hung up and went back on air. However, instead of finding fault with the system, he reported that the call centre was working, that he had now bought his tickets to the Dome and encouraged others to do the same. Relief flooded the call centre. The first hurdle had been cleared.

Perhaps the issue that made the entire Dome project so different from others was its daily unpredictability. After all, the technology was being implemented on what was effectively a huge building site.

Miles of fibre optic cable and networking equipment had to be installed in communications rooms which were still being built. Dirt and dust were an inescapable problem throughout and installation was virtually impossible at times as the cable seemed to act as a magnet for dirt. As expected on any building site, we also suffered from general day-to-day mishaps. These could not be foreseen and were a drain on both time and resources. As well as having to cope with continual logistical and access problems caused by the building work, we had to deal with iron gates being dropped on fibre optic cables and power cables dug up.

One of the most expensive accidents happened in the Tesco learning zone which contained an area of artificial grass with numerous "pods"containing a PC to play a learning game. Each connected to fibre optic cables laid in the grass. A decision was made to cut the grass and within minutes, all the cables had been cut along with the artificial grass.

Yet, despite all of these problems, the IT project was completed on time and within budget. In fact, the IT spend was £500,000 below budget, due to tight control and management during the final year. Although many of the problems were impossible to predict, the only way to make sure that the budgets were met was to ensure that there was sufficient contingency built in so that any issue could be dealt with effectively.

I firmly believe that project managers must take a holistic approach to both the problem and the solution. It is this view that brings the whole project cycle together and which proved vital at the Dome.

It is a fact that most projects that either run late, go over budget or produce poor quality systems, actually go wrong at the outset. Those involved often have a poor understanding of the purpose of the project, what it will achieve and how much effort is truly required to achieve the end result. The job of the project manager is to create this understanding.

It was evident at the Dome that not all the facts were known when the project was started. However, this is rarely taken into account. It is clear that the project was allowed to proceed as though all the facts were available and budgets and delivery dates were set accordingly. It is imperative to assess and report the reality of the situation so that it can then be dealt with and managed properly. To do otherwise is simply wishful thinking. Projects that are not born out of a realistic understanding of the facts are often delivered late and go over budget.

If a project is to be delivered on time, within budget and without any fundamental problems during its lifetime, it is vital that it is well initiated and continues to have proactive communication and expectation management throughout its lifecycle.

Curriculum vitae: Gary Bettis

April 2001 - present

Managing director, Business Systems Group
April 2000 - December 2000
Razorfish - client services and programme management director
October 1998 - April 2000
IT director, New Millennium Experience Company
February 1996 - October 1998
Independent consultant helping Jacques Vert, British Airways, Automobile Association and Canadian Utilities
September 1993 - February 1996
IT manager, Blythe Valley Borough Council
September 1988 - August 1993
Various roles in IT, Rolls-Royce, Clarke Chapman .

Gary Bettis is managing director of Business Systems Group

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