Defence fires missile at IT industry

Defence fires missile at IT industry

Summary: Tech vendors cop a verbal hammering from the Australian Defence Force.


Technology vendors have taken a verbal hammering from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) after one of its top procurement chiefs blamed the industry for most of its IT project failures.

Kim Gillis, deputy chief executive officer of the ADF's procurement arm, the Defence Materiel Organisation, said vendors set unrealistic expectations in tenders -- which was usually the cause of those government IT projects failing.

Government tenders were often surrounded by "a conspiracy of optimism," said Gillis.

"Say I'm going to put in an IT system in 2000-and-whatever, and go out to industry and say 'I want you to give me this type of capability'," he told delegates at the Gartner Symposium conference in Sydney.

"And miraculously everybody who tenders comes in and says 'I can deliver that capability exactly how you specified on that day'.

"And everybody starts believing that it's a reality," he said.

DMO project managers were given a simple instruction for dealing with such companies, according to Gillis: "Don't believe it".

"Especially in the IT world, because I haven't seen in my experience in the last five years, an IT project delivered on schedule," he said.

"They do happen, but I haven't seen them."

False promises have often led to government IT project failures, according to Gillis. However, it was usually the government that wore the blame.

"The reality is the people who actually got it wrong are the industry participants who are actually providing the services," he said. "Most of the time the fault lies not with what I've actually procured but what they've actually told they're contracted for.

"At the end of the day what happens is, they've underperformed, [but] I take the hit," he said.

The DMO recently took steps to improve its procurement process by instigating the Procurement Improvement Program (PIP). It includes a series of consultations with industry and changes the tendering and contracting process.

Topics: Government AU, Government

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  • Who's the common demoninator here?

    When someone blames everyone else for failures, you can pretty well guess who's one of the biggest contributors to those failures. With quite a number of years in software project management (on both sides), I know that customers themselves can be one of the biggest hurdles.

    A software development project is a very, very different beast from buying a car or a tank. When I look at a large software project to assess whether it's going to succeed or fail, the first thing I look at is the customer. Who is the sponsor? Is he full time on the project? Is the customer CEO involved and have detailed visibility and interest? Without these things, the chances of a software project failing grow by some 3 to 10 times. And that is regardless of the skill and resources of the vendor.

    Sure the sales guy oversell capability, delivery and cost - but anyone who beleives that are those guys who beleive weight loss cures and other snake oils. And I admit many software project managers also believe the fairy tales spun by software team leaders. But day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute involvement and committment by the "real" end user (not consultants or proxies) right through the specification, development and deployment phases is essential. The cost of two or three staff guys is small compared to the blow-outs we see.
  • Severely constrained

    I agree. Whilst IT vendors are perhaps overly optimistic in their estimations, there is not a lot else they can do if they want to win the work.

    Whilst the procuring agency may not actually fix all three variables in the Cost, Schedule, Functionality triangle, they certainly place tight constraints on all of them, leaving the vendor no room to maneuver.

    The enjoyment of the moral high ground (having highlighted an unrealistic expectation) doesn't last long when it stops you getting work, either current or future.

    Try telling the Emperor he has no clothes.
  • defence fires missile at IT

    Greg, you are so right. Defence projects are cursed with part time amature civilian managers. I have sucessfully brought in large systems at defence but the key factor is always the civilian defence staff. Simple ratio the more of them the less likely the project will suceed.
  • IT Salespeople are the root cause

    theyll promise the earth and because very few of
    them know what theyre talking about (most dont even have any IT qualificatiosn of any substance or underpinning technical experience) its an orchestra of lies to get the sale across the line
  • Are you sure that it's the civilians all the time?

    I deal a lot with govt departments (not ADF) doing tenders for all kinds of IT related systems. To be honest, govt departments tend to be impossible to deal with. They have unreal expectations of cost and capabilities, and have no idea about running a project or consulting with the business. Too often i have seen project fail because of the incompetence of the department - projects run over time because you are unable to get the level of involvment, or the information that you require, and the goalposts tend to move constantly.
    There's also the mentality that it's a good idea to shop around for the best deal, or even combine tender responses to get a cheaper price. If 3 people reply to a tender, 2 of them are around $1m, and one is at $500k they will pick the $500k respondant without doing any due dilligence to figure out why there is such a price discrepancy. I've often been dragged in after a department went with the cheapest competitor, and it stuffed it up. Nobody thought to check the level of competence though. When that happens, my price goes up at least 50% for the pain factor, which i'm sure also leads to more projects ending up over cost, but that's the penalty for trying to save money in the short term.
    There's also a lack of very good project managers.
  • Problem with Defence

    All government departments have problems with (particularly) IT contracts because they are filled with incompetents who are not held responsible for their actions and project results. Defence is a particular problem because promotion (as it always has been) is based on [1] time in rank and [2] passed promotion exams. If public servants and defence officers were promoted on the basis of competence there probably wouldn't be as many problems.
  • defence fires missile at IT

    Hi JG, it looks from your comments we are in agreement. Generally the uniformed staff have a no nonsense attitude. The public servants (Civilians) are the same in all departments. I blame outsourcing that removed a bunch of seasoned professionals and left the hacks and the half trained. What happened to the IT strategic plan?
    Outsourcing is the "cultural revolution" of Federal government IT.
  • Problems with tendering for Defence

    One of the problems I saw with tendering for Defence projects it that they have a date attached to them. Instead of making accurate assessments based on the work required, sales staff are forced to commit to ADF initiated unreasonable deadlines. Wouldn't it be easier if ADF tenders didn't include a date and instead companies just submitted their tenders for the project with their own accurate estimate to complete the project. Although whenever sales staff are involved the estimates are usually underdone. The common word on working on defence projects (from people who work on them) is that job security is guaranteed long term because "you can always guarantee defence projects will run over time". It's almost like its expected.
  • A complex problem

    I think the blame is on both sides. Having worked in software development in defence for a number of years I have seen projects crushed by Government bureaucrats who have no real idea of what they want and are lost in the technology.

    By the same token I have seen the large multinational software development organisations hire the cheapest staff they can get and give them projects way beyond their capability. Also by bidding the cheapest price they can and defence accepting it they do not allow for cost overruns.

    Also don't forget that allot of the large defence projects have more than a little political influence also applied to their decisions. It will never be a easy problem to fix, as if defence wants to attract the best project managers they need to be able to pay the best money and give them the ability to make decisions without inference.
  • Unrealistic expectations!

    I've worked on ADF contract projects at many levels, from the tech-on-the-bench through liaison to project planning.

    The greatest problem in delivering a project on time and in budget is the unrealistic expectations of the client. This can be directly attributed to the lack of competence, experience, training and accountability of the people involved in writing and granting the tenders and supervising the project.

    The practice of picking the eyes out of a number of tenders to get the cheapest price is typical. Think A supplies the hardware, B supplies the software, C supplies the interface and D supplies the project management.

    Think Collins class submarines.

    Think designed to fail.
  • Hang on a sec...

    I've got an alternative scenario. A man goes to buy a car, he tells the dealer what he wants the dealer happens to have exactly the car for him! It later turns out that the car is somewhat less that he was led to believe.

    You've got to be an idiot to blame the vendors. Anyone buying anything has to suss out what theyre buying is really like. It's like buying "diet" everything and blaming Nestle for being fat.
  • Was the Infrastructure of the organization ready?

    I've read similar case studies occurring at various organizations. The most predominant reason for the IT system failing to deliver (for example, an ERP) was that the original IT infrastructure of the organization wasn't ready for the new system.

    Vendors deliver promises because that's what they do. What they don't do, however, is fix the aged infrastructure of the organization that will support the new system. It's related with the contractual agreements between the organization and vendors; most contracts, vendors just implement the system that was bought.

    The vendors make do with the infrastructure at the organization. If it's good, everything can go well. If it's not, there may be a problem looking for workarounds. Some things are not just covered in the contract and vendors won't do free, extra work.

    More over, sometimes, it's better to take 2 steps back to take 5 steps forward. Rather than going out there and spending millions for a new IT system, it's better to first audit and analyse the existing IT infrastructure and see whether it's ready for plans in the future. If it is not ready then it should be made ready.

    If your building is built on a sound and solid foundation, everything will be a success. If the foundation is frail and still misunderstood, failures will be coming in the future.
  • Not quite

    The person buying the car gets to see the car, drive the car, pick the color of the car even...

    The person signing the IT contract, sees a bunch of specifications with caveats and grey-area text, and then signs for it. Then when the customer says "this doesn't suit" the sales person goes "oohh ahh, that will mean we have to add $X million to change the whole architechture" and customer gets screwed. The problem, IS with Sales, who regularly sell vapour-ware, and then go to the developers and say "hey, build this before this date - i'll be in bali due to meeting sales targets and getting an expense paid trip from company due to my selling software that doesn't exist... yet"
  • Lack of engagement

    Not only do they have unrealistic deadlines they are also dificult to engage with when you may have a question.
    You get the same result " everything you need to know is in the tender documents and in fairness to all respondents we will not engage with individual vendors relating to this tender until the tender process has closed" What they dont often cover is the real business issue they want to address or who the favoured vendor was that helped them write the tender documents in the first place.
  • The problem is the entire tender process

    Everyone likes to blame the sales people for promising more than they deliver but the real issue is the entire process is designed to fail. Sales people knwo that if they do not meet with any of the given criteria on a tender then their offer will be ignored. So when it says deliver with 5 days notice between 9am and 11am to the person in charge and don't just drop it off at the back door, they have to promise to do that because if they don't they can't win the tender. And it doesn't matter how ridiculous the demands get they all have to be agreed to.

    If a sales person actually wrote an honest reply like, it will actually take 7 days on average and can sometimes take 14 days to deliver, we can't specify a time and the courier has to drop it off at the back door, then their offer will simply be rejected because someone else will promise the undeliverable. To top it all off we all know that it ends up going to the cheapest bidder so everyone is trying to cut costs where they can.
  • Call it what it is: 'outsmarting'.

    Then you can say, you have been outsmarted...
  • Rubbish.

    It's the uniforms that have the risk-averse, no initiative, "who's boots must I grovel before today?" , robot mentality.

    Half the decent civvies get up and leave after 6 months of obstructive tantrums thrown by shiny-bum desk jockey Majors and their fawning underlings.

    Seriously, after 10 years they're so institutionalised that anyone with an ounce of nous (read Vendors) can run rings all round them but merel;y hinting that *gasp* *shock* *horror* if they don't sign up RIGHT NOW then something might go wrong and the Colonel will get very very angry !

    Can't have that now, can we? And yes, I've worked in Defence for over 10 years myself.....
  • defence project delays

    It isn
  • Defence IT projects

    I recently went for a State Government contract PM role. The conversation with the interview panel went something like this:

    Me: what about budget?
    IP: Don
  • hang on a sec.....

    some people can see straight thru' to the core!
    Buyer beware, caveat emptor, they say it all.