Thursday, March 10, 2011

Making progress feels good

I think it was last summer when I first started spending time on a new big project at work in earnest. We have a long-term strategy to eliminate an ancient, legacy system piece by piece, and as we go, replace it not just with state-of-the-art systems, and the associated better business processes, but also with systems that are maintained and programmed by someone else. This is because our staffing cuts and the changing IT industry make it impossible for an organization like ours to keep working with in-house software.

(Incidentally, this is stupid. The amount of money we'll pay out in annual software support fees will easily exceed the entire salary and benefits of the positions we'll have eliminated, and then some. But just like the centralization/decentralization pendulum, the insourcing/outsourcing one seems determined to swing through the sensible balance point only briefly before charging on to the misinformed extremes.)

I started by doing research, talking to vendors, having a number come to demos, and coming up with a plan. The next step would be to write an RFP, which is essentially a lengthy legal document, mostly built from boilerplate verbiage but with a few dozen pages of my own text. The RFP has to be vetted by a large number of people to make sure it serves its purposes: to help vendors determine if they could do the work for us, to help us determine which vendor proposals are good, to become the backbone of the statement of work that will form the resulting contract, and to protect everyone involved from unanticipated (and anticipated) legal problems. But underneath the tons of legalistic parts, there is, at the heart, a statement -- hopefully complete and well-informed -- of what work you want done.

However, there were a large number of other things that were more urgent, because we are still short-staffed, with more to do than ever before and fewer people to do it, plus I have had a lot of staff outages for various reasons during the last few months. I've also had to spend a disproportionate amount of time on administrative issues, about which I cannot freely speak. And there was the holiday season, which is always a strain on any retail operation. Thus, I never got to do that writing. I did go to New York City for a few days to attend the National Retail Federation trade show, as part of my research and preparation, but otherwise, what little time I could spend on this got eaten up by handling the frequent "just touching bases" calls from eager vendors.

In the last few weeks, I've had a domino effect of good progress which has been really encouraging. A few times, notably this week, some of the ugly things that had been getting better have backslid, but notwithstanding that, I've been able to accomplish some things that feel very good -- though at the same time, the fact that I didn't get to do them six months ago is kind of agonizingly, embarassingly awful. Notably, having finally put the new help desk into production, gotten my new cubicle wall systems designed and ordered, and knocked out a few other projects, I finally got to start writing the RFP. And in less than a week, I have the second draft beginning the rounds of reviews. (It'll probably be minimum a month before it gets issued, but at least it's off my desk.)

Of course all the days spent talking to people, reading up, seeing demos, visiting vendors, etc. contributed. But when I finally was able to start writing, it took only a couple of days. So how sad is it that it took me six months to find a couple of days I could just write, without being interrupted, without something more important to intrude? I sometimes think I should work out a deal with my boss where I tell people I'm taking a vacation, but I really just go home and work on things like this, and that way I can get a lot done before anyone catches on.

It's also disheartening to think about how projects like this can't get done due to the overwhelming crush of things that we have to do, and too few people to do them, just to keep the place working day to day. That's because completing projects like this is what will ultimately fix the problem of having too huge a pile of things to do day to day. We spend 99% of our time keeping the old systems and business processes working that are wearing us out and demanding too much for the resources we have available. So we can only spare 1% for the long-term investments that will eventually get us out of this hole.

As much as the idea that it took this long to do this much is sad, I am overall feeling pretty good about making this progress, and feeling like things are moving in a forward direction again. Six months of holding pattern, two weeks of progress. Sure, it's heart-rending that that's the proportion, but when you're in those two weeks, it feels great. Got to savor it while it lasts.

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