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Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Death Star: Poor Project Management in Practice

This week I pulled out my Star Wars DVD's and watched them from start to finish for the first time in a few years. Those movies were the baseline for my childhood. I remember playing Star Wars with my friends on Sunday afternoons as a child. There would always be the argument over who would play Luke and who would play Han Solo, with the unluckiest kid getting stuck as Chewbacca or Lando. We'd run around the neighborhood fighing Tie Fighters and AT-AT's. But watching these holy films as an adult is a different experience entirely.

The opening scene of 'Return of the Jedi' is a prime example. Lord Vader arrives at the second Death Star which is under construction. Apparently the Death Star construction is behind schedule, and the primary stakehold (Emperor Palpatine) is not happy. So Lord Vader flies out there to speak with the Commander in charge of the construction to get them back on schedule. The commander tells Lord Vader that the timelines are ridiculous, and that he needs more men to meet the deadlines.

I watch this scene and now, I see the whole Death Star construction as a project. Complete with milestones, tasks, assigned resources,  stakeholders and status meetings. And I can't help but see a few of the problems facing the Death Star project.

1. Bad Assumptions

I can just see someone saying "Well, the second one should be easier than the first because we have learned so many lessons". Normally, yes this would be true. But you've got quite a few differences this time around. First, you've lost  Grand Moff Tarkin, arguably the father of the Death Star, when he died in the explosion of the first Death Star. Who knows how much knowledge was lost there that could impact timelines. If you lose your subject matter expert, don't expert to gain efficiencies on the next project automatically!

Secondly, even when repeating similar projects, they each have their own differences which can manifest unique problems. And I'm just talking about software development for enterprises. Imagine building giant space stations the size of a small moon!

2. Poor Escalation of Issues

The first thing the commander says to Darth Vader is "I need more men!". Really buddy? You have had resource bandwidth issues for long enough that the primary stakeholder has noticed and has had to take action? Your lucky Lord Vader didn't force choke you on the spot. You have to escalate the issues when they first crop up, not halfway through the development process.

Waiting until your already behind on the milestones and tasks is horrible project management. And just throwing more people at a problem is not going to solve it. You need bring in the right resources, not just more people. I've seen this dozen of times. A project is behind schedule, so the PM tries to just throw more hands at the problem by utilizing a bunch of offshore resources or low cost junior developers at the problem. The result? Poor quality deliverables that need to be rewritten by a more senior resource at greater expense and more time.

3. The Production Deadline Drives the Process

The Emperor engages the rebel fleet with this half constructed Death Star on purpose. Its not even fully built yet. Its fully operational in regards to the fact that its Planetary Laser is working, and he blows up a few capital ships. But a full frontal attack by capital ships was never the weakness of the Death Star, it was small fighters attacking it that made it vulnerable.

The second Death Star had the defect fixed so that the exhaust ports would not allow a direct hit to blow it up. But its outer hull and its full complement of defenses are not finished when the Emperor traps the rebels into fighting. If the Emperor had waited until the Death Star was fully completed like the first one, then there would have been no holes in the hull to allow the ships to fly to the center and blow it up!

Deploying a half completed application into production is going to bite you in the ass everytime!

Oh Palpatine, if you had just managed the construction of the second Death Star properly, you could have won! You could have crushed the rebel scum! Oh well.