Cloud experts: How to speak their language

Cloud computing

When I recently announced that I had finished a cloud computing project a few weeks ahead of schedule, the man I reported to seemed perplexed. He reminded me of a referee faced with a professional footballer who turns down a penalty. I suddenly realised you don’t do this in our game. But I’d feel guilty dawdling around in someone else’s office, doing nothing. I know all the tricks contractors play when they’re ‘running down the clock’. Apparently, it’s bad form to own up – unprofessional, even – so it’s up to you, the cloud buyers, to blow the whistle when the game is over. But you don’t know the tell-tale signs.

Here’s our guide to five signs to spot if a cloud specialist is just seeing out their contract.

1) Acting busy

The signs are there if you know how and where to look. Look for someone being very still. I heard of one horrible engineer in a health service client’s site. His work took minutes to complete but, he later boasted, he has to see out the rest of the day to justify the massive bill for his ‘services’. So he played Solitaire on his laptop for half the time. The rest he spent eavesdropping on the communications between patients and consultants.

A handily placed CCTV cameras would have caught this monster out.

2) Part time

Apparently, there’s a big rise in the number of part time project managers. Indeed, research by Russam GMS (a specialist in this field) found that 31 per cent of project managers are part-timers. And their daily rates went up between December 2011 and December 2012, which is good going in an otherwise stagnant economy.

I’m shocked at the rise of the part-timer. You can’t project manage anything if you’re only around on Tuesday, Thursday and the first Friday of every month (bank holidays excluded). This contradicts fashionable thinking, but I find the current obsession with part-time management frustrating. They may be wonderful in some areas of employment, but in project management, part timers don’t work.

A colleague carried out a project for a large british telecoms company (I won’t name them) which seems to adopt every trendy management idea. The contract lasted much much longer than it ought to have done, but he had a great excuse. The person he reported to was only ever available twice a week. Just to make things interesting, the two days on which he could get any decisions signed off turned out to be flexible. So not only was the target small, it was constantly moving. Any snags encountered meant that production could be halted until the line manager was back.

It had a happy ending though. My colleague used to work with the absentee line manager, so nobody questioned him when he did nothing all day. But somebody, somewhere in that company was paying for this largesse.

3) Creating jobs

The thing about cloud computing projects is that you never really know how long anything is going to take. Spinning up a server takes minutes rather than months. A neat trick is to create thousands of virtual servers, then spend loads of time deleting them. That looks a bit like proper work and you can always produce a report, written in turgid techie language that nobody will understand or have the patience to try to interpret.

4) Report writing

All businesses like to offer you something that looks substantial but doesn’t cost much to produce. One reseller I heard about used to charge its client for converting all the client’s documents into PDFs. When an honest service provider took over the contract, they pointed out the ‘work’ they’d been paying a fortune for was a one-click option in Word.

I know a bloke who produced a report for a big vendor. The essential points that the sales team needed to know were in an 1,800 word management summary. But nobody wants to pay a fortune for a slim document. So he had to pad the report out, in order to make a big bulky, table-thumping directory. No one would actually read the extra padding, but size matters in middle management. The contractor took the precaution of bulking the report with spreadsheets and tables in a masterly display of how to use Excel’s cut and paste special function.

Beware anyone who begins to produce long reports for you. Especially if they contain pie charts, venn diagrams and those funny spider’s web charts.

Once you have a report, you need to call a meeting for as many people as possible….

5) Meetings

Meetings are like police officers: you get good ones and bad ones.

The good ones get people on track and working as a team. The bad ones exploit their power for their own benefit. It seems obvious when pointed out, but meetings are a brilliant way for contractors to waste time – at your expense and to their financial gain.

Don’t get me wrong. As a project manager, it’s vital that I have a daily meeting with people to keep everyone focused and pulling in the right direction. But a good meeting has to be short and to the point.

We’ve all been to meetings that meander all over the place, with conversations going off at a tangent and people introducing fabulously ambitious projects that are entirely impractical. These meeting types are a dream for the time serving meeting-monger, who needs to fill his day while giving people the impression that he’s working. There’s no room to outline the details, but a time waster can easily put the right elements in place to create an all day meeting culture that will keep his contract going indefinitely. In big organisations (both private and public) this is easily doable and nobody will have to take responsibility for reining in the meeting culture. But you will ultimately be paying for it.