Friday, September 09, 2011

10 Lessons from Project Malaysia

September 2007. One week before my CCIE SP lab exam.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. I was tired. I just came back from finishing up a project in some other country, and I got assignment directly to come here for a 3-day project kickoff meeting and design workshop. I heard the project was about migrating one of our key customer's multiple data centers from non-Cisco equipments to Cisco, but I didn't even bother to read the RFP or other project documents.

I met the Project Manager during dinner at Hard Rock cafe, and I told her I didn't prepare anything for the workshop. She said it's fine. There is another architect had been working with the customer for months during the pre-sales stage, and he would be the one who lead the workshop. My job was just to introduce myself to the customer, make notes during the workshop and take over the project from him later on.

Lesson #1: never meet the customer unprepared

After enjoying the live music at the cafe I came back to the hotel and studied for my CCIE SP lab. I spent more than 1000 lab hours practicing for my first CCIE, about 600 lab hours for my second, but for this attempt I had not even reached 200 hours. I ended not sleeping that night, practicing hard in my CCIE lab, instead of reading the project document. The other guy would take care everything, I told myself.

Lesson #2: do not assume someone will take care of everything

We met the customer at 9 sharp, just as the meeting schedule. I was still able to look good that morning due to the Red Bull that I consumed whole night. I looked around and tried to find a seat in the corner. The customer should not see me that much, I thought. Let the other guy run the show while I can just keep quite in the corner and if possible use the time to practice for my lab exam.

Ten minutes past 9, and the other architect was not there. The room was full with people from both customer and our partner company. I counted more than 20. Perhaps 30. My project manager saw the architect online on our internal IM. She pinged him. Told him to be hurry to come to the customer's office, as she thought the guy was still in his hotel room. He didn't reply. She started to feel that something was wrong. She pinged him again.

Then finally the guy replied. He said he was still in Australia.

Both the project manager and I didn't understand. After a quick chat with him, it seems like there was a misunderstanding. His manager assigned him for another task, that prevented him to come to the workshop, and he thought his manager had already informed us about it. His manager thought the same thing. It doesn't matter now. The most important fact is: he was there in Australia, and we were here in Malaysia. In front of the customer who expected a fully prepared workshop.

Lesson #3: there is no point for finger pointing

I looked at the project manager. She looked at me. I didn't even read the RFP. I didn't really know the scope of the project. The other guy was ready to lead the workshop. He had spent months with the customer to understand not only the project scope but as well as the existing setup.

It was almost half past 9.

The project manager only looked at me, she didn't say anything. She knew she couldn't ask much from me.
And I knew we need to do something.

Lesson #4: stand up and assume responsibility

I stood up and started the meeting. I introduced myself as the person who would lead the workshop. I told the customer the other guy had some personal issue and must cancel his flight in the last minute. From the face of customers I could see some of them were unhappy. They expected to see the other guy. He was the one who had been with them for some time. The other guy knew everything about this project.

Lesson #5: do whatever it takes to save the team

I wrote down the workshop agenda on the whiteboard. I didn't plan for it. Everything was on the fly. I didn't even think. I just followed my instinct. I had been in many design workshops so I just let myself run with the flow. I explained to the customer just like any project design workshop we would discuss the existing setup in day one, the second day was to discuss about the new high level network design, and the last day for migration options discussion.

Lesson #6: follow your instinct, the knowledge is already inside you

I didn't think. I just tried my best to show everyone that I knew what I was doing.

And some people from the customer were not convinced. They expressed their concerns regarding the other guy who should lead the workshop. Some other said we should not discuss the existing setup anymore because the other guy already knew everything. They expected to see the presentation of the new design. They wanted to focus on the new thing. They wanted to see more prepared workshop.

The other guy was not there, only me.

We spent some time to listen to customer's complaints. Then the project manager and I explained that everything that was discussed before during the pre-sales process needed to be discussed again in the kickoff meeting and the workshop as part of the methodology of any project we do with every customer.

Lesson #7: if you have to lie, do it full hearted

One person was still not convinced. He was so angry he left the meeting room.

I saw my project manager silently tried to send messages to our management about the situation. And I had to carry on.

We were moving slowly with the discussion. I asked the customer to draw the existing setup on the whiteboard. I asked lots of questions. Sometime the customer mentioned some of the questions had been explained to the other architect. I replied I need to do this to get official confirmation that will be written down in the meeting minute. I really didn't think to come up with such answer. I was just trying to keep the ball rolling and pass the day.

And amazingly we managed to achieve it. Day 1 workshop was over.

Lesson #8: continue to do whatever you think is right

That night I had dinner with the project manager and we discussed the plan for the second day. We had two options, either to give up and say we did the best we could but we can't just go back to Day 2 workshop without any new material, or try to do something. And we both knew whatever we wanted to do we had only that night.

It was easier to give up. To surrender. And to blame the other guy. It was not our mistake we were not prepared. We could go tomorrow to the customer and admit that we don't have any material to be presented. All the materials were with the other guy. The management team from our company would understand. The management would not blame us.

But we decided to go with the second option.

We worked together the whole night. I asked the project manager to summarize the requirements from the RFP and from project scope document. I compiled all the information about the customer's existing setup, put it into nice slides, took the requirements work from the project manager, and added the new high level network design based on Cisco architecture blueprint for data center. This was the project kickoff and the first design workshop anyway, so it should be fine to discuss only the high level of the new design.

I remember I had several cans of Red Bull to keep me awake that night, and to stay alive for the whole day during the second day workshop. I still don't know what my project manager was using to make her survive.

Lesson #9: always refuse to give up without any fight

With our material we managed to run the Day 2 workshop more successfully. I started the morning with reviewing the current setup and asked for more detail info. Then I discussed the requirements and I presented the new high level design. The slides looked good and professional. Everything looked good and the customer felt we were much prepared this time. Our manager arrived in the afternoon just to see everything was already under control.

And in the evening after the workshop he treated us in a very nice Japanese restaurant. All we-can-eat-and-drink style. I had never seen that many Japanese food on the table in my life.

Lesson #10: celebrate every achievement, no matter small

The third day was just to discuss the high level options available for the migration.

Until now I still can't believe we were able to complete the 3 days workshop with such short preparation, if you can even call it that. The workshop was not perfect but I would say still within the acceptable level compared to other design workshop that we did for any customers. And the most important, we didn't get kick out from the meeting room by the angry customer.

It was already Wednesday night and my CCIE SP lab exam was on Monday morning.

I told the project manager, and my manager, that I would be unreachable until the exam to focus on my study. She told me one thing that I probably would remember for the rest of my life: "you were able to handle such situation the past 3 days, no CCIE lab exam can test you more than that".

I was not planning for anything. It was my first lab attempt for SP track, so it should be fine even to fail.
But I was just doing exactly what I did during the workshop: refuse to give up.

From Wednesday I spent every minute I had to practice for my lab exam. I don't think I even slept from Thursday to Sunday. I flew to Brussels on Saturday, just to found out the Internet was not working in my hotel, so I stayed at Cisco office from Saturday until Monday morning. Even when all other CCIE candidates had already came to Cisco Brussels office around 7 morning on Monday, I was still there connecting to my lab console and practicing to the last minute.

I finished the 8-hour lab and I was happy at least I had given everything I got.
I decided to stay at Cisco office waiting for the result.

Around midnight I received the result email saying that, against all odds, I passed the SP lab exam in my first attempt.

That's the day I became a Triple CCIE.

And my project manager was right, the pressure in the lab exam felt much less compared to what we had been through during the workshop.

Bonus Lesson: no certification can beat what real world experience can offer

I hope this long story is useful.


Anonymous said...

Wow - how true is that. Abso100%lutely way of life for a network dude.

Can't agree more. It's a fact.


Anonymous said...

dude. you're a legend!

Anonymous said...

What a story of dedication and can do attitude, very inspiring


Anonymous said...

Yes and every word that he has put down is indeed true if not, a watered down version as the entire incident is still very much alive in my head..
and like I always say, If you believe you can do, you will do it. Until today, I am still very proud to be able to stand by his side and work with him in that project.
A man that is true to his heart and his belief is a man that is undefeatable regardless of the situation that he is in.
.... Ze PM

Himawan Nugroho said...

Hah, Ze PM has spoken :) Thanks for the good time in Malaysia. I like your quote, please allow me to use it for my next tweet :)

Anonymous said...

Great story; please continue posting your experiences, both in life and in difficult projects!