Today’s Daily Prompt from WordPress is called Against All Odds. It asks us to write about an instance where we triumphed even when the odds were against us. Since my story takes place mostly in the South of England, I have a cup of Taylor’s Earl Grey tea next to me to help set the mood.
In 1994, I was working for a small software firm in Earth City, MO. The company produced and sold software package for managing small phone systems and PBX’s. The system was called Communications Control Center, or C3 for short. It handled things like trouble tickets, service orders, inventory, etc. I had worked there for about four years at that point. I started as a developer and worked my way up to system architect. Since I had both technical and business knowledge of C3, I was the “go to” guy when there was a crisis.
In late Spring of 1994, there was a huge crisis. Working with a partner in England, we sold C3 along with some modifications and new functionality to a subsidiary of a large British telecom company. The subsidiary was rolling out a pilot program using what was then new technology: voice-over-IP, in other words, phone service from the cable company. We spent months making changes and adding new features to support the requirements of this new environment. When we delivered we heard those words no one ever wants to hear, “This isn’t what we asked for. This isn’t what we need.”
We were in trouble. Not being able to deliver, we were facing the loss of a huge contract, but even worse, if our client was not able to deliver, they made it clear we were looking at being responsible for serious damages. We were looking at what could easily have been an existential threat.
I keep saying “we” since I was working at the company, but the reality was that to this point my involvement in this project had been marginal. Another system architect had gone over to England to gather the requirements, and she was overseeing the development for this client. I was working on another project. That is until things started falling apart.
A few days later, I was on a plane with instructions to do what I could to salvage the situation. I read the project documents on the plane so I was up to speed when I walked into the client’s office. At the client’s, I started doing what I usually do in a crisis. I started asking questions to see if I could narrow down exactly where the problems were. It took a couple of days to sort things out. It wouldn’t have taken that long, but I walked in with a serious set of misconceptions based on what had been in the documentation. As I went through the requirements with the client, I asked them, “Why didn’t you tell this to the other system architect?” They said, “We did. She wasn’t very good at listening. She was convinced she knew what we needed, and she didn’t really pay attention to what we told her.”
When everything had been hashed out, the situation wasn’t as bleak as it could have been. Some of the problems were simply training issues. The client didn’t realize the system could do most of what they needed. They just didn’t know where to look. In other areas, modifications would have to be made.
Over the next few weeks, I worked with the client’s technical team to test the system and isolate exactly where changes would have to be made. As problems were identified, I communicated the information back to my company’s development team and walked them through the coding and testing. Having worked as developer, I was able to guide our team as to exactly where to make the changes and how to test them. As the team released new code, it was sent to the client and we repeated the cycle.
By the time the client needed to deliver, they had an operational system. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was enough to meet their needs. The client was happy. We had proven to them that we were willing to do whatever it took to get the thing done, and that impressed them. When I left to come back home, they let me know they were considering us for some new work they had coming up. It was a complete turnaround. It had been an enormous amount of work, but I went home happy.
I suppose I should include the epilogue to this story. Are you wondering what happened to the other system architect who had so thoroughly screwed things up? Yes, she was promoted. Within a year, I was working somewhere else. When I checked a few years ago, the company was still there despite themselves.