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Users hear of some hard lessons learned

Users hear of some hard lessons learned

Many speakers at Computerworld's Mobile & Wireless World conference here in Scottsdale, Arizona, wanted to impart to attendees the lessons they learned during their own wireless projects -- and some of those lessons were hard indeed.

Foremost among the nuggets of wisdom: Pick the right company to partner with on your project. Two speakers talked about big problems that resulted from choosing the wrong partner.

"It was very difficult to work with them," Drew Mazeitis said of the first vendor his company chose to help implement a field service wireless system. Mazeitis is director of mobile technology at Ferrellgas, a propane distributor headquartered in Atchison, Kan.

Ferrellgas has completed 70 percent of a system that wirelessly connects propane delivery drivers to their central offices, centralizes customer information into a CRM system and provides real-time metrics to monitor operations, among other benefits.

But the project didn't start out auspiciously. Mazeitis said the first vendor "ended up not being a good fit for us." There were some problems with the vendor's hardware failing in cold weather, he said, but most of the problems were cultural. "They just weren't as interested in our business as we were," he said.

After a year of working with the vendor, Ferrellgas recognized the magnitude of the problems and began to work on another plan in parallel with the first one. That led to a successful pilot project that prompted Ferrellgas to "dump" the first vendor and pick a new one that was "much more aligned with what we wanted to do as a business" and upgrade by two years the technology being used, Mazeitis said. "It's a tough decision to make," he said, but for his company, "it was absolutely the right decision."

Sometimes the decision to choose a new partner is easier to make, such as when your job is on the line if you don't. That was the situation faced by Dale Frantz, CIO at Auto Warehousing Co., a new-car processor headquartered in Tacoma, Wash. Auto Warehousing installs accessories such as roof racks, CD players and alarms in new cars.

The company experienced problems with a value-added reseller hired to install a wireless tracking system at a processing plant in Tacoma. Among the problems were decreasing wireless coverage areas of stations designed to track cars as they were processed through different areas in the plant. Other problems included slow application response time, user dissatisfaction and a CEO who was "less than enthusiastic" about the benefits of the new project.

It was that latter problem that most concerned Frantz. The CEO threatened to cancel the project. Frantz paraphrased the CEO as saying, "You told us you could do all this; obviously there's a problem." The difficulties of the project were further hampered when the partner stopped returning phone calls and the project director resigned.

Frantz said he put himself on the line by maintaining to the CEO that the wireless project could work "and the value would be there."

"I basically gave the CEO my personal guarantee that we could get this done," Frantz said. Getting it done involved picking a new value-added reseller, who ultimately found out that wireless antennas hadn't been sealed correctly by the first partner so they were corroded by rain, which caused the decreasing wireless coverage areas.

Even more surprising, the new partner discovered that some antennas had actually been installed upside-down, which also limited wireless coverage. "It came down to the guy on the ladder installing the antennas knowing what he was doing on that particular day," Frantz said. "Our entire wireless project came down to the guy on the ladder."

Picking new partners and forging ahead with completing the projects paid off for both Ferrellgas and Auto Warehousing .

Mazeitis said Ferrellgas is coming off one of its best financial quarters ever, with increased margins, reduced expenses and steady revenues. Some practical benefits evident in the field: Managers have better tools so they can handle more people, and the same amount of propane is being delivered by fewer trucks.

Frantz said the pilot Tacoma project has paid off for Auto Warehousing in reduced staff -- particularly the workers formerly charged with finding "lost" cars at the plant -- increased efficiency and even the unexpected benefit of increased cash flow. "This program has been so profitable for us and has been so successful that we're going to roll it out countrywide," he said.

Best of all, he said: The CEO congratulated the IT staff on a job well done.

Other common lessons learned mentioned by various speakers at the conference included the need to do the following:

-- Secure executive buy-in or sponsorship of your wireless project.

-- Make sure that business needs, not technology, are driving the project.

-- Provide adequate training for your IT staff on the new technology.

-- Ensure the users of the technology are sold on the benefits of the new systems and will actually use them.

-- Use a phased approach, including pilot projects and tests, rather than a massive, single implementation.

-- Plan for future growth.

-- Know exactly what problems you want to solve and why.

-- Remember not to choose to implement a new system or technology just because you can.

-- Carefully evaluate available technologies and the product life cycles.

-- Install a quality infrastructure that can carry you forward through changes in technology.

Attendee Kyra Drennan, vice president of information systems at Lithia Motors Inc. in Medford, Ore., said hearing about the hard lessons learned was beneficial, even though her situations differed somewhat from those experienced by the speakers.

"It's helpful to know that there are pitfalls out there," she said. "But mine won't be the same." Remarking on the speakers who had to pick new partners in midproject, Drennan said, "It's painful, but sometimes you gotta do that.

She said picking the right partner can be difficult. "Unfortunately, in a lot of situations, you're buying smoke and mirrors" because vendors think they can do something that they really can't, she said.

Dan McGuire, a system manager at Lithia, agreed. "I think it's important that they've done it before," he said.

Rick Reinig, a vice president at American Express Technologies in Phoenix, also said hearing about the problems of others was helpful. "A lot of them are traditional IT problems," he noted.

He said one important lesson related by conference speakers was to ensure that all parties involved, such as developers and suppliers, were equally devoted to seeing the project succeed -- an outlook that he described as "having skin in the game."

Reinig said another key lesson was to secure executive sponsorship of your wireless project. "It just has to be," he said of the need for projects to be driven by the business side. He said a crucial question to ask is: "Do you have an engaging business sponsor who is willing to partner with you and overcome hurdles that may arise?"

Judging from the experiences of conference speakers, answering that question correctly just may help you hang on to your job.

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