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Team spirit

Team spirit

Beca CIO Robin Johansen started divisions that are now working on major contracts for the engineering firm. We check out one such project with the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

As CIO of engineering consultancy Beca Group, Robin Johansen says his role differs from more traditional CIOs. He still carries out the day to day functions of the CIO role, but he also seeks to contribute to the business “in the widest sense”. For example, this contribution included establishing a new division, a business unit called Beca Applied Technologies (BAT) that has Johansen sitting on its board, along with another director role he holds in the company.

“I put up the argument for it to my colleagues and they said, ‘Yes, you can have a go’.” And he did, with the new division soon gaining a major government contract.

The CIO as mentor

In his career Johansen has worked within government and in the software sectors. He has been deputy secretary of defence in Wellington, along with a work history in “real time” and “real world” software and system applications.

Due to his director roles, Johansen sees his CIO position as less “hands on” and “more in the nature of being the village elder or mentor”.

BAT had a software capability to support its corporate needs, some of which had commercial potential. Thus, the software development team was separated into Beca Applied Technologies, with the aim of getting extra, outside work.

BAT had developed an online software tool called Derceto to assist in reducing the cost of water distribution. Johansen also helped spin that out as a separate entity from Beca with its own board, on which he is also a director.

Johansen was aware the RNZAF was upgrading its Orion P-3K fleet, noting the work was tailored for what the BAT unit could achieve and potentially lead to other work.

With his background in defence, Johansen marketed BAT’s capabilities as a subcontractor in the design and build aspect of the Orion project, and as a potential provider of subsequent support services to the RNZAF.

In September 2004, the government approved a $352 million project budget for the upgrade of the mission systems and communication and navigation systems on the six P-3K Orion aircraft operated by the RNZAF.

The aim was to extend the life of the existing 40-year-old planes and move the planes’ software from a proprietary MILSPEC system to a commercial off the shelf approach (COTS), based on Microsoft technology.

This COTS approach would reduce operation and maintenance costs throughout the life of the aircraft and make it easier and simpler to modify systems progressively. Such work can also be done locally as opposed to sending the planes overseas.

The scope of this project includes the replacement of the data management, sensor, communications and navigation systems, and the provision of associated ground systems.

The following month, in October 2004, Texas-based L-3 Communications Integrated Systems was appointed prime contractor. In turn, it sub-contracted software development work to BAT and plane modification work to Blenheim-based Safe Air.

Before the tenders were awarded, BAT made a bid to L-3 for subcontracting work, who then undertook due diligence of BAT’s capabilities.

Johansen played no role in developing the systems and software L-3 created for RNZAF, but BAT did provide specialists who contributed significantly to the components of the design.

The P3 Systems Upgrade meant a new approach to the management of the software for the RNZAF. It too had to restructure to support the development and maintenance of the software, as well as forging a unique relationship with BAT.

From analogue to digital

At Auckland’s Whenuapai Air Base, Wing Commander Brendon Pett details what the restructure involved. The RNZAF created a division called Integrated Mission Support Squadron (IMSS) to help maximise resources and use global best practice, as technology switched from analogue to digital.

IMSS has two divisions — Software and Simulation Support Flight (SSSF) and Mission Support Flight. MSF looks at data analysis and intelligence of onboard systems.

SSSF was primed to handle flight system data management, the flight management system and all the data required to support aircraft operations. This meant close co-operation between the airforce and its sub-contractor.

WCdr Pett, as commanding officer of IMSS, who runs and manages the IMSS unit and its output, explains this is not a case of giving BAT money and telling them to go away and make it happen.

“They are an integrated part of the team. The BAT team are working here. We talk to them every day. It’s not ‘here Bob, build me a house’, but we are working together every step of the way. Essentially, we treat them as part of the unit. They are non-uniformed members of the RNZAF,” he says.

BAT general manager Thomas Hyde confirms he and Robin Johansen deduced where the defence department was heading with technology and saw synergies for work on the Orion upgrade.

They also worked with the Texan vendor L-3, who had to show some local commitment as well as life support capability. BAT understood the New Zealand market and what was required with software engineering for the airforce.

The project started in 2005 and involved eight BAT staff working in Texas for up to 18 months, before returning to New Zealand to work on the final stages.

“It was a bold step for the airforce to enter a support contract with us before the aircraft turned up, [for the actual refit process]” says Hyde. “We had to establish process and support, to ensure we would be a well-oiled machine before the aircraft turned up.”

It meant developing procedures from scratch, with the RNZAF working closely with BAT on a software-based process model called IEEE12207.

That gave the project a process operations manual, which then led to a software assurance standard laid on top.

For BAT, it meant the airforce controlled the project and was not taken hostage by the vendor having too much power and influence. The airforce could see some gaps in functionality compared to what it wanted, but in a first, the airforce gave BAT the authority to make design decisions.

The first of the upgraded planes is currently being tested in the US and is due back early next year after around six months of testing. The other five will be modified and tested by Safe Air in Blenheim, with the final plane completed in 2012.

The technology shift means the analogue dials and gauges have gone and are being replaced by LCD touch screens with Windows, allowing the same flexibility as a home PC.

Both Hyde and WCdr Pett see trust and partnership as essential to the success of the project.

“It’s about daily engagement. They work with us in this building. We have coffee together, we play together. Partnership gives us the flexibility to look at things together. It’s not just bang for the buck. It’s also how we can both enhance our capabilities,” says WCdr Pett.

Now, just four to five months away from completing the project, the RNZAF has the software module that meets all its standards. Yet, a year ago, both parties only had a “blank sheet of paper”.

A computer network is up and running with the software environment established, using hardware BAT supplied. It is now setting up the support network with BAT looking at the data warehouse, and they are ahead of schedule in preparing for the return of the planes.

WCdr Pett says a great deal has been learned from this project for use on others, such as thinking of the support for the platform as much as the building, and putting in the support infrastructure as early as possible.

Both parties must trust each other and be open and transparent and not adversarial with each other, he says.

“We know what they are working under. They know what we are working under. Too many believe they will only trust so much,” WCdr Pett says.

“That leaves the contractor to fleece the client, as they will wonder whether they will have work in two years. We need to know what is important with these guys, as we want to be there for the long haul,” says Hyde.

WCdr Pett says the project also helped the airforce in seeing where technology was going and this helped in budgeting.

Hyde says it was Robin Johansen, as an entrepreneurial CIO, that had the strategic vision to see this opportunity.

Team building

Johansen, though, is keen to emphasise the role of people and teamwork, as BAT wanted to be a valued, long-term partner of RNZAF and be a capable, trusted advisor.

“We have a significant role on ‘getting it right’ and being innovative, so as to continually earn the opportunity to assist the RNZAF with its operational challenges. In this context, my role is as a director and the scoping and detailed work is carried out by the team we have established for this purpose,” Johansen says.

To deal with this and maintain his other work responsibilities, he established a capable team that operate, self-sufficiently. “My role is more that of the mentor providing advice on risk, strategy and relationships. We have grown from the point where I was rather ‘hands on’ to a position where the team leadership is empowered to control and manage their business.”

When it came to the RNZAF project, Johansen says BAT ran workshops with the airforce to understand its needs and to uncover areas of risk. This gave a strong foundation for the relationship and processes deployed to manage software development.

The biggest challenge, he recalls, was setting up the team of eight to spend three years in Texas, who would then return with the skills needed to perform the ongoing RNZAF support work in New Zealand.

Johansen wasn’t relocating to Texas, so a capable leader with enough autonomy to make onsite decisions was required. Past experience had taught him that leaving decision-making to the “head shed” was a recipe for failure, so only complex issues were referred back.

An RNZAF person seconded to the team in Texas also helped with on-the-spot decision making.

However, gaining the right work visas for the Texas-bound team was “horrendously complicating”, and required an immigration attorney to sort matters out.

Having staff in Texas created a complex web of relationships, needing phone calls and return visits by team members to ensure the project stayed firmly on track.

It also meant having staff in Texas with a good cultural fit and team players keen to help each other, with no prima donnas.

“We had a real focus on the human aspects of the project and I would observe this was more important to us than any technology-based challenges.”

Johansen advises organisations looking to achieve a similar outcome to develop a strategy, test it and stick to it.

“Focus on leadership and people. Empower your people to make decisions. Work on relationships constantly. Another key point I think, was that we had the skills and maturity in our team to be able to select people for the Texas deployment with confidence.

“We had a good idea about what we were letting ourselves in for technologically and this aided our team selection.”

He says the project is less about a CIO and more about team effort — New Zealand Inc — an important relationship between the RNZAF and private enterprise.

“The RNZAF have done an amazing job in re-inventing themselves and establishing processes to manage complex airborne systems and software.

“To my knowledge, it is also the first time that the RNZAF has granted design authority for software to a New Zealand company — hitherto this work went offshore,” he says.

Editor’s note: Beca Applied Technologies received the "Award of Excellence to Industry under Category C: New Zealand based Subcontractors to Overseas Prime Contractors" for this project with the RNZAF at the The Minister of Defence Award of Excellence to Industry 2009 event.

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