How near-fatal encounters with savage beasts can teach you risk management
courtesy of Ianaré Sévi
The Denver Post reported that an alligator recently killed in Florida measured 14 feet, three and a half inches, and weighed 654 pounds. I wish I had bagged the savage beast, because I need a new comforter for the master bedroom.
Gators and I have a long history of encounters and, so far, judging by the fingers, arms and legs I still possess, I have the edge.
When I was nine, I was at the Eau Gallie Zoo in Florida, and a small one-foot railing separated the public from an alligator pool measuring about four by 10 feet. I had been to the zoo two or three times, and had never seen the alleged reptile, and assumed the zoo was deceiving the paying patrons. I figured before I stormed the zoo office to complain, I’d better have proof, and so I hopped over the railing, grabbed a rake, and turned it over so I could jab into the pond with great force and accuracy. I raised the rake high over my head and plunged it into the pond repeatedly. I kept hitting bottom, and turned to my sister-in-law and said, “I told you! There has never been an alligator…” well, before I finished the sentence, the water exploded in a tornado of white froth, and the incensed gator leapt from the water and looked for the man at the other end of the wooden spear that had been ramming his back. He didn’t get the chance to demonstrate his disappointment with me; before the rake hit the ground, I was easily 50 yards away.
My second encounter was in Big Pine Key, also in Florida. I was then about 28. My brother and I went to a large freshwater pond on the north end of the island, and parked the car. There was a sign stating that no swimming was permitted due to alligators.
“Nonsense,” I told my brother, “they’re just trying to keep kids from coming back here to drink beer and swim.”
“I don’t know,” he said pointing to a large object washed up on the edge of the pond, “what’s that?”
I looked, and shrugged. “A burned log. Here…” I grabbed a rock about the size of a golf ball and whipped it down, thumping the log, and ricocheting into the water. “See, it’s just wood.”
“I’m not sure,” Richard said, grabbing a tennis ball-sized rock, and closing to about 20 feet, sent a fastball at the log, eliciting another hollow ‘thunk.’ “Maybe you’re right.”
“I am right, and I’ll prove it.” I grabbed a softball shaped stone and hurled it as hard as I could at the log.
If you ever want to test an alligator’s patience to sit perfectly still hoping for prey to wander by, I highly recommend pelting it with heavy, sharp rocks. The monstrous reptile exploded from the water at a dead sprint. As the old joke goes, I didn’t have to beat the alligator, I just had to beat Richard, and I was in much better shape. We barely touched the ground as we headed toward the parking lot hurtling the guardrail like Edwin Moses. The gator didn’t catch Richard, and had no chance at me, as I had saved the dash of my life for that very moment.
The last encounter was maybe 20 years ago. My buddies and I were waterskiing on the intercoastal waterway near Stuart, FL. We knew there were gators all along the banks of the waterway, but we all were good skiers and almost never fell. Almost…
I was behind the boat screwing around and trying to hop the wake when I caught the nose of my ski and went face-first into the river. I chose that moment to recall the old Tarzan films, and each one had a scene where ferocious crocodiles* would slither into the water at lightening speeds (aided by the hokiest of special effects: sped-up film), and usually some slow swimmer was croc-o-lunch. Sure as hell, when I came up blowing the stinking algae-ridden water from my nose, I saw a gator slip into the waterway about 20 yards off. I was a college swimmer, and had a pretty good sprint freestyle that came in handy. Let me tell you; if Michael Phelps was racing me to the boat, he’d have glimpsed my heels and nothing more. I was to the boat, grabbing the gunwales, and somersaulting into the filthy bilge water in the bottom with such speed that I didn’t notice my Speedo ripping, and then faced a shower of beer as my companions laughed so hard brew spewed from their noses with tremendous force.
There’s a huge difference between tempting disaster with aforethought (as I did) and being blindsided though neglect, carelessness or unreasonable expectations.
One of the biggest mistakes during informatics project deployments involve customer-driven time estimates for project tasks. Purchasing agents everywhere make their living by demonstrating fiscal responsibility and diligence, and these qualities often are manifested out of overlaying techniques for task estimation from some unrelated area onto an informatics project.
Case in point: I have seen purchase orders crossing my desk asking for a certain amount of hours to perform a task, and containing the mantra of purchasing agents everywhere, “Not to exceed this amount without prior authorization.”
Well, let’s chat about time and materials (T&M) projects, fixed-price projects, and this wonderful amalgam called the time and materials with a not-to-exceed clause.
Time and materials projects
The fodder for Scott Adams and Dilbert cartoons for many years, these have been demonized because of the perception that the sole goal in the life of a supplier or independent consultant is to run up the tab on the unsuspecting customer. In the eagle-eyed vision of a corporate purchasing agent, T&M is tantamount to a blank check, and therefore unlimited abuse.
The reality: In the eyes of a vendor, ill-defined requirements, unreasonable or unfounded time frames, indefinite turnaround times on customer tasks, and uncertain customer dedication of resources all drive the risk to stratospheric levels. The best way is to approach a project using the theory of taxi drivers everywhere: “you want to go five miles, you pay for five miles, you want to go ten miles…”
Have you ever told a cabbie upon touching down at O’Hare airport, “I need to get to Rolling Meadows, but I have only $5.” The response will likely take the form of, “I can get you to the first toll booth for that, and then let you out.”
The bane of vendors and consultants everywhere. For a set fee, a certain quantity of work will be done. If the work is estimated at a month and the vendor takes a week, the vendor wins. If it takes two months, the vendor takes a bath. Purchasing agents love to ask for fixed price terms, as they can forget expenses, much of the accounting, and all many other elements associated with the project accounting.
The reality: Well, the dark truth under fixed-priced projects is that the scope and deliverables must be defined down to the minutest detail, and change control options will be put in place by the vendor. Now, if you’re having your house painted and decide to ask for the painters to also do your garage, not problem. Quote-change order-presto! But, in software deployment, the risk to the vendor is huge, especially if they are neophytes in software services estimation. The hidden secret in fixed-priced projects is that experienced vendors will contain their risks by strictly and militantly defining project scope, and the customer will pay heavily for changes.
Time and materials with a not-to-exceed clause
This option is by far the preferred approach of purchasing agents everywhere because it establishes a fixed-price ceiling with the not-to-exceed limit, yet pays only for the work done up to that amount. This beats the fixed-price option hands down because there is always a chance the fixed-price contract award was too generous. Due to any one of a number of factors, the project may have been estimated at, say, two months, but in reality would take most vendors three weeks. Tough turkey; the vendor gets the full amount in this case. But, in the not-to-exceed case, the customer gets the piecemeal benefits of time and materials with the luxury of the fixed-price ceiling.
The reality: In truth, what happens in 95 percent of these not-to-exceed scenarios is that the project leaders have asked for X dollars from the company, and have estimated some buffer in the event that additional requirements are discovered. But, what happens if major changes are required and those changes are 2X the original budget (and this is a more frequent occurrence than you might think). Well, someone has to go back to management to ask for mucho more funds, and that’s never a good thing.
Where did the numbers come from in the first place?
In many cases, customers plead for project task estimates before either the customer or vendor has agreed on project scope. Vendors hate giving unqualified and contingent estimates because, no matter how many times they document in their own dark red blood that the estimates are just that, estimates; until a statement of work is developed, the number they submit is carved into the granite-hard memories of the purchasing agents and corporate sponsors. The vendors are scolded for giving a too-low number, and they in turn point to the caveat in the estimates where the “your mileage may vary” clause is invoked.
But, there will be blood, as the saying goes, and no one wins when corporations go back to the well.
This is why I’m such a staunch advocate of using workflow analysis to set system scope and drive the requirements. The potential for hard feelings is still there, but mitigated somewhat by systematic due diligence. One thing I have grown to loathe is vendors who mitigate their own risk by simply ignoring the planning stage, and asking the customer “what do you want us to configure for you today?” This essentially places the burden of the system scope and design on the backs of those who are least able to know the possibilities a complex piece of software can deliver: the customer.
Beware of the vendor who compresses the entire planning stage into a two-hour coffee break before leading the charge to the keyboards to “just get the damned thing started.”
*Of course, in Hollywood, they may have used alligators disguised as crocodiles.
Randy Hice is Director, Strategic Consulting at STARLIMS. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.