Giving Nothing, Getting a Lot

After the CIMCO project, my boss decided a cool off period for me and assigned me as a Project Coordinator for the Tax Automation Project for Royal Government of Thailand. CIMCO project was very taxing in which 8 of us worked at a stretch for 8 months to produce more than 5000 C programs with an average of 10000 lines of code per program to produce a complete MRP II solution. The Tax Automation Project was awarded to NIIT by IBM, the chief solution provider to Royal Government of Thailand. IBM awarded the Phase III of this project at a contract price of USD 835,000 to NIIT. This was the biggest value project for NIIT, Calcutta unit at that point of time.

NIIT ramped up quickly to put together a team of 40 Engineers and Technicians to work out of the Calcutta Office in Pretoria Street, plus me operating from IBM office in Bangkok. I joined the project by reporting at the IBM Office on Thanon Phahonyothin on 08Jan1997. I was given a large room on the 15th Floor of the 30 storey building. The first 11 floors of the building was used for parking. All of the building was occupied by IBM except for the 12th floor which was occupied by American Express.

My role was non-technical as I was supposed to do the following.

  1. Gather the User Requirement Specifications/Design Specifications as documented by the NIIT Team in Calcutta and pass it to the IBM Team and get their feedback and pass it back to Calcutta.
  2. Gather the queries from the NIIT Team in Calcutta and pass it to the IBM Team and get the replies and pass it back to Calcutta.
  3. Arrange for meetings when any of the members of the NIIT Team would need a face-to-face meeting with anyone in the IBM Team.

However, I had access to all the documents produced by NIIT or provided by IBM to NIIT as they would pass through me. This was because at that point of time in NIIT, Calcutta we had only one email account and that belonged to our Vice President. I got my first email account in my name in my life when IBM provided me an email account. So, when the team in Calcutta needed to send any delivery, they used the only account in the centre to send to my account and I would then send to the appropriate people in IBM and vice versa. So, I used to read through all the documents as I had enough time.

I had 2 points of contact in IBM. Khun Apisit was the Project Manager for the Phase III from IBM and he reported to Peter, who was the Program Manager. Peter was from Germany. Peter’s room had one wall which had the complete data model of the system and another wall which had the overall Program Schedule. I was overwhelmed on seeing this when I visited his room for the first time.

We required delivering 4 module as part of Phase III.

  1. Case Management Module: This module was to deal with all delinquency cases filed by the Tax Payers and by the Revenue Department.
  2. Audit Tracking: This was a tool for the Revenue Department Officers to generate a list of potential defaulters which needed most attention during the financial year.
  3. Data Backup and Recovery: This module was to offer a tool which could backup the data for a taxpayer across all the involved systems and restore data of specific taxpayers when it was required.
  4. External Data Interface: This module was to offer the needed platform for exchange of data from the Revenue Department with all external departments like Customs Department, Excise Department, etc.

As NIIT, Calcutta had never attempted a project of this dimension, we hired 3 very senior persons from the Industry. Sani da, Kalarab da and Anupam da were hired from TCS. Kalarab da handled Case Management, Anupam da handled Audit Tracking and Sani da handled the overall development of the system. In NIIT, till that point of time, we had not come across such professionals, both technically and managerially sound. Another expert, Ranjan, was hired to handle External Data Interface. The only existing NIITian who has given responsibility to handle a module was Devdutt. Devdutt was a very close friend of mine and I had known him from my first project in NIIT i.e. Tea Garden Automation for Assam Company and he had helped me lots to learn Sybase. Devdutt lived very close to my rented apartment in Jadavpur in Golf Green and very often visited my house. I rented an apartment in Bangkok close to the IBM office at P&P Apartments on Thanon Inthamara. In the P&P Apartment, my neighbor was Satish, who was working on the Tax project as well as a part of IBM. Next to Satish lived Mr. Mani, who was the Contracts Manager in IBM. Mr. Mani had joined IBM from ADA, where he had worked with Mr. APJ Abdul Kalam.

The project had an enormous setup. There was a ES/9000 Mainframe in Bangkok. There were 12 RS/6000 placed in 12 Changwats (Districts in Thailand are called Changwat) connected to the ES/9000. Then there were scores of PS/2 machines all over the country, connected to the RS/6000s, to serve as the user interface for the Tax Payers. Just like the setup, I was overwhelmed when I received the coding guidelines from IBM. I had never seen such a fat coding guidelines before in my life. It had the customary IBM blank pages which had the message “THIS PAGE HAS BEEN LEFT BLANK INTENTIONALLY”.

The first time when one of the module teams came to Bangkok was to discuss the design for the Data Backup and Recovery module. I arranged for the meeting in a huge hall which was more like a mini auditorium. It had a gallery on one side. Devdutt and Saikat presented their case. After lot of questions and answers, the IBM team, numbering about 20 people, decided to take a break. They came back after about 2 hours. Now, they started questioning about how much time the backup process would take. Our team was not ready for this as they were not aware of the network and were purely focused on developing the software. However, we did not want to cut a sorry figure and were trying to give some answer. IBM must have realized that we did not know what to answer and thus got into a discussion mode among themselves, also trying to involve us. Here started a huge round of mathematics that I have witnessed till day. After enormous amount of calculation, it was concluded that it would take more time to back up the data over the network and thus it was prudent to set up a process for sending magnetic tapes with the data from the different Changwats to Bangkok by road at periodic intervals. So, half of one module was considered delivered without us providing a single piece of executable.

I used to go to IBM office every morning with Satish and Mr. Mani. Satish was a spastic as both his legs were effected by Polio. His wife, Surinder, also had one of her legs effected by Polio. They were very gutsy couple and had a son who was fully fit. As they were elder to us, they took a lot of care for Deepshree. This was vital as Riya was very small. One day, we went to the office as usual. At the access point, I punched my card and I went through. Mr Mani punched his card and went through. However, Satish’s card did not work. On seeing this, the Security Guard asked Satish to go a room in the Ground Floor. Later I learnt that IBM had decided to retrench 80 of the staff on that day as the project was closed. Mr. George Lombardi, who was the Project Director, came to our floor and climbed on to one of the desks with everyone standing around it. George announced that he was going back to USA the next day and wanted to thank everyone who had worked on the project. I returned home and called up Satish. He told me not to worry as he had already set up with an ex-Project Team Member and was working out on joining IBM in Canada. I was relieved. Now, I focused on our problem and that was that IBM would surely terminate our project as well and we had not yet produced any of the deliverables. I sent the message to Calcutta and went to bed.

The next morning, I received the email that Phase III project was terminated and we should start discussions for the settlement of the project. After a few days, our team from Calcutta came to Bangkok consisting of KC and Sudipto da. They were joined by Kohli, who was the Country Manager for NIIT, Thailand. We presented our case to IBM that as we had put in resources for the project and produced a lot of deliverables, we should be compensated with USD 800,000. The communication was made to Peter. Peter got back to us the next day requesting for information on total number of hours NIIT had worked on the project. The deliverables were not important as the Project was scrapped. IBM would compensate for the total effort expended by NIIT. In response, we replied Peter with our calculations for the number of resources used on the project and the total number of hours worked and the compensation amount was still USD 800,000. Peter replied the communication asking for all time sheets of the Project. This was the beginning of the challenging phase as we had not maintained any time sheets during the projects and all the figures provided were by back calculation from the claim amount. We replied Peter that we would send the time sheets in 2 week time as we had to compile all of them and we had to retrieve them from Delhi where they were archived after monthly accounting maintained centrally in Delhi.

Sudipto da and KC returned to Calcutta. I was informed that all the 40 project resources and others in the Calcutta branch were coming to office every day from that day and spending 10 hours or more per day preparing time sheets. Suddenly, we had changed from being a Software house to being a Government office dealing in papers. I missed all this fun as I was stuck in Bangkok. There was a lot of calculations required to fill the time sheets in retrospect. Sani da had worked out a formula and was orchestrating the activity across more than 50 resources. After 2 weeks, Sudipto da and KC returned along with Kohli with heaps of time sheets. We gave them to Peter. Peter requested for 1 day time to go through them. We were absolutely relaxed as what could 1 man do with this heap of junk in 1 day time. Very happily we went back to our houses and hotels.

The next day, Peter met us as per appointment. This time he was joined by Mr. Mani. Peter displayed a presentation which was an analysis of the Time Sheets. I was amazed about how he had completed an analysis of the Time sheets prepared by more than 50 people for around two and a half months Till date I do not understand how he could have done it. Peter explained that he found that more than 60% of the resources were idle during the project duration. Out of this 60% resources, about 50% resources were actually learning other subjects like Visual BASIC, etc. We explained that we had to keep the resources on the project in anticipation of the upcoming work load. As we were not getting appropriate clarifications for our queries, we had to engage the resources in activities like learning Visual BASIC. I produced a list of delays in receiving clarifications and a list of open issues. Peter questioned our Project Management practice as we had ramped up the project to maximum capacity from the day 1. He also questioned whether NIIT expected IBM to pay for educating their staff. This went on back and forth and we were clearly getting cornered. Then, Mr. Mani came to the fore front and explained to us our options for further actions as per the contract. We studied the options and Sudipto da contacted his superiors in Delhi. He informed us that we would go for litigation as the NIIT lawyer had been activated. We went back to the meeting and announced our intentions. IBM said that let us all meet the next day at 10 AM.

Next day, Sudipto da, KC, Kohli and I were in the IBM office at 9 AM. We loitered around for a while and then decided to have a Pizza in Pizza Hut in the basement. We ordered our Pizzas when Mr. Brian Coulthard walked in to Pizza Hut. Brian was the Finance Controller for the project. He was from New Zealand. We invited him to join us for Pizza and Brian agreed. We had a wonderful time together as we were all merry and I was confused about the situation as it seemed like we had just about signed a very long-term partnership. After having his Pizza, Brian left us. There was still 15 minutes to go for the meeting. We were all revitalized and were very confident now there was something in our favour. We walked into the meeting beaming with confidence. Peter, Mr. Mani and Brian joined the meeting. We all shook hands and sat down, except Brian. Brian walked to the head of the table and took out a piece of paper from his folder. He read it out stating that IBM would pay USD 555,000 as compensation for the project and if NIIT did not accept this, they could go ahead for litigation. Having read the note, he announced that the meeting was over.

At least I was dumbstruck. I do not know the state of the other in our team. We all went back to our houses and hotels. I began to pack for returning to India. Satish informed me that he had confirmed contract from IBM in Canada and was getting his paper work completed. After returning to India and joining office, I was surprised to see everybody celebrating and congratulating me. We had accepted IBM’s offer and taken the USD 555,000 and the project was hailed as a huge success.

A little more about the Project

This project was funded by World Bank. IBM provided the complete solution including the hardware and software. IBM had partners like Oracle as a part of the project. The project was terminated when World Bank decided to stop funding the project as it was 2 years behind schedule. When World Bank stopped funding the project, Royal Government of Thailand terminated IBM’s contract. For, IBM, 90% of the cost was the delivery of the hardware and remaining 10% was towards the software.

A GLIMPSE OF P&P Residences

The Beautiful Woodwork on first floor of P&P Residences

The Beautiful Woodwork on first floor of P&P Residences

Riya at P&P Residences

Riya at P&P Residences

Swimming Pool at P&P Residences

Swimming Pool at P&P Residences

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