IT's biggest project failures & what they teach us

Think your project's off track and over budget? Learn a lesson or two from the tech sector's most infamous project flameouts.

Three current projects in danger

At least Canada managed to get its project up and running. Our final three projects, courtesy of the US government, are still in development -- they have failed in many ways already, but can still fail more. Will anyone learn anything from them? After reading these other stories, we know how we'd bet.

FBI Virtual Case File

In 2000, the FBI finally decided to get serious about automating its case management and forms processing, and in September of that year, Congress approved US$379.8 million for the Information Technology Upgrade Project. What started as an attempt to upgrade the existing Automated Case Support system became, in 2001, a project to develop an entirely new system, the Virtual Case File (VCS), with a contract awarded to Science Applications International Corp.

That sounds reasonable until you read about the development time allotted (a mere 22 months), the rollout plans (a "flash cutover," in which the new system would come online and the old one would go offline over a single weekend), and the system requirements (an 800-page document specifying details down to the layout of each page).

By late 2002, the FBI needed another US$123.2 million for the project. And change requests started to take a toll: According to SAIC, those totaled about 400 by the end of 2003. In April 2005, SAIC delivered 700,000 lines of code that the FBI considered so bug-ridden and useless that the agency decided to scrap the entire VCS project. A later audit blamed factors such as poorly defined design requirements, an overly ambitious schedule and the lack of an overall plan for purchases and deployment.

The FBI did use some of what it learned from the VCF disaster in its current Sentinel project. Sentinel, now scheduled for completion in 2012, should do what VCF was supposed to do using off-the-shelf, Web-based software.

Homeland Security's virtual fence

The US Department of Homeland Security is bolstering the US Border Patrol with a network of radar, satellites, sensors and communication links -- what's commonly referred to as a "virtual fence." In September 2006, a contract for this Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet, not to be confused with Skynet) was awarded to Boeing, which was given UUS$20 million to construct a 28-mile pilot section along the Arizona-Mexico border.

But early this year, Congress learned that the pilot project was being delayed because users had been excluded from the process and the complexity of the project had been underestimated. (Sound familiar?) In February 2008, the Government Accountability Office reported that the radar meant to detect aliens coming across the border could be set off by rain and other weather, and the cameras mean to zoom in on subjects sent back images of uselessly low resolution for objects beyond 3.1 miles. Also, the pilot's communications system interfered with local residents' WiFi networks -- not good PR.

In April, DHS announced that the surveillance towers of the pilot fence did not meet the Border Patrol's goals and were being replaced -- a story picked up by the Associated Press and widely reported in the mainstream media. But the story behind the story is less clear. The DHS and Boeing maintain the original towers were only temporary installations for demonstration purposes. Even so, the project is already experiencing delays and cost overruns, and in April, SBInet program manager Kirk Evans resigned, citing lack of a system design as just one specific concern. Not an auspicious beginning.

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