Wednesday 18 April 2012

Project Control - Variances

A major part of the work of my company (Oaksys Tech Ltd) is project control. The process of fit out of a trading floor or data centre often involves close contact with a Main Contractor from a constructions firm. The Main Contractors have long experience in the project control of variances. It is inevitable that during the course of a project there will be changes to the original plan requested by the project team or the client management. Such changes will normally involve additional expenditure and/or a variation in the project time scale. There's nothing wrong in having variances provided the change to the project plan is properly authorised and agreed with the business or the part of the organisation who is ultimately paying for the project. The provision of funds for variations does not appear as if by magic, the agreement to pay should be documented. Similarly the acceptance of a variation in project time scale, if any, some be documented. Be sure if there are changes in a construction project the Main Contractor will document those and expect additional payment for those variations.

The project manager should track variances as an ongoing part of the project management process. He/she should avoid being surprised at the end of the project with a large list of project variances and a demand for supplemental payment. It is all too easy for the person requesting the original change to disappear from the project team prior to the end of the project leaving little evidence of why the change was requested and who agreed to fund the change/variance. Uncertainty over the reason for the change can lead to heated arguments and even expensive arbitration or legal fees.

The Main Contractor will sub-contract work to other contractors. The process is loaded with opportunity for mistakes, miscommunication and the use of out of date project specifications. In effect the project hasn't changed but the mistakes will have caused delay and additional expenditure. Delay or mistakes by one sub-contractor can affect other sub-contractors, leading to variations claims by them. The management team of the Main Contractor will have to explain to their owners why the cost of those mistakes will be deducted from the expected profits. In other cases the Main Contractor may not have delivered parts or all of their project on time leading to their client expecting compensation or withholding payments. Sometimes the Main Contractor will report those variations as having been caused by the client in an attempt to extract further payment from the client or to avoid paying compensation. It is important that the project manager challenges and rejects any such false claims of variation. Such challenges should occur as an ongoing process during the life of the project. Variations on the part of the contractor should be documented in an agreed process between the client project management team and the Main Contractor.

Ultimately the business rule of  "no payment without purchase order" should apply. In the case of a trading floor/ data centre project the Purchase Order might be substituted by a variation document. As with purchase orders, there must be agreement from the funds holder/owner that the variation in expenditure is permitted.  The big challenge to the Project Manager is ensuring there are no project delays caused by waiting for variation approval.

Monday 16 April 2012

Hidden security

A normal security provision in a data centre and trading floor is some form of CCTV monitoring and recording of key areas within and around the organisation's building. A visit to IFSEC at the  National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham UK will quickly convince you there are thousands of different CCTV security solutions. The art of placing the cameras is a balance between risk/cost. The costs involve installation, power, cabling, capital cost for equipment, operational cost for use and long term image storage. The more cameras you have the greater the capital cost and the greater the operational cost. 

These systems can have great deterrence effect and can help in the detection of offenders intent on crime.  However if the cameras are poor quality and not well placed they can be a waste of money. If the criminals are aware of the camera locations they can avoid their faces being recorded. Simple techniques such as looking away and "hoodie" type clothing can destroy the effectiveness of the CCTV systems. The careful positioning of some hidden or covert cameras as part of the overall security system can help to detect the faces of criminals who would otherwise attempt to defeat the visible or overt cameras. Hidden cameras can be positioned at eye level to record facial images whereas overt cameras may have to be positioned at a high level to prevent damage by criminals. 

I'll relate a true life example which happened in a major international bank. The bank in question had a good CCTV security system protecting access to its data centres. The visible camera systems were of high quality, were well positioned, and the CCTV recording system provided good quality playback. One of the Bank's data centres was subjected to a raid by well organised thieves during the evening after the day time computer operators had left. The entrance to the building was protected by 24 hour security guards. A thief "tailgated" one of the operations staff during the day to gain access to the main technology area and hid somewhere in the room. This was a suspected, but never proved "inside job".  Later in the evening the hidden man opened the door to the data centre to allow access to other thieves who were disguised as cleaners. They wheeled in a large high sided trolley into the technology area and set to work pulling Sun servers from the computer racks/cabinets and loading them into the trolley. It was a crude process as they were pulling live operational servers from the cabinet without first powering down the machines. In less than five minutes they'd filled the trolley with expensive Sun servers. They covered the trolley and wheeled it out of the building under the watchful(!) gaze of the security guard who assumed they were departing cleaners. The stolen equipment value was in excess of £200,000 but the greater cost was the recovery of the systems the following day.

Throughout the whole process the gang of thieves kept their faces shrouded and hidden from the from the visible CCTV security cameras. The police believe that they'd been told of the position of the cameras by their "inside" accomplice.  However unknown to the gang of thieves there were also a set of covert/hidden security cameras which provided evidence quality video of the faces of the thieves. They were apprehended within a few days and are now serving time in prison. The covert cameras had been positioned to catch the faces of people hiding from the visible cameras.