Greg Maloney- How to scale ambitious projects?
June 8, 2021
Greg and Greg talk about advanced IT management approaches, regulated industries, and Goldfish crackers
Greg Mader: [00:00:00]
Today, I’m speaking with Greg Maloney. The enterprise systems lead for Invitae’s Boulder, Colorado office. Greg has over 40 years of IT and life science experience. And over 30 years of experience in manufacturing, purchasing, finance, sales, and R & D lines of work for large multinational companies. Greg is a go-to guy for regulatory compliance, business process design, and project management. Greg’s company is nice enough to let Greg offer his thoughts, but Greg isn’t speaking on behalf of Invitae. The short version: if you’re looking for an expert in IT for highly regulated critical industries, Greg’s your guy. So Greg, thank you for joining me today.
Greg Maloney: [00:00:43]
Thank you, Greg. Thanks for the invitation. I appreciate it.
Greg Mader: [00:00:46]
So the question I ask everybody to get started: what’s your favorite snack food?
Greg Maloney: [00:00:53]
Well, I am from New England, so there is a Pepperidge Farm. Goldfish has gotta be my go-to in the afternoon when I need a little bit of an energy boost.
Greg Mader: [00:01:03]
I didn’t realize that’s a regional thing. I thought everybody who had kids, at least, had goldfish in the house, but that’s a regional food?
Greg Maloney: [00:01:11]
It’s regional and it reminds me of home, so it’s one of those things. Yeah, Pepperidge Farm, I think is a local company, but I’d have to look that up to be sure.
Greg Mader: [00:01:20]
How do you feel about Moxie, possibly the strangest soft drink in the United States?
Greg Maloney: [00:01:25]
Moxie is pretty amazing. That’s also a fun thing to have on a warm summer day. They’re not that often in New England, though.
Greg Mader: [00:01:36]
Tell us a little bit about how you got started. How’d you get to this place in your career?
Greg Maloney: [00:01:41]
I started out, believe it or not, out of the Boston public school system. I went into trade school first and started out in electronics and then went into engineering, electrical engineering, and transitioned into computer science.
But as far as my first professional job, that was at Hewlett-Packard, working as a design tech and a bench tech. So, I would test medical products: printed circuit boards. And then my career took an interesting track in that it started to do some dabbling within computer science.
I went to school nights and finished up my degree, and then at the same time I went to IT management say around 1990. And then, from there it’s been kind of being right in the focal point of the new technology. It starts to emerge whether it’s early cloud; HP was experimenting with that. Phillips was doing things with robotic process automation recently, say, five to ten years ago.
And so, it’s been interesting in the career in that I’ve had a chance to look at some of that stuff early on and understand how it’s working. Even Agile Project Management,
iterative project management, that’s been really cool to be on some of the projects that are what I call big, hairy, and audacious. And that’s where you learn, and the learning is in the doing as far as I’m concerned.
Greg Mader: [00:03:07]
You’ve had a career specifically in these more highly regulated or critical sorts of technologies, too. What have you seen that’s different between those sorts of industries and maybe what somebody is facing in an average IT project?
Greg Maloney: [00:03:22]
Probably the biggest difference is that the user acceptance testing is really the capstone for any IT project. That is, you have the requirements; you want to make sure that you’re fulfilling the business need. And then you have a typical kind of end of project testing to make sure that everything’s working as it’s supposed to. In a regulated industry, the testing actually starts in the beginning. So what you’re doing is you’re doing things like identifying the requirements and then you have verification points along the way. There’s a
popular technique called the V-Model which is you have the requirements coming in, and then what you do is a unit test, module test, system test as you’re building. I would say the biggest difference between, a regular IT project, like a web development project, which can use Agile and you can make the requirements as you go along. You have to have more of a waterfall-ish approach in a regulated environment. And what we say in the industry is “waterscrumfall.” You create the ethics, you understand what the situation is, and then you do sprints in order to implement it, but then you’re testing as you’re doing this sprint, as well.
Greg Mader: [00:04:42]
As a general observation of society now, I think more industries are facing regulatory challenges and not less. What we notice in our own practice is that we’re dealing more and more with businesses that maybe have quite substantial regulations, perhaps a material traceability, perhaps in capturing the life cycle of a product, so
many things. And what I think is interesting about that is a number of companies that probably have been used to that loose and easy approach previously, like you said, for building a website or whatever are finding themselves challenged right now with understanding the differences between an IT project in a regular situation versus a highly regulated industry.
Greg Maloney: [00:05:35]
Yes. I agree, Greg. I’ve worked on different projects where even in the regulated sense you’d have the food and drug administration, or you’d have a competent authority in Europe, but then you’d also have regulatory agencies like the FAA.
There was one project I worked on where I was surprised that the product had to meet certain radio frequency controls, because it would be on an airplane at certain points in time. Some of those can be out front and some of them can be hidden. And then you have the regulatory aspects of the Sarbanes-Oxley, for instance. All businesses have to conform to that. So it’s interesting in that those skills that you gain, when you do regulatory businesses, are a good backstop for doing testing and just it sounds like it’s burdensome, but it really isn’t. And, when it’s applied, it actually reduces risk for the business as well.
Greg Mader: [00:06:34]
That’s a good point. Baked into this is risk reduction as opposed to your traditional IT project.
Greg Maloney: [00:06:42]
Greg Mader: [00:06:43]
What are your thoughts on grassroots IT projects or shadow IT projects?
Greg Maloney: [00:06:48]
That’s a good question. Usually, what I find is that and I have to—full disclaimer: that’s how I started out, within IT. I was on the business side. I worked in a manufacturing area and auto insertion and auto test. And so one of the things that I did was I worked with the computer systems at the time to do a defect measurement system. And what I find is that usually those grassroots or shadow IT projects identify a problem early on. They’re the canary in the mine and so in that sense, I kind of lean into them.
And then from an IT standpoint, it’s like, what can I do to help? Usually they start off with Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft access databases, and other kinds of desktop-type tools, but then what happens is, it reaches a critical mass. And at that point it’s: okay, how do we professionalize this process and application in such a way that it satisfies
the original business need. And believe it or not, I think those are the easiest ones to leverage because there’s already buy-in. You know that people already need something.
And then sometimes what it is is that they’re solving a point solution, but you can bring a technology like ERP or you can bring CRM or some other application to bear. It’s like, “Wow, I didn’t even think of the next stage. So that I think is good, but also in a regulated space there’s those conditions where maybe if I can come in and help with some of the documentation, ‘cause that’s required, then it’s almost like an opportunity to team build, if you will.
Greg Mader: [00:08:37]
That’s interesting. So you see it as an opportunity to build bridges. In many IT departments it feels like there’s the opportunity to burn a bridge so that’s just in contrast.
Greg Maloney: [00:08:50]
Right. And to build on that, what I’ve seen is that there are projects that are, for instance, any business that I’ve seen so far, the lifeblood is Excel, or Access. And that fills a necessary gap for either data analysis or making business decisions and those applications, then you can turn those into data lakes and business intelligence. And things like that really give the business a competitive advantage, but it’s not all rosy. I don’t want to misrepresent that either. There are some stealth IT projects that are a problem in the
making, and that’s where you have to communicate and be close to the customer to understand what it is that they need and what IT can provide.
Greg Mader: [00:09:37]
Which gets to where, I think, these grassroots projects often are good: in helping organizations realize that they need to charter a real business project.
Greg Maloney: [00:09:50]
Greg Mader: [00:09:51]
Let’s kind of take this out broader, how, in general, should a business, or how do you realize that you need to charter a business change project?
Greg Maloney: [00:10:01]
One of the things that I tried to do to is scenario planning and that is looking at the current situation and saying, “How can I make this better? What are some possible pathways?” What you can do is you can look at something and say, “You know, we’re kind of stuck in a rut here. What can we do to improve? Who do I need to talk to? And how can I make the process more efficient? How can I make IT more efficient?” So in that sense, it’s really surveying the landscape on an ongoing basis.
It’s like having radar or having, in your car, the heads up display and when it gets dark out you can see things that are on your horizon that are hidden until the headlamps hit them. What I try to do is to push forward in time a little bit to see what the possibilities are; what might happen, given what we’re doing today. And so I know that’s probably not a clear answer, but it’s one of those things where you always have to be aware of what might happen and adjust.
Greg Mader: [00:11:08]
There’s occasional debates in our company about tools such as Six Sigma or Lean or other approaches to help identify those places where people are getting stuck. Do you use any tools like that, Greg?
Greg Maloney: [00:11:22]
I like Lean, Six Sigma. I’ve had some training in that area. I also have had a lot of training in what’s called business process modeling. And that is the philosophy really of writing down what the business is doing, and one company I worked for did, what I call, create an encyclopedia of the company. And so what that does is that sets a standard baseline through the company, and then from that perspective too, is you can see, okay, that’s where our baseline is; that’s where our standard is.
How can I differentiate my company or my process and push the company forward? So that’s another technique as well as to say, “Okay, we’re in this market niche and how can
we expand and improve and get more profit, for instance.” So in that sense, yeah, Lean helps.
Certainly the standard quality type approaches like Pareto charting, 80/20 rule , all of those help as well. I like the Kan Ban approach for project management. I like Agile, as well. There are a lot of situations where we know the problem, but we don’t know the solution yet, and we don’t know all of the requirements. And I like the idea of discovering them as you go along.
I did a presentation in my former company, and one of the things that I say about project management is, it’s kind of like making pancakes in the morning, right? One of the things is the first pancake never comes out right. The second one is a little bit better. By the third or the fourth one it’s much, much better. That’s just paraphrasing the learning curve.
Greg Mader: [00:13:07]
I love the pancake analogy; that’s perfect, first thing in the morning here. So we’ve decided we need to charter a project. What do you think the key components of that exercise should be, Greg?
Greg Maloney: [00:13:19] I worked for a
European company and one of the techniques that they use is PRINCE2, and PRINCE2 has a notion of a project mandate, and the project mandate can be from a senior level executive saying we really need to do this.
And it can be as simple as that, to start off with, as a trigger. And then what you need to do is to put some bones on it and say, “Okay, what are the deliverables? What are the goals of the project? What’s the mission? What unifies people?”
And then it all comes down to change management and how you get the organization moving in the direction that you need to move in. You need to have good communication. You need to identify the team. You need to have a good budget or a reasonable budget. And then you have to have a reasonable timeline or, at least, one that you can work with.
I do a project plan. They’re always changing because things change: you run up to issues, you identify risks, you have turnover on the team. And so all of those factors mean that you have to be nimble. And so there’s a certain amount of planning upfront to make sure that you have your goal in mind, but then after that, certainly, KPIs kick in—key process indicators—and objectives and key responsibilities, which is emerging as a new way to look at projects and look at achieving goals. What’s interesting is, in project management, it’s the leadership that comes first and the communication that comes second, really.
Our current situation is that we do a lot with remote teams. And almost every project I’ve worked on in the last 30 years has some sort of remote component where you have one individual, or even a team, that’s in another geography, another region, another time zone.
Greg Mader: [00:15:17]
So Greg, what are your thoughts on, how to wrap up a project, how to go live? And do you have any thoughts on Finish Big as maybe a mantra?
Greg Maloney: [00:15:27]
Years ago, as well, I read a lot about Tom Peters, and Tom Peters had a small book actually, that was that very premise, which was to go after the large, big, hairy, audacious projects and set the tone from a requirements standpoint and scope, but also when you create a project, what you’re doing is you’re bringing along a team, as well.
I think of Finishing Big is almost like when you go into the movie theater and you see the credits at the end. Any large project has hundreds of people working on it sometimes. A lot of people are in supporting roles where they’re going to be instrumental in making sure that, once it’s installed, that the application is working well. So you do want to celebrate that big. You want to acknowledge what people have done in the project, the things that they’ve achieved, and say, “Hey, we’ve done a good job with this. We’ve got it in there.”
I’ve worked with a project manager who is out of Europe. And one of the things that she used to say is, “It’s done and dusted,” which is, that it’s fully complete, ready to go, put the package on the wall.
So it’s not like we build bricks. We’re building usable components for the business. And so we do need to make sure that it gets installed correctly, that it’s working correctly, but also that people use it. That’s the big test of an IT project: does it satisfy the business requirement? What we need to do is to focus on what the need is and what will bring the business forward.
One company that I worked for, what they used is the NPS score, the net promoter score, which is you get rated as a project manager from a scale from one to ten. And the way the net promoter works is that you only get a positive number for nine and ten. Eight is okay. It’s the average, anything lower than eight is like a zero. It’s almost like a bell curve kind of evaluation. And what that is is that you have to have the big bang at the end. You have to, because otherwise, if the customer doesn’t think that it’s fantastic, you’re not doing a good job.
Greg Mader: [00:17:47]
That’s really great, Greg. A lot of the people that are listening to this podcast are going to be at different stages in their career. And especially for people that might be starting out, do you have any good stories from the school of hard knocks?
Greg Maloney: [00:18:03]
Oh, there’s a ton of them. One of the first things that I heard about was from my first professional manager. He was a former military major, and he said, “Don’t rest on your laurels.” That was one piece of advice. He said continue to learn, continue to challenge yourself, continue to pick up new skills as you’re going along. And then the other thing that he mentioned to me is not everything’s urgent. Sometimes problems fix themselves, just allow time, take a breath, look at the situation and encourage people to explore the solutions on their own. Seek out a mentor.
When I tell people about mentoring, one of the things that I advise people to do is, think of creating a board ,of directors: people that have different skill sets, diverse personalities; people that you wouldn’t normally go to. Sometimes, the challenging relationships help formulate your skills better than the ones that are easy.
Greg Mader: [00:19:06]
I think you’re like me; you’re quite a reader. Are there any books that you are particularly fond of that kind of helped capture the right ethic or spirit or maybe just practical advice for people in our profession?
Greg Maloney: [00:19:21]
I like to read up and down the project management spectrum and currently one of the things I’ve rediscovered is a book it’s called the Theory of Constraints. It’s one of those where everything is about a bottleneck. And when you think about the Pareto principle, your outstanding problem today, once you solve it you have a second one that shows up, and then the second one is there. And so the Theory of Constraints, although I haven’t read through the whole book, really deals with, once you solve one bottleneck, you may have a different one, and then you have to focus on that one.
And so from an IT perspective, it also affects projects. You have issues and risks and the top issue may pop up and then you have to solve that one.
Greg Mader: [00:20:12]
I didn’t prep you on this, but I’m glad that you’re a fan of Eli Goldratt, too.
Greg Maloney: [00:20:18]
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Greg Mader: [00:20:19]
He was an incredible person, and I think incredibly generous with the way he tried to share his thoughts and information with everybody. So yeah, I’m a huge fan.
Greg Maloney: [00:20:30]
Greg Mader: [00:20:31]
Greg, I’d like to thank you for being on the podcast. It’s a pleasure working with you in my real life too, but this was a lot of fun, and I think you offered a lot of great ideas for people who might be listening. So thank you, again.
Greg Maloney: [00:20:45]
Thank you. Take care.
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