To move 5,800 users to a new server, an IT team relied on a flexible sponsor, a round-the-clock schedule and a project manager with agile know-how.
Mecklenburg County was behind the times—10 years behind, to be exact.
The 5,800 employees of the county containing Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina, USA, were emailing with Microsoft's Exchange 2003 software. But it was 2013—well past time for an upgrade.
“The 2003 server was reaching the end of the line,” says Clifford Dupuy, technical services director of Mecklenburg County's IT division. “Our database was 98 percent full, and so many employees were in email jail.” That is, county officials were constantly hitting their mailboxes' 100-megabyte limits, which meant they had to clean out their inboxes before they could send or receive anything new.
Mr. Dupuy decided to take a leap—to the cloud. Not only would he bring Mecklenburg up-to-date, but he also intended to move the county's emails from an on-site server to cloud-based Microsoft Office 365.
The project would unfold in two phases: First, the project team would set up the infrastructure that could communicate between the physical premises and Microsoft's cloud storage. Second, the team would migrate employees' software from Exchange 2003 to the 2010 version and then to 2013. The team couldn't jump directly to software a decade more advanced without creating a lot of errors; each version has a series of updates, so the greater the time between versions, the less compatible they will be.
There was more at stake than having the latest, snazziest software, however. Besides practically running on email, the county government has strict statutes that require archives to be kept for a certain number of years. Losing data in the turnover was not an option.
No such countywide migration had been attempted before, so there was no benchmark for assessing how the project would proceed, what processes would be ideal or even how to budget properly. The team had a budget of US$4.7 million for a three-year license of Office 365 beginning January 2013, and it had US$100,000 in business-development funds given by Microsoft as an incentive to upgrade. But the team could not fully predict the costs of resources involved in migrating 5,800 employees in 22 departments across 75 county locations. So Mr. Dupuy asked the county manager and budget office to allow the project some flexibility.
“There was a financial risk we had to get approval for,” Mr. Dupuy says. “They let us take the risk, and that was a great support. Had it not been for that, this wouldn't have been possible.”
With that flexibility from the sponsor came added pressure. “We were putting our necks out there,” says customer support center director Pam Rikard, PMP. “If the project had failed, senior leadership would have said, ‘You sold us this.’”
Head in the Cloud
The IT team knew its objective: Each employee would sign off Exchange 2003 at the end of a workday and sign on to Exchange 2013 the next morning. With a launch date of 1 January 2013, the team aimed for the migration to be complete by 1 May.
Yet while the IT workers understood the technology, they needed a project manager to guide the process of implementing it. “We didn't have any project managers who had any knowledge of the cloud,” Mr. Dupuy says. But they did have Ms. Rikard, a 17-year veteran of Mecklenburg's IT department. Prior to becoming a director, Ms. Rikard, who holds a Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential and has taken formal agile training courses, served as a senior project manager for the county.
“Cliff pulled in superstar geeks to create an emerging technology cohort. They had great ideas, but nothing was moving,” says Ms. Rikard, who joined the migration project team in early 2013. “I had way more experience in the county, so I stepped in and helped guide them along.”
The technical guys, she says, suffered from analysis paralysis. They became so bogged down in planning the details and discussing the risks that they couldn't get started. Ms. Rikard jokes that if she hadn't joined the team, they might still be figuring it out.
Making the Move
To complete the first phase of the project—the new server infrastructure—Mr. Dupuy used the Microsoft business-development funds to hire an outside vendor to start on 1 January. Three months later, the contractor had completed its work on the virtual servers that would communicate between the on-site servers and the cloud.
The Mecklenburg team found the contractor's work on the second phase of the project—the migration—too time-consuming. Between January and March, the contractor converted only 15 accounts. And there were 5,785 more to go. Behind schedule, the team decided to move the migration project in-house—and to rely on its project manager, Ms. Rikard.
While the county's projects historically have used waterfall strategy, Ms. Rikard knew that approach wouldn't be ideal for a project with early and ongoing delivery. Instead, she took an agile approach, working in sprints—each one comprising the complete email migration of one or more departments to Exchange 2013 between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., when the county offices were closed. She created a war room, where the four migration engineers and two managers met every day at 8:30 a.m. for a rapid-fire stand-up, posting the day's deliverables on sticky notes on a whiteboard.
“It took a lot of patience on the customers' part to answer questions we should have known.”
“It wasn't a long discussion,” Ms. Rikard explains. “Just something as simple as: ‘What did you do yesterday? What is the plan today?’ ‘Yes, I accomplished this,’ or ‘I ran into this problem.’ We'd just get everybody on the board so no one was stepping on each other. I had the room booked for several months.”
The team ran migrations every Monday through Thursday night. On their last day on the old server network, employees of the departments to be migrated that night left their computers on before going home. Three people on Mr. Dupuy's team remotely went through the migration process overnight. Then a group of technicians, called the ground crew, was on-site in these locations at 7 a.m. the next day to physically go from cubicle to cubicle to answer questions and make sure everyone's inbox, folders, attachments and archived mail had migrated properly. The 10-person crew wore customized navy blue polo shirts (the county's official color) so users could easily identify them in the corridors. If an employee had any trouble getting into his or her email, a ground crew member was there to help.
To determine which users needed access to which groups and shared calendars, the team referred to an Excel spreadsheet Ms. Rikard created by gathering information from the different departments—precisely the kind of documentation that had been neglected before Ms. Rikard joined the team.
“We had done a horrible job documenting,” Mr. Dupuy says. “We didn't know which folder and calendars each person needed. We had to go to each person and ask what each one had that needed to be migrated. It took a lot of patience on the customers' part to answer questions we should have known. Now it's organized and categorized as it should have been from day one.”
Some lessons were learned along the way: Mr. Dupuy and Ms. Rikard discovered, for instance, that some of the county's senior staff had such large mailboxes that it was much faster to move their archives in advance of the migration. To allow time for that work, the team saved the sheriff's department's 1,200 employees for the end. The day after that migration, the project team received just three support calls. In the largest migration, the team moved 1,329 employees in one night—yet the customers experienced no downtime.
In just eight weeks, from its first independent migration on 6 May to the last one on 28 June—just two months later than the planned completion date—Mr. Dupuy's team finished all 5,800 migrations.
“We want customers to see project management as a benefit and value, not a roadblock.”
—Pam Rikard, PMP
And that was just the desktops. In addition to the individual workstations spread across the city of Charlotte, the team had to address 3,312 iPhone, Android and Windows phones, tablets and wireless hotspots. The morning after the 14-hour, 1,300-person migration of the social services and business support services agencies, the IT team moved all the BlackBerry users in those departments to iPhone 5. To do that efficiently, the team set up several stations where employees turned in their BlackBerries and went through a training session as technicians moved over all their contacts. Employees emerged with brand-new, fully loaded iPhones. “It was actually kind of fun,” Mr. Dupuy says.
He credits the migration's success to the project management processes that Ms. Rikard established. “Pam was the number one reason that we were successful,” he says. “Had her involvement not occurred, we would still be working on migrations.”
“We want to enable and empower our employees,” Ms. Rikard says. “We want customers to see project management as a benefit and value, not a roadblock. They've learned that not every project is the same, nor should it be managed with the same cookie-cutter methodology, but on the requirements of the project itself.” PM
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