Justin 'Tom' Unthank, Project Manager for the NCI Agency's Network Services and IT Infrastructure Service Line, was recently responsible for delivering the connectivity of five out of eight NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) in record time. In this article, he talks about getting the job done under tight deadlines. with the help of participating Nations.
Justin began managing communications and information systems (CIS) projects long before he was recruited by the NCI Agency. Prior to his current role, he served 24 years in the British Royal Corps of Signals of the British Army, sometimes in operational theatre. In 2012 for example, Justin worked as Technical Project Manager delivering Intelligence, Surveillance, Target, Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability to 72 locations across the Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan.
When asked about the difference between managing projects for the military and managing them for the Agency, Justin explained that Agency project management is very much in line with the defence sector. And he really enjoys working on Urgent Operational Requirements.
"They [the requirements] need to be delivered very quickly, and without fuss. In the military, you have very clear chains of command through which decisions are pushed through rapidly and uniformly. In a customer-funded Agency, it is rather stakeholder and customer management together with clear and simple communication skills that are the vital mechanisms for success," Justin said.
Every project has a carefully planned timeline, group of stakeholders and budget. Nevertheless, when carrying out the plans, there is always an element of surprise, even for the project manager.
"This is where the Program Manager really earns his or her salt! We had many instances such as these during the installation phases of the NFIU projects." Justin recalled one of many emergency situations solved thanks to great teamwork: "On the third day of the installation of NFIU Slovakia, we visited both ends of the network, only to find that nothing worked! Not to panic, we tested our equipment and everything looked in good order. Some minor changes were made but there was still no connection. This is when stress levels in the technical team started to grow, but there was still no panic. After thorough testing by the service provider and by our team, who spent a day and night troubleshooting, plan B seemed to get closer and closer and with the clock ticking, it was looking increasingly uncertain that we would succeed in the allotted timeframe. But we eventually found a glitch in the service provider's network. It was as if a huge rock had fallen off our chests – the sun was shining again. After losing a day and a half with troubleshooting, we did what we're good at – we rolled up our sleeves and got back to work as quickly as possible to stick with the original plan and finish on time!"
The NFIU project stretches over the whole Eastern part of Europe. This sort of scope comes with complications, and delivering the NFIUS from Brussels may seem at the very least complicated if not impossible. In order to deliver the project successfully, Justin said he made sure to get personally involved, travelling to the various sites as often as needed, so as to have a better understanding of the customers' requirements.
"For me, the best results are achieved most effectively when requirements are discussed face-to-face. Sure enough, highly detailed and accurate project documentation sets are key for delivery, but I find that customers appreciate a more human approach. If you're present on site, you can manage tasks and resources first hand. You have to speak a language people understand, and make sure your message and directions are received clearly. "
This level of personal involvement and the number of NFIU locations meant managing the project required a lot of travel. While this sort of commitment might not suit everyone, it was part of the job's appeal for Justin: "the main elements that attracted me to the project was the travel and meeting people, and being able to engage with them."
And what happens to a project manager when his project has come to an end? A well-deserved rest and a lot of self-reflection, before looking for new projects to lead.
"During the Project Delivery Phase, I would self-reflect on key points and ask myself 'Did that go well?' Or 'Could I have done anything differently?' I would recollect all the problems and challenges I had to solve and think: 'What would have happened if I hadn't been there to deal with those issues?' So, in the end, feeling accomplished, feeling that I largely contributed to solving an 'unsolvable' problem is what really counts.
Now that my involvement with the NFIU project has all but come to an end, I have a number of new projects and activities in which I fully intend to deliver the same level of service. I will become the Change Project Manager for the Kosovo Force's Operations and Maintenance services, and who knows, maybe I'll be working on the NFIUs again," Justin said.