Rescuing a Project Before It Implodes

By John Boushy  |  Posted 2002-07-10 Print this article Print

After a mistake nearly sank him 22 years ago, Harrah CIO John Boushy recalls, he learned a key concept—trust but verify.

One of the defining moments of my career occurred when I was 26, shortly after I left IBM to join Harrah's. I had 10 months to get the technology ready for the grand opening of Harrah's new casino in Atlantic City. PDF Download

Opening a new casino is never easy. You're going from not open to open in a matter of minutes. There are thousands of employees that have to be brought on line. And each of those employees has to have access to information.

You have to implement all the back-of-house systems, like general ledger, accounts payable, and payroll. Same with the front-of-house systems—the casino management system and the hotel management system. There are just a gazillion things to do, and I had 10 months to do them. The timeframe was daunting.

The other dynamic going on was that this was the single largest capital project every undertaken by Holiday Corporation, which owned Harrah's at the time. The original budget for the Atlantic City Harrah's started in the $60 million-$70 million range. By the time we actually opened it was about$144 million—and this is 1980 dollars I'm talking about. A Holiday Inn, by comparison, typically required $6 million or $7 million to build in those days.

So it's right after Labor Day in 1980—seven months into my career at Harrah's, and three months until the grand opening. And I'm getting a detailed update because I want to see what the consultant who's creating the casino management system has accomplished and I want to start testing it. And lo and behold, there's nothing but screen designs. No code. Zero!

In those days I reported to the equivalent of the chief financial officer for Harrah's Atlantic City. He and I hopped on the phone. It was an awkward way to meet the top executives of Holiday—including Roy Winegardner, who was then the chairman, and Mike Rose, who was the president. They were very concerned about whether we were going to get things done. I said we would—that we would manage the scope down if we had to, in order to complete the project. And that we would complete it on time.

Within that context, however, I had to have some leeway. The leeway was, well, I'm going to have to staff this up. And I don't know what the dollars will be.

Periodically the CFO would mute the speakerphone and say to me, "Are you really sure you know what you're doing here? It's you and me, buddy."

On the phone, Roy and Mike were asking basically the same questions. "It sounds like you have a lot to do in a very short amount of time," they said. And I said, "I am confident that we will make this happen." I told them if it didn't happen I knew my career at Harrah's would be over.

There was laughter on the phone when I said that, although you can imagine it wasn't really a humorous moment. They just said, "Well, we really hope that you succeed."

We brought in contractors from IBM to help. We probably worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week. But in the end we got it done. We brought the system up and operational a week and a half before the casino opened.

The fundamental lesson that I came away with is that if you have the right resources and people, and you're willing to very quickly make trade-offs in decisions, just about anything is possible. This is true even if you don't know yet how you're going to do it.

I also learned that appearances deceive. Unfortunately, the consultants who were working with us to develop the casino management system had a pretty good reputation. I had never been in a situation where somebody looked me in the eye and said, falsely, "I've got this done and I've got that done. Why don't we get together later?"

It turned out that later just didn't happen; it kind of just kept going on. Now, I know to trust but verify.

Written With Robert Hertzberg


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