Jag Venugopal's Blog

December 28, 2010

What Ails the Indian Space Research Organization?

Filed under: India — Jag @ 10:49 pm

Christmas was a disappointment for most Indians that are space enthusiasts. India’s heaviest rocket yet, the GSLV, designed to loft 2000 KG payloads into a geostationary orbit failed for the second consecutive time. The last time, it was a new 3rd stage engine that India was trying to indigenize which failed. This time, the rocket failed at the first stage itself. What’s particularly galling is that China crossed this threshold quite a while ago with its Long March rockets.

I don’t know much about spacecraft beyond what a person with a general science background could discern. Thus I am no expert of any sort in commenting on the issues ISRO faces with its rockets, but at least a few problems stand out:

1. Insufficient attention to quality control: If it turns out that this GSLV was lost due to a malfunctioning component, this would be the second such instance. A previous GSLV was lost because a $2000 valve malfunctioned. Previous satellites have been lost prematurely due to failure of key components (e.g. the much heralded Chandrayaan sent to orbit the moon failed within half its designed lifespan; a satellite built for EADS failed within days of launch; various INSATs have experienced failures of some or all of their components).

2. Trying to do too many things all at once: You have to learn to walk before you can run. And you better get your walking under control before you even talk of entering the 100-meter dash. ISRO still does not have a reliable rocket that is capable of lifting 2000 KG, yet each day brings even fancier targets: one day it is for a new rocket to launch 5000 KG payloads. Another day it is for an RLV (a reusable launch vehicle). A third day, it is to launch a couple of (grandly named) Vyomanauts into space (God bless them if they go on the GSLV), yet a fourth day, it is to launch payloads to the moon and Mars. To me it appears that ISRO is trying to do too many things at the same time, without first perfecting the basics.

3. Not enough oversight: ISRO has a relatively large budget for a poor country. The question is — who is supervising it? It is supposed to be under the Department of Space, a portfolio handled by the Prime Minister. Mired as he is in various corruption scandals involving his government, I am not sure he even knows that he’s supposed to oversee ISRO’s affairs. It is not clear whether anyone in the Prime Minister’s office is actually supervising their charge, setting priorities and ensuring that the right managers are hired and poor ones fired.

Ultimately, ISRO can build upon its past achievements, but only if it is realistic about what it can achieve, and the entire organization focuses on a few critical priorities first. A good goal for the next decade is to focus completely on reliably manufacturing and launching geostationary satellites for domestic as well as international consumption, with the stretch goal of building a moon orbiter or two. I am sure that the Vyomanauts can wait.

December 20, 2010

No Longer A PMP

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 12:12 pm

I recently received an email from the Project Management Institute that my PMP credential was “suspended”, preventing me from calling myself a Project Management Professional. The reason for the suspension was that I had not turned in documentation for the 60 PDUs that are required in each 3 year cycle for keeping the PMP certificate current.

Over the past few years, I have become disillusioned by PMI’s total commercialization. Anyone who considers the Project Management Institute to be a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing the cause of project management is thoroughly mistaken. PMI has instead turned itself into a commercial entity that sells a suite of goods and services centered around the PMBOK and the PMP.

My disenchantment with PMI started with the third edition of the PMBOK, published in 2004, which was a disaster. PMI should have had the fortitude to revoke the standard, or issue a significant revision. They did neither, and were content to peddle a sub-standard book masquerading as an ANSI standard. The fourth edition was much cleaner, but PMI’s process of producing what purports to be a global standard for a profession leaves many questions open — is this reviewed by leading practitioners, authors and trainers? Who reviews the documents other than the people that respond to the exposure draft on the web? (Practitioners and authors with extensive project management knowledge and experience are busy, and are the ones least likely to respond to the exposure drafts; yet their feedback is arguably the most valuable).

Additionally, PMI’s contributions to project management (other than the PMBOK) have been fairly minimal. There are a bunch of practice standards, which are all derivative publications of the PMBOK, but in the last decade and a half that I have known about the PMI, not a single new project management concept or innovation has come from the organization. To my mind, PMI has never satisfactorily addressed the question of whether Project Management is unique across industries or if it means different things for different industries. For example, in software, the very ability to change software already written has given rise to a number of “agile” methodologies which are diametrically different from the PMBOK approach.

I have come to see PMI’s business as the selling of certificates, along with accessory materials such as learning aids, training manuals, accreditation of trainers, etc. Indeed, advertisements for various exam-related paraphernalia are prominent on the PMI web site. Missing are any mentions of tools or techniques that actually help project managers. On the website, there are a variety of certificates to be “purchased”: CAPM, PMP, PgMP, PMI-RP, PMI-SP, etc. At least as far as the PMP is concerned, the certificate attests to nothing but the ability of the holder to pass a 200-question multiple-choice examination. A memorizing monkey could do it — without needing to have a clue about project management.

True project management (at least of the IS kind that I am familiar with) is tough. It requires finely balancing among multiple constraints (the obvious being time, cost, scope, resources, quality and risk), the ability to fight multiple political battles simultaneously, the art of making the right compromises, and knowing when to push individuals to perform better and when to trust that they are doing as well as they can. And we’re not even started yet about the need for domain knowledge, IT knowledge, and finally, knowledge of project management tools and techniques. The PMP measures only the last area — and that too very incompletely, with multiple-choice questions. It most certainly does not measure or correlate with real-world project management ability. Other than for novice project managers, it is a total waste of time and money.

And so it is that I am now an ex-PMP.

December 10, 2010

Jag reviews a ginormously expensive watch on Amazon

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 10:22 am


December 7, 2010

A tale of two rich men

Filed under: India — Jag @ 9:24 am

One built himself a real ugly looking house for a billion dollars.

Another pledged two billion dollars to improve educational opportunities for the poor.

Note to the self-appointed guardians of Hindu India: The latter is a Karachi-born Muslim whose father refused to migrate to Pakistan upon partition.

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