John Wiese, defence systems project director
Neophilia is often characterised by a person’s readiness to adapt while shunning repetition and routine. How you might describe John Wiese in that regard may be a hard task: not only is he a keen advocate of agility in project management, he also recognises that successful, repeatable outcomes are the core of project management’s appeal. In fact, his path from software engineer to project director at Thales, a renowned developer of systems for defence, aerospace and space, security and transport, demonstrates that.
“I started as a software engineer and very quickly started getting put into leadership roles then entered into project management from there, having to coordinate multiple small projects,” he explains. With the support of mentors within Thales and following the organisation’s strong push towards formal training, Wiese turned his on-the-job experience into a Diploma and then a Master of Project Management qualification. “We like to have nice, repeatable outcomes.”
Although Wiese’s early experience encompassed several small projects, it was not until he took a role on Thales’—then known as ADI’s—Electronic Warfare Command and Processing Sub-System (EWCAPSS) that he recognised his first role as a project manager. “I was brought on to close out the project and since then took over the SOCSS project, which is the Special Operations Command Support System working with the Australian Special Forces. We grew that from a small three-to-four person team to a 25-plus project team.”
Indeed, his specialty appears to be spotting talent and building teams, which he believes is key to successful delivery. “I’m very much into surrounding myself with the very best people I can have and then supporting and empowering those people. I’ve been reasonably blessed within the organisation to have access to those sorts of people, so the projects I’ve worked on have been very successful,” says Wiese.
His only regret stems from when he didn’t sit in on the recruitment interview. “One of the ways I ensure I get a good project team is that I sit in on every interview. The only issue I’ve ever had was with a team member where I didn’t do that and the person wasn’t a good fit. It’s about getting the team mix right, making sure the team supports and collaborates with each other.”
Agility again and again
Wiese nominates his nine years on the SOCSS project as the highlight of his career. A combination of agility and repetition in project management, this system has supported “everything from the Commonwealth Games, to APEC, to the Pope’s visit,” says Wiese.
While many Defence-related projects have years to collect requirements, build a product and test it, each SOCSS implementation cycle takes six to 12 months. “We need to be quite agile. We have to capture requirements, quickly translate those requirements into technical speak that our engineers require to build the software, get the system tested and then deploy that to an operational environment,” explains Wiese. “The tempo is very fast. Part of the challenge is educating the staff to be able to adjust to that sort of flexible environment where we’ll do a lot of prototyping up front to fully understand a customer’s requirements before we build.”
In this fast-paced context, Wiese embraces his role as the project manager at the frontline, dealing with customers, and behind the scenes, translating requirements into actions for the project team where his background in software engineering comes in handy. “Customers are very good at looking at a solution and saying ‘yes/no’ as opposed to trying to read requirements documents, which may look correct but don’t really tell you the full story,” he says. “Engineers tend to be very black and white, so I’ll often go out with the engineers on site to see if they’re interpreting what the customer is saying correctly.”
In this regard, effective stakeholder management is straightforward. “It’s understanding what your customers want, what their deadlines are, and then building a roadmap that aligns with that,” according to Wiese. “The projects I’ve run have been successful because we’ve been anticipating customer needs and meeting those needs in advance. We’re now getting a lot of repeat business, not just from the Australian Special Forces [where the product initiated], but from other Defence bodies.”