Group Captain James Hood craves complexity in his projects. That’s what he indicates when he says he wants to get to “a higher level of executive defence program management at some stage”. Following two senior roles on high profile aircraft projects—the AP-3C Orion and the Wedgetail—in succession, it isn’t hard to imagine him on the ascent.
“I love the complexity of project management, I love the challenge of trying to bring together all the elements from different disciplines,” he states, showing a genuine interest in ordering chaos. And despite his origins as an engineer, it isn’t the technical complexity that enthralls him, but the people side of project management. “I really enjoy working with different people, no matter how easy or difficult they are to work with, I find that to be an absolute pleasure.”
Flight of the fledgling
Hood joined the air force 23 years ago, starting with an engineering degree in an operations position. As his career progressed, so did his role in various projects such as aircraft upgrades. “As time went on, I started working more and more with complex projects. One of the big ones was the upgrade of the AP-3C Orion aircraft, involved in hunting submarines and doing surveillance across the north of Australia,” he explains.
In 2000, he became a deputy project manager at Avalon airfields in Victoria before being promoted to project manager and later, project engineering manager. After several months of 80-hour weeks, he and his team saw their fledgling fly into the Gulf, finally a proud moment after a lot of hard work.
“We underestimated the work that was required,” he admits readily. “When the contractors started to double-shift and then triple-shift its organisation we weren’t well positioned to escalate our effort with them. As a result, our people had to work extremely long hours for what appeared to be a three-month period, which turned into six months, and then 12 months.”
People management is a crucial aspect of being a project manager, and the defence force is aware of the impact big projects have on staff and their families, says Hood. “If people aren’t happy at home it makes it even more difficult for project managers to focus on the project. If the families are involved in the project, then they start to identify where mum or dad is spending all their time. They can come in and see the aircraft, talk about it and draw pictures about it and understand the rewards at the end.”
Lesson learnt, he says Wedgetail has thus far managed to avoid the “ridiculous hours” of the Orion project, despite being “one of the most complex undertakings by the Australian Defence Force”.
In addition to its technical challenges, with 11,500 contracted requirements across multiple systems and multiple suppliers, 5.5 million lines of software code and sophisticated systems to install, test and maintain, the Wedgetail project also required cooperation across the world, with teams in the USA, UK and Israel as well as Australia.
“I arrived just after they’d done the critical design review and at that stage you start having all the emerging problems in the project, where one failure affects other parts of the project and where the complexity and ambiguity becomes apparent,” recalls Hood. “On something the size of a Wedgetail, that’s a phenomenally difficult job.”
Working under Air Vice-Marshal Chris Deeble, Hood finished up as the chief engineer in Australia, which was a project management role establishing all the systems in service, to support the aircraft when they arrived.