Government Technology
By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

1999 - An Odd Odyssey

December 30, 2009 By Bill Schrier

The Y2K Bug - and confusion in years - click for more It was just ten short years ago that many of us were preparing to celebrate New Year's Eve - by working all night!

Anyone over 30 probably still remembers all the information technology work that went into preparing for Year 2000.

I'm going to dredge (!?) up some of my memories in the next few paragraphs, but if you have memories or stories of that December 31, 1999, evening, I invite you to leave them as a comment to this blog entry.

For many of us in Seattle, 1999 was not a good year.

First of all, we had madly been reviewing and fixing our information technology applications and programs and systems for Y2K bugs.

But no one really knew what would happen.  Would buses and trains stop dead due to bugs in their microchips?  Would the electrical grid fail?  Would 911 stop working?

The City of Seattle, like any organization using IT, had very real problems - we knew the accounting/financial database - called SFMS for Seattle Financial Management System - was not ready for Y2K, so we replaced it with an entirely new system.  We also patched up the water utility's and electrical utility's billling systems, since another project to replace them was in progress. (That system, now called CCSS for the Consolidated Customer Service System, was implemented in 2001, a year late and $14 million over budget, which is a different story).

The City's Chief Technology Officer was Lynn Jacobs, and in 1998 she had spread the alarm about Y2K, galvanizing the Mayor, City Council and most departments into action looking for their Y2K bugs.  But by October, 1999, Jacobs had largely checked out due to personal issues, rarely coming to work and exerting virtually no leadership.  So Mayor Schell replaced her with Marty Chakoian, who was, not coincidently, leading the City's Y2K efforts. There was plenty of consternation among the IT leadership in the City government.

But the outside world was in chaos in 1999 too. 

The Seattle Times ran a whole series of articles about the electrical grid and 911 systems and other critical functions, and how we were preparing them for Y2K. Gee, they even talked about potential water systems' issues with Y2K, even though Seattle's water reservoirs are high up in the mountains and the basic rule of water and wastewater is "s___ flows downhill" (The s___ stands for "stuff", of course).

And we had the WTO riots in Seattle in November; Seattle sure appeared to be the anarchy capital of North America, if not the world.

Then on Dec. 14, 1999, a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, coming across the border from Canada with 100 pounds of powerful explosives in the trunk of his car.  Was he headed to Seattle to detonate the explosives at the base of the Space Needle on New Year's Eve?  We couldn't take a chance, so Mayor Paul Schell cancelled the grand New Year's celebration planned there.

For most of us tech types, and a lot of other folks, it didn't make any difference, anyway.  We had already planned to be at work instead of celebrating on December 31st.

The City's Emergency Operations Center was open.  At that time, the EOC was in a crowded basement of Fire Station #2 in the Denny Regrade (it has since been replaced with a $30 million modern facility).  Nevertheless, senior officials from every department hunkered down to see in the millennium in that basement.

My own Department of Information Technology was all of 5 months old - we were created as a separate department on August 1, 1999. Our operations center was in an old stock brokerage (Foster and Marshall) building at 2nd and Columbia, which is now home to the United Way of Seattle. That building was home to the telecommunications division, including the service desk - the rest of the department was in the Dexter Horton building next door. [The Dexter Horton building turned out to be much worse off in the earthquake of 2001, when virtually everyone working there was forced to leave it for a couple weeks due to building damage, but again that's another story.]

Y2K at the City of Seattles IT Operations Center - click to see a larger version On December 31, 1999, we had a whole team of folks who celebrated the beginning of the third millennium* together, watching a quiet, uneventful Seattle 20th Century night turn into a quiet, uneventful and sleepy 21st century* morning.

Was it uneventful due to all our diligency and preparations, or was there never really any problem in the first place?  I don't know, but I do know I'll celebrate the end of the decade of the naughts tonight with a bit more enjoyment and a lot less trepidation.

*Note: Yes, yes, I do understand the real beginning of the 3rd millennium and the 21st century is January 1,2001. See article here. But, gee, popular culture doesn't count the years that way, so I took a little tech-journalism-geek liberties with dates in writing this article.


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Translucent to the User

December 13, 2009 By Bill Schrier

  E-mail conversion, City of Seattle On Monday night, December 8th, the Seattle Police Department started to use Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for electronic mail. This culminated moving more than 11,000 City of Seattle employees, over 12,400 e-mailboxes, and 900 BlackBerrys from an older e-mail technology to the Exchange 2007 product. All of it "translucent to the user".

I've previously blogged about project management, and specifically identifying and reducing risks in large technology projects ("the P-I test"). With this entry I'm highlighting somewhat different project management practices.  We used certain techniques to reduce the impact of the technology changes on front-line City workers such as firefighters, accountants, and street maintenance staff.

(In case you think I'm just tooting our own horn, I am, but I've also blogged about my biggest project failure and you can read about that here, too!). 

We called this e-mail migration project GEM, for GroupWise to Exchange Migration.

Not only was the project on-time, under-budget and delivering all of its objectives, but there were very few whimpers from most City employees at this major change in their work lives. How was such a change so seamless?  

Electronic mail is, arguably, the most important technology used by workers in almost any company today, whether government or private.  It has supplanted the telephone and even the desktop computer as the key tool for many workers to be productive and efficient. Decisions which might take days or weeks without e-mail can be debated and handled rapidly with e-mail communication. Management of front-line projects (streets, water, electricity), debates and decisions on policies, notification of events, press releases, scheduling, all occur with this tool. Most importantly, it is a primary way for constituents and customers to communicate with City workers and elected officials and the way for those officials to coordinate the City's response. 

Of course, when anything is this valuable in your life, you are extraordinarily skittish when it is NOT available or about to be significantly changed.  Managing this "culture change" - in the working habits of thousands of City workers - is the elusive key to success in a technology project.

I won't get into the current debate (war?) about use of internal e-mail versus a hosted service, or whether Google's g-mail is better or more cost effective than the Microsoft product set. Because e-mail is so important in our work lives, and because many people use Outlook at home (or in a previous job) anyway, it was the right choice for the City of Seattle. Because many e-mail messages are sensitive, and since I have a skilled and dedicated set of employees to manage and operate it, we would not have it hosted or managed elsewhere. Microsoft Exchange/Outlook is an established product, well-supported, used by 65% or so of the organizations in America today.  And many many other applications (purchasing or human resource systems, billing and customer service systems) are written to use Outlook/Exchange for communication.

Here are the elements of success for GEM:

  • Strong executive leadership. Mayor Greg Nickels fully supported this change, and every department director knew it. The nine-member Seattle City Council voted to fund the project ($4.9 million) after considerable, reasoned debate. These elected officials were able to articulate the rationale for making this change. This support helped immensely in cooperation for training, scheduling and acceptance throughout the Government.
  • Strong project leadership. My deputy department director sponsored the project - she has formal and informal ties to many line departments, and she's managed many brick-and-mortar projects (e.g. building Parks community centers). She chose a strong project director who is a hard-nosed negotiator, and a skilled project manager who pays attention to both people and details.
  • Support. We chose, via competitive bid, a knowledgeable private partner - Avanade - to give us advice, skilled support and knowledge transfer. Avanade had helped many companies with similar conversions in the past, and performed in an outstanding manner for us.
  • Training. We gave employees a chance to purchase Microsoft Office 2007 via the home use program, and 2,000 of them took that chance, thereby learning the product suite at home. A month prior to each department's conversion, we told them how to prepare, for example, by deleting old e-mail and taking training. We offered training in classes, video and reading material for anyone from heavy e-mail users to people who just needed a refresher on Outlook.
  • Communicate communicate communicate. We told all 12,000 employees at the beginning of 2009 what we planned to do ("to" them!)  One month out from their department's conversion, we told them how to get trained and ready.  Two weeks out we communicated details via their management chain and via e-mail message. The day before conversion, each employee had a sheet of instructions placed on their chair. The day after conversion, technology staff chosen for their great "deskside manner" walked the halls and cubicles to answer questions and solve problems.  We had a skilled service desk / help desk and a special e-mail contact point. And all along we had a detailed, fact-and-fun-filled internal website with information, training, FAQ's, and links to more resources.
  • Skilled City employees. We already had a highly competent help desk, capable desktop support staff and experienced engineers supporting servers and storage and messaging system.  We trained and leveraged this skilled and motivated set of employees, coupled with Avanade, to do the technical work on the project.
  • Finally - and perhaps this is most important, we drafted departments into the effort. Each department had at least one and usually a team of people who worked with the GEM project team to customize the training and conversion plan for that department's unique needs. Police patrol officers use e-mail differently than Parks groundskeepers who are different than budget analysts who are different than electrical utility engineers. These "extended teams" in departments not only participated in the planning, but became natural advocates for overcoming problems and socializing the change in each department.

Leadership, communication, user representation, strong private partner, skilled and motivated technical staff - a GEM of a project, translucent to the users!


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Kurmudgeons and Kids

December 1, 2009 By Bill Schrier

Am I a Mac or a PC or just plain old Bill?  Click here. Oh gee, I think I've become a Kurmudgeon. Or maybe a naysayer. Or maybe just a Buttoned-Down Corporate IT Technocrat. Or maybe, and this is most frightening of all, PC - and I don't mean "politically correct" - but rather the character played by John Hodgman in the "Get a Mac" advertisements

Bill Schriers ancient draft card - click for blog But I know I'm anti-establishment, because I marched and protested the Vietnam War. I actually participated in a sit-in demonstration. I crossed a police barricade during an anti-war protest in Madison Wisconsin (ok, so it was St. Patrick's Day, I was drunk, twenty-three years old, on my way to work, and headed to get a cup of coffee to sober up - I still "crossed the line", ok?). Gee Whiz, I almost burned by draft card (oh my gosh, am I that old, that I still have a draft card?)  How could a militant activist plebeian, farm-kid like me become the ultimate embodiment of "The Man"?

What happened?

Elections.

Yup, we've had a few recently in Seattle.

We have a new Mayor, a new County Executive, a new City Attorney, and two new City Councilpeople.

And they are all younger than me.

Worse yet, their campaign staff - who are now working on their transition teams - are college kids or twenty-and-thirty-something young people who have all these odd and annoying habits.

They use I-Phones. Gee, I can't even spell I-Phone (correctly).  We corporate IT types use proper BlackBerrys or proper mobile phones that fold out when you want to talk.  (Although I did give my wife an I-Phone for Christmas - does that count?)

They use Macs. Yes, Apple Macintosh computers - (not the Ronald McDonald type of Mac).  We corporate IT types use proper Windows XP computers manufactured by prim and proper corporations like Hewlett Packard with proper advertising campaigns, thank you very much. (My always-suffering wife is a Mac person - does that count?)

They don't use anti-virus software.  Anathema! Heresy!   My Chief Information Security Officer is writhing on the floor. There ARE viruses which affect Macs, he says.  And how about all those I-Phone (I still can't spell it right) apps which are written by hackers and can be downloaded?  Oh wait, I-Phone hackers aren't trying to create bot armies, they're just trying to modify the software in the phone and bend it to their will.  Gee, does that make Apple Engineers and Programmers and Executives Buttoned-Down corporate IT types like me?

These kids - they tweet and twitter and blog and facebook (is that a verb?) and post video they take with their danged I-Phones to YouTube and create legends for their innovative use of cell phones to collect last minute ballots on election night. 

Where is my defense from all this anarchy?   Where is my official City of Seattle Information Security policy when I need it?   Where are my guidelines for the use of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Blogs (oh my)?  Where is that holy grail of all Chief Information Officers and Buttoned Down corporate IT types - "standards"? 

At least I can take comfort and wrap myself in my reduced budget (Macs and I-Phones cost more to buy and manage) and my economic development (gee, Microsoft DOES employ 40,000 people in the Seattle area and it DOES, after all, make software for Macs, too).

They are challenging my policies, these kids. They are challenging my assumptions. They don't care for my technology standards. They have taught me how to spell iPhone.

They are challenging my very identity as the Chief Technology Officer for the City Government of Seattle.

And I love it.


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