Reader Steve Steinbrecher emailed his response to our Thursday State Worker column, "Lessons from Ohio's state tech project." We're publishing it here, unedited, and with the author's permission:
I read your piece in this morning's Bee with a great deal of interest. I am a retired Chief Information Officer (CIO) who worked 35 years in public sector IT. I spent a number of years as CIO for San Joaquin County, as well as Contra Costa County, and also spent a good amount of time working on integrated projects with the state and its CIO's.
Short background: I had leadership responsibility for a couple of very large and expensive, but successful county IT projects (integrated Health Care and Criminal Justice Systems for San Joaquin, a couple of Enterprise Resource Planning systems for both counties (more commonly known as "Empty Rear Pocket" if you allow the consultants to drive your project) to replace aging Payroll and Human Resources applications, and of course, the infamous Y2K project. I cut my teeth on California's first attempt at a Statewide Welfare System (I think it was called SPAN) back in the late 1970's (failure), was very involved in the only successful Statewide Automated Welfare System (SAWS) in the 1980's, and the Statewide Automated Child Support System (SACSS - A colossal failure that County CIO's warned the state of impending failure three years before it even attempted to "go live"). I truly love reading all of these stories in the Bee and other publications, because as Led Zeppelin says, "The Song Remains the Same."
Mr. Conomy got almost everything correct in your interview. However, fear NEVER works as a motivator, in my humble opinion, because when the brown stuff hits the fan with respect to a public (or private) sector IT project, the CIO is fired, the politicians and high level project sponsors cover their butts, and the project either goes on, or another one come along to take its place (just look at California's IT track record, as you so aptly pointed out in your piece). Having said that, what he DID get right is:
NEVER give an IT project to outside contractors and consultants. The only skin they have in the game is receiving your monthly payments (and yes, post-retirement, I too worked as a strategic planning IT consultant for about 8 years...)
Public sector IT workers get a consistently bad rap. A good 98% of the public sector IT workers I ever worked with worked extremely hard (lots of 7 X 24 days), were seriously committed to a given project, and made a damned sight less money that outside contractors who were doing the same job right next to them many times.
If you must use outside help, take their WORST case scenario for time and cost estimates, add 50% to those numbers, and that should become your BEST case scenario right up front. Make sure ALL of your internal sponsors, employees, and customers understand this from the get-go.
Project benchmarks and milestones must be short, achievable, auditable, and reviewable, and must be managed closely. Any CIO worth his or her salt can see a failure on the wall in the very early stages of a given project. It is usually a very high-level project sponsor (and especially a politician) who is loth to "throw in the towel" after spending $1 million on a project, only to turn around and blame those who warned them $50 additional million and years later. Elected officials should never be allowed within 200 light years of IT project decisions.
Drop Dead Date Deadlines DO Work: No matter what people thought about the entire Y2K event, we KNEW the deadline by heart: 12-31-1999 at 2359 p.m. Every public sector agency I was involved with in that process made that deadline, for all of the obvious reasons.
In closing, and probably most important, IT projects are not about computers and software; THEY ARE ABOUT PEOPLE. People do the design, business process engineering, coding, testing, document writing, project management and provide the leadership. As Mr. Conomy succinctly stated, if it has my name on it, that damned sure counts for a LOT. Celebrate successes frequently, and like athletic coaches who produce championship teams, teach employees to learn from and improve upon mistakes.
I thank you for taking a few minutes out of your busy schedule to read this.
Steven A. Steinbrecher
Retired public sector CIO
Pollock Pines, CA