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When Scott Lewis solicited questions for the upcoming Voice of San Diego mayoral debate, I suggested that he ask the candidates to explain the difference between Waterfall and Agile software development models.
This may sound like a strange question, but in many ways I think it is the most important one.
During this mayoral campaign, we have had debates focused on public safety, neighborhoods, environment, jobs – but none on the city’s information technology. In fact, despite all the debates, there have been almost no questions about IT.
But IT may be the single most important issue facing San Diego.
The city’s IT department budget is just over $45 million for the upcoming year, with millions of dollars of other IT expenses scattered through other departments.
Beyond the cost, technology has an impact on every facet of the city. Poor technology endangers our police officers, hampers our ability to utilize parks and other public spaces and reduces our ability to repair roads and sidewalks. As we have seen recently with the HealthCare.gov rollout, technology products can be massively expensive and result in embarrassing failures when they’re managed badly.
But when technology is done right, awesome things happen. Like in San Francisco, where they rolled out a unified help and information system that is available by calling, emailing, visiting their website or even through Twitter. Or in New York City, where they are using data analysis to catch polluters and make their streets safer.
So what does this have to do with Agile and Waterfall, two different methods for designing, building, testing and releasing software?
Agile and Waterfall offer significantly different strategies for developing software. Selecting between them is a critical strategic decision. In electing a mayor, we are choosing a chief executive for San Diego – someone who should be responsible for every major decision and direction of the city. For far too long, we have accepted technological indifference from our candidates and elected officials.
This is absurd on its face. We expect our mayor to understand project labor agreements, ambulance response times and zoning. We should also expect them to understand core concepts behind IT.
In many ways, solid knowledge of IT is more critical than many other issues a mayor is expected to grasp. Not only is proper use of IT already an essential function for good government, it is also advancing rapidly.
Over the last 20 years, most city operations have not changed substantially. We still pave roads in much the same way as we did in the early 1990s. But back then, you’d still be very excited about Microsoft’s new Windows operating system, if you had a computer.
It rightfully seems ridiculous to be using technology and IT strategies from more than two decades ago. Yet this is exactly what government does.
In the Waterfall development method, an extensive specification is written before coding begins, and very little deviation from the specs is tolerated. With Agile, there is a cycle of design, development, testing and repeating. There is an overwhelming consensus in the tech community today that Agile is the right way to approach software development.
Yet government and government contractors continue using the Waterfall method. It leads to cost overruns and buggy software that is difficult and time-consuming to fix. That’s what we got with HealthCare.gov, along with everything San Diego doesn’t need in an IT approach. It is worth noting that CGI, the biggest contractor on HealthCare.gov, is also one of the city of San Diego’s biggest IT contractors.
We need a mayor with an understanding of information technology, including things like Waterfall and Agile development, so that he is capable of making the smart, cost-effective decisions that truly serve the critical needs of the city and the residents of San Diego.
Benjamin A. Katz is a technology entrepreneur. He currently runs JSX, Inc. and Givalike.org. Katz’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.
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