Opinion

Why IT Is the Biggest Issue in the Race for Mayor

Why IT Is the Biggest Issue in the Race for Mayor

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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.

fix san diego opinionDuring 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.

In fact, 94 percent of all large IT projects are partial or complete failures.

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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Benjamin Katz

Benjamin Katz

Serial entrepreneur. Currently CEO of JSX and Givalike.org. Previously founder and CEO of CompleteCampaigns.com. Interests include nonprofits, parenting, food, San Diego, beer, politics, entrepreneurship and technology.

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39 comments
shawn fox
shawn fox

Ben, I really sympathize with your concerns. Unfortunately there always seems to be one or two issues of the day. There always seems to be negative campaigning and arguing that involve a few hot button issues. The pension is one of them and rightly so. In my opinion, gov't would be better off if almost all services were outsourced. If taxes are necessary, they don't need to be used to pay gov't employees. Many services can be provided by companies competing for the job. Retirement plans and health care plans should be more portable so that we have a dynamic, mobile work force. Most taxes at the local level could probably be turned into fees but unfortunately many people want free stuff at someone else's expense. You have to understand that the sort of person that wants government agencies and employees doing the work are controllers. They don't trust the free market. They want the economy to be centrally planned by a few "highly educated" people. If one doesn't trust the invisible hand of the market, then it is highly unlikely that they will trust "agile" processes that are constantly evolving. You see, they LIKE control and red tape.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

Ben, I really sympathize with your concerns. Unfortunately there always seems to be one or two issues of the day. There always seems to be negative campaigning and arguing that involve a few hot button issues. The pension is one of them and rightly so. In my opinion, gov't would be better off if almost all services were outsourced. If taxes are necessary, they don't need to be used to pay gov't employees. Many services can be provided by companies competing for the job. Retirement plans and health care plans should be more portable so that we have a dynamic, mobile work force. Most taxes at the local level could probably be turned into fees but unfortunately many people want free stuff at someone else's expense. You have to understand that the sort of person that wants government agencies and employees doing the work are controllers. They don't trust the free market. They want the economy to be centrally planned by a few "highly educated" people. If one doesn't trust the invisible hand of the market, then it is highly unlikely that they will trust "agile" processes that are constantly evolving. You see, they LIKE control and red tape.

shawn fox
shawn fox subscriber

I have to disagree with this statement. Agile was never meant to be a one size fits all model where everyone has to agree on every detail. It is supposed to be constantly evolving. The core difference is simple to understand. Under agile, it is easier to change requirements so that the product evolves during development. Under waterfall their can be no dynamic evolution of software. The product is defined, implemented, tested, and delivered and if something isn't liked near the end then you go back to step 1. It is true that some organizations try agile for the wrong reasons and then the engineers end up unhappy. However, that does not mean that all organizations fail at it. Many organizations use the agile model and it works just dandy for them even if there are disagreements about some of the details.

Brad Beyenhof
Brad Beyenhof

As a technologist myself, I have to say that the Agile workflow, while purportedly "better," never actually gets implemented. The managers, team leads, and developers all have their favorite parts of the system, but within a single company or even a single team nobody ever seems to agree on what the essential practices even are.

However, while I think waterfall vs. agile is an absolutely terrible example, I do agree that some knowledge of technology is definitely important for a mayor. He should at last have some concept of what a server actually is, how basic Internet communication works, and generally understand the computer on his desk in more detail than merely as a glorified typewriter.

Kelly Abbott
Kelly Abbott

Any tech project by a company with a three-letter-name is bound to cost too much and fail easily. I think a wonderful approach to solving the city's tech woes would be to hand it over to the excellent dot-com execs we have in town. Ahem. But first, hire a CTO.

Kelly Abbott
Kelly Abbott contributormember

Any tech project by a company with a three-letter-name is bound to cost too much and fail easily. I think a wonderful approach to solving the city's tech woes would be to hand it over to the excellent dot-com execs we have in town. Ahem. But first, hire a CTO.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz subscribermember

I'm not looking for a mayor to make technical decisions, I'm looking for them to be technically literate. Your suggestion of "trusting the CTO" leaves us very dependent on an un-elected CTO and a Mayor who lacks the basic knowledge necessary to evaluate if the CTO is doing a decent job.

Also, we don't have a CTO in the City of San Diego.

Matthew Dickerman
Matthew Dickerman

"I suggested that he ask the candidates to explain the difference between Waterfall and Agile software development models."

A mayor should not know about such things. The correct answer is " How the heck should I know? That's why we pay our CTO what he makes." It's the mayor's job to have the vision and it's the CTOs job to make it happen. You don't want non technical people making technical decisions.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

A few years ago a major city IT project got off the ground. It was billed as a panacea that would allow all city systems to “talk to each pother”, streamline operations and save a lot of money. As problems developed, typical of any complex new system, various contractors were fired and hired, the role of the city’s IT department was roundly debated, and Scott Lewis had a lot of fun calling the effort “Wild ERP”.

Then a funny thing happened, the project sort of faded out of sight. From time to time, achievements were claimed, but the project was never completed or abandoned as far as I know. I’d sure like a status report, including accomplishments, costs and just where we stand.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

A few years ago a major city IT project got off the ground. It was billed as a panacea that would allow all city systems to “talk to each pother”, streamline operations and save a lot of money. As problems developed, typical of any complex new system, various contractors were fired and hired, the role of the city’s IT department was roundly debated, and Scott Lewis had a lot of fun calling the effort “Wild ERP”.

Then a funny thing happened, the project sort of faded out of sight. From time to time, achievements were claimed, but the project was never completed or abandoned as far as I know. I’d sure like a status report, including accomplishments, costs and just where we stand.

Kelly Abbott
Kelly Abbott contributormember

Question: does San Diego have a CTO?

Jennifer Reiswig
Jennifer Reiswig

Sure and maybe IT leaders could learn to care about what cities are all about. http://valleywag.gawker.com/peter-thiel-s-dream-of-a-lawless-utopia-floats-on-1368141049Peter Thiel's Dream of a Lawless Utopia Floats Onhttp://valleywag.gawker.com/peter-thiel-s-dream-of-a-lawless-utopia-floats-on-1368141049On Friday, the Seasteading Institute-a non-profit group cofounded by Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman (grandson to Ronald Reagan advisor Milton Friedman)-successfully closed its Indiegogo campaign to design "the world's first floating city" for "pionee...

Jennifer Reiswig
Jennifer Reiswig subscribermember

Sure and maybe IT leaders could learn to care about what cities are all about. http://valleywag.gawker.com/peter-thiel-s-dream-of-a-lawless-utopia-floats-on-1368141049Peter Thiel's Dream of a Lawless Utopia Floats Onhttp://valleywag.gawker.com/peter-thiel-s-dream-of-a-lawless-utopia-floats-on-1368141049On Friday, the Seasteading Institute-a non-profit group cofounded by Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman (grandson to Ronald Reagan advisor Milton Friedman)-successfully closed its Indiegogo campaign to design "the world's first floating city" for "pionee...

David Hall
David Hall

Funny, but doesn't the city have a dept of IT? Yes they do. I would rather have that department focus on the ins and outs of technology and let the mayor focus on policy and leadership. Granted that Jerry Sanders was a technophobe, but your use of waterfall vs agile is an absurd example of what a mayor needs to know to run a city. .

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

Funny, but doesn't the city have a dept of IT? Yes they do. I would rather have that department focus on the ins and outs of technology and let the mayor focus on policy and leadership. Granted that Jerry Sanders was a technophobe, but your use of waterfall vs agile is an absurd example of what a mayor needs to know to run a city. .

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger

The major challange with IT projects and government is the required procurement process. Taxpayers are (rightfully so often) worried about no-bid contracts, or open ended events. That seems like where much of the abuse happens, so we have requirements that don't allow considering the best total value. There needs to be another way to determine who gets contracts and how they are allowed to work. IT is just a great example of how it is difficult for city government to get the best total value. In other words it is a bigger problem than just IT.

Glenn Younger
Glenn Younger subscribermember

The major challange with IT projects and government is the required procurement process. Taxpayers are (rightfully so often) worried about no-bid contracts, or open ended events. That seems like where much of the abuse happens, so we have requirements that don't allow considering the best total value. There needs to be another way to determine who gets contracts and how they are allowed to work. IT is just a great example of how it is difficult for city government to get the best total value. In other words it is a bigger problem than just IT.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

Laws should also be written using the Agile method. Try the law out with a sunset clause and gather data for a few months or a year, watch the results, check for unintended consequences, make changes to fix the problems, and repeat until it works as expected before making the law permanent.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Laws should also be written using the Agile method. Try the law out with a sunset clause and gather data for a few months or a year, watch the results, check for unintended consequences, make changes to fix the problems, and repeat until it works as expected before making the law permanent.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

Interesting commentary Benjamin. As a techno ignorant I never thought of different approaches to the IT model and with the recent headlines on large IT undertakings it is interesting (at least to me) to understand the concept and differences of these two approaches.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Interesting commentary Benjamin. As a techno ignorant I never thought of different approaches to the IT model and with the recent headlines on large IT undertakings it is interesting (at least to me) to understand the concept and differences of these two approaches.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz

I'm not looking for a mayor to make technical decisions, I'm looking for them to be technically literate. Your suggestion of "trusting the CTO" leaves us very dependent on an un-elected CTO and a Mayor who lacks the basic knowledge necessary to evaluate if the CTO is doing a decent job.

Also, we don't have a CTO in the City of San Diego.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz

Bill -- great point. You're referring the SAP implementation aka OneSD. That was originally supposed to cost $18.8M. After a failed implementation with the original vendor, the city went directly to SAP to finish the job. If my recollection is correct, we're now in excess of $70M spent on that project with another $20M budgeted for this upcoming year. I've been trying to find out more about it and despite significant time, searching, and many phone calls, I'm still mostly in the dark.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz subscribermember

Bill -- great point. You're referring the SAP implementation aka OneSD. That was originally supposed to cost $18.8M. After a failed implementation with the original vendor, the city went directly to SAP to finish the job. If my recollection is correct, we're now in excess of $70M spent on that project with another $20M budgeted for this upcoming year. I've been trying to find out more about it and despite significant time, searching, and many phone calls, I'm still mostly in the dark.

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson

Strongly disagree. I had never heard of Agile vs. Waterfall, but I learned about it in about two minutes just now. I would expect a civic leader to be able to do the same thing, in between standing up for this and standing up for that.

Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson subscribermember

Strongly disagree. I had never heard of Agile vs. Waterfall, but I learned about it in about two minutes just now. I would expect a civic leader to be able to do the same thing, in between standing up for this and standing up for that.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz

I agree that there are huge challenges with contracting. It probably hits IT a bit harder than some other situations (buying copier paper is pretty simple) but there's no question that contracting as a whole needs to be ravamped.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz subscribermember

I agree that there are huge challenges with contracting. It probably hits IT a bit harder than some other situations (buying copier paper is pretty simple) but there's no question that contracting as a whole needs to be ravamped.

Kelly Abbott
Kelly Abbott

I thought for sure this would get more replies.

Kelly Abbott
Kelly Abbott contributormember

I thought for sure this would get more replies.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

Mr. Katz, Thanks for the update. You politely didn't use the expression "stonewall", but I'll bet you're wondering, as I am, whether a jolt of further bad news is on the horizon. Ninety millon on a project that was supposed to cost under 20 seems about par for the course.....IF the project is successful.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

Mr. Katz, Thanks for the update. You politely didn't use the expression "stonewall", but I'll bet you're wondering, as I am, whether a jolt of further bad news is on the horizon. Ninety millon on a project that was supposed to cost under 20 seems about par for the course.....IF the project is successful.