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Another IT Debacle

Many people don’t have a great deal of trust in computers and in the people who work with them. Often IT consultants are seen as charlatans more intent on exploiting the computer owner’s ignorance and making some easy money rather than genuinely trying to fix problems and make things better for the user.

I have reached this conclusion through anecdotes rather than any scientific evidence because I can’t find any good surveys on the subject. The best match I could find rated engineers highly but I don’t think, most people rate computer professionals as a type of engineer. And yes, I am a computer professional myself and I am *not* talking about personal experience! As far as I know my clients don’t think I’m ripping them off!

So where has this poor reputation come from? Maybe it’s related to the seemingly continuous stream of computer-related disasters which we hear about. If you are interested, I have blogged about the “Novopay” fiasco here in the past, in blog entries such as “Corporate Newspeak” from 2013-03-21, “Doomed to Failure” from 2012-12-20, and “Talentless Too, No Pay” from 2012-11-24.

And today I heard an update on another ongoing computer disaster, the new student management system for New Zealand’s biggest school (with 20,000 students), the NZ Correspondence School.

They spent $12 million on this new system and the management are convinced it is working well, so everything seems good, doesn’t it? I mean, what could possibly be wrong here?

Well here’s some comments left on a recent survey by actual users of the system: “I’m personally nearly at breaking point because of this system”, “There are no positives with this system. It has put our school on a downward spiral”, “This antiquated dinosaur system is an abomination. We need to start looking at a replacement SMS now.”

Do these sound like happy users of a system which cost millions of dollars and the management assures us is a great success?

There are many obvious parallels with Novopay and other botched systems here. First, an overseas company, which had no experience in the area, was brought in to do the work. Second, the actual users weren’t consulted much on the system and had very little input into how it worked. Third, the system was hacked together from an existing, antiquated system and extra functions were added on top. Fourth, the old system was shut down and the new system was put into full operation before it was thoroughly tested. Fifth, the introduction new system was delayed many times. And last (but certainly not least), the senior management involved are denying the problems exist and are either totally dishonest or out of touch with reality.

I suspect the actual programming team weren’t consulted much on how the project should proceed either. I strongly suspect they were told they just had to hack together something using existing parts and build a sort software equivalent of a Frankenstein monster which was never going to work efficiently. Few IT professionals really want to work that way. Generally they would rather create something new and efficient from the start.

But the management team would have done what management do everywhere: make stupid, greedy, ignorant decisions, and then blame everyone else. Again, I emphasise this is my reading of the situation and I have no proof of this. The senior people involved with the project have refused to be interviewed and have just issued meaningless statements instead, so speculation is always going to be necessary.

My contempt for management in general should be well known to anyone who reads this blog. I don’t reject the idea of using some form of management in every case, and I don’t think all managers are necessarily incompetent, although the results seem to indicate most of them are. But I prefer to look at different situations on a case by case basis, and in general this leads to my conclusion of general incompetence.

When you think about it, in many cases the sort of person who wants to be a manager is probably similar to the sort of person who wants to be a politician or a used car salesman. Either they see an opportunity to make a lot of money for doing very little, or they want undeserved control over other people, or they just can’t get a real job.

So you know what they say: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t even teach, manage! (there, I’ve offended both teachers and managers!)

And as far as its effect on my profession is concerned, I think a lot of real IT professionals just take it as an additional challenge: not only do they have to contend with constantly changing products, complex software interactions, computer security issues, unreliable infrastructure, intricate programming, and awkward users, but also with silly management decisions. But then, many of us do like a challenge!

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  1. OJB
    June 27, 2013 at 10:09 am

    According to the 2013 Reader’s Digest NZ survey computer technicians (I guess that almost fits with “IT professional”) are trusted about average (22 out of 50). The rating is above professions such as politicians, clergy, CEOs, and prostitutes, but below firefighters, nurses, pilots and doctors. Yeah, I’d be happy with that. Maybe we’re trusted a bit more than I had assumed!

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