June 21, 2007

Marching Through Hell

Posted by Ben Simo

There is a Churchill quote about when you're marching through hell, just keep marching. Well, that's basically what we're doing. We need to slow this down and get it right.
- Charles Burbridge
CFO, Los Angeles Unified School District

A couple weeks ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District's new computer system incorrectly paid over 32,000 employees. That's almost a third of the district's employees. And the trouble started this past January.


I've been involved in some software projects with a "hell" phase in the SDLC. I've worked on projects that failed. I've been involved with projects that went millions over budget. However, I'm thankful that I have never worked on a project for which tens of thousands of production issues were reported in a handful of months.

Through the replacement of our aging financial, human resources, payroll and
procurement systems, the District will:
  1. Dramatically improve service delivery to schools
  2. Radically improve the efficiency of District operations and our ability to manage them
  3. Reduce/eliminate paperwork and redundant manual processes
  4. Increase accountability and transparency to the public in the use of public funds
  5. Provide better data for decision makers and stakeholders at all levels
- LAUSD ERP Project Vision Statements, March 2004

This enterprise software development project started out with good intentions and lofty goals. However, it appears that something went terribly wrong in implementation. The district's public web site does not include much information about the problems. The latest document I saw with information for employees with payroll problems has a February date. I also find it interesting that a more recent document is missing item #4 from the above list. I guess that when things go wrong, there's no need to keep the public and employees informed. Right? Wrong. I don't know the details of what went wrong, but I do know that when things go wrong people tend to communicate less. I also know that it can be difficult to admit failure. This project reminds me of the six stages of a project that I occasionally encounter in forwarded emails and on bulletin boards. It will be interesting to see what and who is eventually blamed.

The six stages of a project
  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search for the guilty
  5. Punishment of the innocent
  6. Praise and honor for the non participants

Enterprise software systems can be very complex. The vision statement says that they chose a commercial package and partnered with an integrator because they want to configure software and not customize software. A payroll system for over 100,000 school district employees has got to be one of the most complex "configuration" projects around. I believe there were good intentions, but this looks like a game of semantics. Enterprise systems are difficult to configure and deploy -- especially when you have numerous customized needs.

I don't know what kind of testing was performed on this system before it went to production. The original visions document references the need for testing support.
A complete test environment (development, QA, and production instances), including adequate infrastructure, staff (DBA), storage and network capacity, a full volume of test data.
- LAUSD ERP Project Vision Statements, March 2004

I wonder what happened in implementation. Obviously, something was missed or skipped.

I did notice that the project appears to be on schedule. When Churchill said "If you're going through hell, keep going.", the point was to find your way out of the situation -- not ignore it.

I was once offered a "great opportunity" to work on a "high profile" project. I accepted that offer. I learned a great deal from that experience. One of the things I learned is that it may not be a good thing to be visible when there are problems that are out of your control. Yet we have to take risks to gain a reward.

Right now, I am thankful that I am not "marching through hell". And I'm thankful that my paychecks come as expected.

To those in the LAUSD, these problems will pass. Right?
We expect these problems to subside in the very near future.
- Charles Burbridge
CFO, Los Angeles Unified School District
How near is very near?

If you have any more information about the development and testing practices on this project, I'd like to see it.

  Edit

1 Comment:

June 25, 2007  
JakeBrake wrote:

Ben,

This made me think of the TORG Effect. I blogged that here: http://www.sqablogs.com/JakeBrake/911/The+TORG+Effect.html

I like you site. Thank you for your energy and insights!

/s/JakeBrake