Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stuck In IT Hell With The Commissars

You fools will never learn
A Reader sends us a link to an excellent IT blog, Coding Horror, written by Jeff Atwood, a Californian software developer. It explains in everyday language exactly how it is our government manages to produce all those eye-wateringly expensive IT projects that keep blowing up (NPfIT, Defra's farm subsidy system, the National Firearms Licensing Management System, LIBRA, most DWP systems, etc etc).

Mr Atwood never actually mentions the NHS supercomputer or the others, but it turns out that they're a continuous loop replay of some very well known themes.

In The Long Dismal History of Software Failure, he runs us through the global catalogue of IT woe. It stretches all the way from mighty financial sector disasters at Allstate Insurance and Westpac Bank, through to the notorious $526m write-off at Sainsburys after its whizz-bang automated supply chain management system decided the shelves were best left empty.

And in this post he lists the 36 classic mistakes of software development, first identified by software writer Steve McConnell. Tyler had never seen them before, but to anyone who has any knowledge of the NPfIT they are immediately familiar. Try these for starters:

  • Silver bullet syndrome

  • Lack of stakeholder buy-in

  • Lack of user input

  • Politics placed over substance

  • Wishful thinking

  • Insufficient risk management

  • Contractor failure

All very well known problems, so I guess we shouldn't be too surprised when our Big Government gets whacked by them.

Except... except... wouldn't you expect people to learn from such ghastly mistakes? I mean according to Atwood, "this year organizations and governments will spend an estimated $1 trillion on IT hardware, software, and services worldwide." That's one cack load of cash, and surely the customers would have learned by now how to get better value.

Well, guess what. Most customers have learned. As Atwood reports:

"The 10th edition of the annual CHAOS report from The Standish Group, which researches the reasons for IT project failure in the United States, indicates that project success rates have increased to 34 percent of all projects. That’s more than a 100-percent improvement from the success rate found in the first study in 1994."

Just pause there. The overall success rate has more than doubled in the last ten years- hurrah! But it's still only 34%- boo!

"Asked for the chief reasons project success rates have improved, Standish Chairman Jim Johnson says, “The primary reason is the projects have gotten a lot smaller. Doing projects with iterative processing as opposed to the waterfall method, which called for all project requirements to be defined up front, is a major step forward.”

Pause again, to let that sink in. The key industry improvement has been to do projects in small "iterative" steps. Not to launch the world's biggest ever civilian IT project.

"The Standish Group has studied over 40,000 projects in 10 years to reach the findings.
Project failures have declined to 15 percent of all projects, a vast improvement over the 31-percent failure rate reported in 1994."

Overall then, outright failures are now down to a mere 15%, but projects are much smaller.

So should we now expect UK government IT projects to reach a similar standard?
Given that that our top-down Big Plan Big Government doesn't seem to have learned from any of McConnell's existing 36 mistakes, let alone the new mistakes that are being added to the list all the time?
It simply doesn't compute.
No, as long as the commissars are at the controls, we are doomed to the hellish eternity of massive spend and massive failure.

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