Don't be an IT snake oil salesman

Don't be an IT snake oil salesman

Summary: IT often promises the government much with the big pull being productivity gains and cost savings, but does the governmentthink about IT in the terms of something that will cure its ills or something which could backfire and give it process diarrhea for a decade?

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IT often promises the government much — with the big pull being productivity gains and cost savings — but does the government think about IT in the terms of something that will cure its ills or something which could backfire and give it process diarrhea for a decade?

Contractors dealing with the government have to make sure that they don't promise the world when they know they can't deliver it.

If government did think the latter, could anyone blame them? There has been a trail of broken projects lying in a pile of debris over the last decade which has strengthened that view.

Think of the NSW government's Tcard project, which started in the hopes of having something running for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Games, but was cancelled last year by a disgruntled government with a running tab at almost $100 million. The Victorian equivalent Myki hasn't have an untroubled start either, running behind budget.

Aussat has been described as a piece of Space Junk by our former Prime Minister Paul Keating. And what about Sydney Water's IT failure earlier this decade, which had its budget reduced to a pittance because the government feared it would use it unwisely?

A report in 2007 by software testing company Planit found that large Australian organisations were losing an average of $84.7 million on software development projects each year.

Less than 42 per cent were completed on time and budget, according to that report. Six per cent were cancelled all together.

Last week at an Australian Internet Industry Association event, the head of the association's counterpart in the UK, John Higgins, spoke about his activities over the other side of the world. According to him, many UK Ministers said in the past that those from the IT industry were "no better than snake oil salesmen".

When I think of snake oil, I think of unreliability, of a cure which works because of a placebo effect if it doesn't make things worse. As pointed out above, IT does have the opportunity to do just that.

Yet AIIA CEO Ian Birks didn't think that the Australian government believed that and indeed some recent spending sprees make me believe he could be right; that IT has successfully been able to market itself as the medicine it should be, without the side effects. Indeed, such an image is essential since the world as we know it can't operate without it.

We have $11 billion of government money earmarked for spending on the National Broadband Network and just this week Defence said it would tip $700 million into IT so as to achieve savings of almost $2 billion. NSW is trying again on its Tcard and South Australia plans to enter the fray. $100 million is being thrown at Smart Grid technology.

Yet with such projects, their shine will only last so long as they progress on time and don't become bottomless pits where funds can be put. They need to show their requisite benefits.

The key to making sure that IT doesn't become a bad word, and believe me, there are pockets of society who equate it with the devil, is realism. Contractors dealing with the government have to make sure that they don't promise the world when they know they can't deliver it.

It means telling the government when something they are asking is expensive/unrealistic/complicated. (I'm looking at you, ERG). It means asking for help when something is going wrong. It means working to a project goal not a money pot.

We know government is a tempting morsel with its large deals, and a little white lie could be the way in. But is it worth turning the industry back into its snake salesmen?

Topics: Government, CXO, Government AU, Outsourcing

Suzanne Tindal

About Suzanne Tindal

Suzanne Tindal cut her teeth at ZDNet.com.au as the site's telecommunications reporter, a role that saw her break some of the biggest stories associated with the National Broadband Network process. She then turned her attention to all matters in government and corporate ICT circles. Now she's taking on the whole gamut as news editor for the site.

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8 comments
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  • The whole industry..

    is simply a crock. IT is so discredited as an occupation that you'd have to be mad to enter it.
    anonymous
  • IT Snake oil salesmen

    The Government and all other IT Execs don't need to be IT wizards to be effective, they need to utilise existing business tendering processes more effectively, this will of course require a modicum of rational intelligence , not something that is obviously a pre-requisite to get your snout into the communal trough in the first place.
    User requirements of the IT project together with realistic time frames to employment of the process should be outlined in the tendering process with penalties for obvious short-comings, not too hard when you consider the current alternative, it would also mean that we can get rid of the Snake Oilers and get back the kudos rightfully earned by responsible
    I-Techies
    anonymous
  • What rubbish Suzanne

    When a project goes wrong, the easiest thing to do is blame the IT guys. Until government develop a mentality where they are willing to partner with the provider in a project, rather than adopt an us vs them approach, we won't see too many success stories. When have we ever seen a government department concede that the cause of project failure has been because the requirements were poorly scoped, they project was poorly managed, or the project never really had full corporate buy-in.
    A journalist calling others snake oil salesmen. pot. kettle. black.
    anonymous
  • No surprise

    As a sys admin and developer over the past 10 years+ I agree as a whole the industry is a crock.
    However I believe that in most cases the industry disparately wants to deliver what the customer wants.

    I think the problem is the customers are unrealistic about what they want, the money they spend and more importantly the human resources they apply

    Specifically I think that organisation that out source major projects or ll of their IT are mad.

    If you have no tech savvy staff, then who have you got to really check on the quality of what is being delivered?
    No one.
    Typically they contract in a 3rd party PM (possibly from the same company that will do the work, or someone who worked at that company) to oversee a 3rd party developer/implementer.
    And then they are surprised they get a third party solution.

    Thats like employing an ex car sales man to buy your car for you.

    In addition in my experience, the client rarely expend enough internal processes or take the time to listen/read comms/questions.
    Then they are surprised that what was delivered was what they specified, but they didn't specify what they want.

    IMO if companies want to use the "industry" to do most of their work, they need experienced people to spec and test internally.
    anonymous
  • Don't blame IT..

    I agree with you, too much is made of the many greedy and unscrupulous sales people in IT.

    The real problem is that the consumers of IT need to lift their game. I know of no other industry segment where business has so little knowledge of the commodity they are aquiring.

    In my experience, business tends to be very lazy when it comes to IT. Easier to pay big bucks to a US Consultancy to make your IT decisions for you. Even easier to outsource the whole sheebang. Who wants to define business processes before going to tender? Ever heard of a project that did not suffer scope creep?

    Its time to stop dumping on the iT suppliers and start fixing the real problem. Lazy, ignorant business people without the IT acumen required to make sensible decisions, that supports the business.
    anonymous
  • IT Industry

    The blame game is hardly a winning strategy now or in the future. Alienating clients and IT Practitioners cannot be a good thing but I also think many IT Practitioners are controlled and directed by CEO's who neither understand technology or worse don't want to understand technology so you are interfacing with people who right from day one set you up for failure.You are then expected to smile and take it up the rear end because the perception is you are an overpaid necessity. There is a lot of jealousy when expectation meets disappointment . IT Practitioners understate/overstate to win jobs like many industries (look at the building industry as an example) and clients make assumptions which they never test as being achievable or accurate because they too get caught up with spin doctoring to make themselves look good.

    A dose of hard reality for everyone and a team approach where if IT loses so too does the whole business may just turn some of this negative attitude around.

    Ken
    anonymous
  • Your comment re Aussat

    Are you for real? Aussat became Optus!
    anonymous
  • Much of the problem...

    ..as others have stated, is unrealistic demands by clients. We've had projects that were right on the ball, and then the client comes in and asks, "Can you make it do this, and can it do that?" If you answer no, they get ratty. If you answer yes, cue major redevelopment, bugs in the system, time and cost blowouts - and then they get ratty. You can't win.

    So what we do now is, following the client needs analysis (CNA), we state that this is exactly what the job will do, as per their requirements. If they want changes made halfway through, we tell them we need to do another CNA to take in the new requirements and implement them under a new quote in a new phase of the project. So we can complete the project as originally conceived, and then we can do another quote once the job's done, for the upgrade.

    Yes, we've lost clients because we will not bend on this, but those sort of clients we don't want anyway. Such clients are the ones that want more and more, while not wanting to pay for the extra work, and they end up costing us money and damaging our reputation. The clients who have stuck with us have found that their projects are finished on time, within budget, and working as specified.

    Too many people don't understand IT or the amount of complexity and work involved in an IT project. A single project can run to millions of lines of code, enough to fill a 30-volume encyclopaedia, and they just don't realise it. All they see is an interface with buttons and text boxes that do things, without knowing all the processes happening behind the screen. Creating a system that hides these minutiae from the user is our job, so they can get on with their job. But users need to recognise that even though they can't see what's involved, the work behind it still has to be done, and it takes a lot of time, skill and effort to do it.
    anonymous