Thursday, July 25, 2013

BCeSIS: Doing the Same Thing Over and Over and Expecting Different Results

So, the BC government is entering negotiations to replace the "COTS student information system" that they implemented/purchased five years ago at a cost of about $100M.

With another COTS system. Yay.

To be managed and run by the same vendor running the current COTS system. Yay.

I think that MLA Rob Fleming had a valid point when he asked the Minister of Education during Question Period (I assume with some edge in his voice):
Given this government's wasteful track record on IT projects, how can the minister assure British Columbians that his government won't be wasting $100 million more of their tax dollars before he signs a new 12-year deal?
But there's a reason it's called "Question Period" and not "Answer Period". So the Minister chose not to detail a management regime which will guard taxpayers against another failed implementation, nor a multi-vendor strategy to hedge bets against the failure of one vendor, nor a collaboration with another province to share in implementation and customization costs, nor any assurance at all that the next round will come off any different from the previous..

Curiously, the tactic the Minister chose was to defend the current iteration of BCeSIS!

It's "one of the most robust student information systems in the country", "there were challenges with the new technology" but "we have learned from that", and finally:
I'll also remind the member that the ministry engaged an independent report. That report from Gartner, who did the report, said that we have a good, stable student information system that's meeting the needs of the school districts in the province.
Oh, um, no. The Gartner report is pretty clear, right in the executive summary:
The alternative assessment concluded that BCeSIS, as currently deployed, is not meeting the business, technical or operational needs of BC and is not a viable future alternative
At a cost of $100M, that's a "colossal failure" in my or any other thinking person's books.

I fear that the Ministry of Education IT bureaucracy is entering into a death race with the BC openStudent project, which is a consortium of school districts building a student information system using collaborative "open source" principles. OpenStudent is promising usable technology at a much lower per student cost than the provincial system.

If openStudent can get an acceptable working system in place in their partner districts before the Ministry has their new system up and running, some senior IT poobahs will be very embarrassed, and we can't have that. So we're going to get a death race.

My advice to OpenStudent: stop using "comic sans" in your business case documents. And watch out because your first public delivery will be used to beat you over the head with. "Missing all these features that the COTS product has!" "I found a bug!" "It erased my laptop" "Comic sans!"

There no bunfight like an IT bureaucracy bunfight.


Stephen said...

Mr. Ramsey,

I was at one time very familiar with the BCeSIS product. It was good in its day, but that day ended a long time ago. Modern systems do more, are easier to use, perform better, and have features for parents and students as well as staff. Unfortunately for any replacement system, though, BCeSIS was heavily customized for the province. And after 10 years, lots of schools and districts have molded their processes around what BCeSIS could and couldn't do. What's likely to happen is people won't like the new product precisely because it's different, even if it's vastly superior.

Your reference to the $100M expenditure on BCeSIS as a "colossal failure" is interesting. What's a reasonable price tag for a piece of enterprise software, the hardware to run it, both a primary and backup datacenter, and all the staff to support, train, and implement the system? With 500k students in BC, $100M over 10 years breaks down to $20 per student per year. That's actually a bit BELOW AVERAGE for the industry when including all of the above. Software for Special Education, in particular, can be very expensive, and both BCeSIS and the new product have it built in.

The real test for the replacement system will be how well staff and teachers are trained, especially in the areas where BCeSIS does things differently than the new system. Changing mission-critical systems in any organization is as much a behavioral project as it is a technical one. No system can be implemented without lots of moaning and groaning, whether open or closed source, developed in BC or Bolivia. And here's what I've noticed about people and software: the people who complain the most about the software they use also complain about the copy machine, the coffee maker, the temperature in the office, their spouse and their kids. The people who are generally more positive about their life situation and environment are usually fairly comfortable with their software.

With this new COTS product, watch to see what happens, and ask a variety of people what they think, eespcially those who are otherwise pretty positive. If they're unhappy with it but the government says everything is great, you have just cause for suspicion. But if there's a decent balance between some negative and some positive reviews, chalk that up to human'll find that everywhere. However, if the positives outweigh the negatives by a statistically significant margin, you've got a winner. And maybe that's worth a movie and a popcorn per student per year.

Paul Ramsey said...


Divide any number by 10 and then 500,000 and it gets mighty small!

How many years has BCeSIS been fully operational?

Another way to look at $100M over 10 years is $10M per year, which is 50 staff at $200K per year. Instagram was serving 100M users and over 1B photos with 13 staff when they were bought out.

It's possible for really expensive enterprise systems to "succeed", if they deliver product that works effectively for an organization, and it's possible for them to "fail", if they don't. A really expensive system that doesn't deliver satisfactory product is a "colossal failure", no matter how large a denominator you use.

As I noted in an earlier post, Mark Zuckerberg and his crew built Facebook for under $50M in three years, and it was "in production", adding millions of users, the whole time. Yes, computer systems can be hard, but they aren't as hard as my enterprise IT brethren sometimes make them out to be.

I hope you're right about this new system and that, whatever the price tag, it delivers something working and useful. Maybe it will. But the political implications of dropping $100M on it means that even if it turns out to be unbearably shitty you can be sure that the Minister will be on his feet in the house 4 years from now declaring that the system just has "teething pains", that the "users don't like change", and that "some small tweeks" are in process to make it even more awesome.

Situations in which the customer has to declare they like the product no matter what the outcome are great for vendors, but leave the end users with very little power. That might account for some of the grumbling in the trenches. The beatings really do go on until morale improves.

Paul Ramsey said...

Oh, forgot! @Stephen, congratulations on winning the BCeSIS bid! Are you still "Product Manager - Aspen Student Information System"?

Eric said...

Isn't it interesting how Government bureaucrats justify their multi-million dollar screw-ups. If BCeSIS was so wonderful and cost effective, then why was it scrapped? Their are loads of Educational Software companies that have product, most likely existing already, that could do the job for school districts and the province, but NO! Government thinks they can do it better. 90-100 million dollars wasted on BCeSIS and that doesn't factor in the countless number of hours wasted at the expense of school district employees and teachers who were forced to use BCeSIS. Thankfully not all adopted this piece of garbage. I have been witness to too many teachers complaints regarding this.

So government is going to take another crack at it and spend big bucks to see if they can get it right. Good luck bureaucrats. Who gets the gig this time? More promise making developers who have no vision of how all the pieces must be in place to have such a complex system work effectively. At this time of continued underfunding of Education in this province, should our officials be sanctioning such an expense?

Check out this link on Youtube if you haven't already. I think it sums up how great BCeSIS is.......was.

Thanks for reading my vent.

Paul Ramsey said...

@Eric, while I feel your pain, BCeSIS *was* the product of a software company with existing product. And so is the new software the province is now entering a new contract for. And this new software won out against a dozen other bids, many from other companies who also had their own software.

Anyhow, all we can do now is hope it doesn't suck! (And that OpenStudent succeeds and a little healthy competition makes the whole ecosystem more responsive to the needs of end users.)

TW Burger said...

"With this new COTS product, watch to see what happens" - @Stephen.

We have Stephen. It's a hot mess. Excellent prediction Mr. Ramsey.

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