Try It Before You Buy It

City Hall Diary

Large organizations often wrestle with enterprise software implementations. They are often promised big returns, quick implementations, user friendly programs and then—the real “kicker”—that costs will not exceed a certain given price.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The VTA spent $30 million on finance software and currently is in the process of spending another $3 million for an upgrade which does not include hardware.  The City of San Jose purchased software for the call center and billing system at a cost of $2 million with another $11 million for implementation services, almost $1 million for hardware and another $1.9 million for implementation services this past August. Get a calculator: the total price tag is just short of $16 million.

What can we learn from our millions of dollars in expenditures?  Or, do we want to learn anything?  Or, do we feel more comfortable in justifying costs, since it appears no one is paying much attention anyway?

I understand that technology is not free.  However, I do think that the city can save money when purchasing IT and, further, should stop spending the millions it has so far and take into consideration other forms of technology that could achieve the same goals for less money.

I am a fan of pilot programs.  Pilot programs allow a new “system” to run its course for a specified time to see if the item in question (in this case, new software) will provide the promised benefits.  “Pilots” are done in the private sector all the time.  One would not buy a car without doing a test drive first, so why should San Jose spend millions of dollars on software or consultants before we make sure the services will work as promised. 

When it comes to a proposed technology pilot, I would recommend that we choose 2-3 vendors to run use cases. This way we have actual experience to judge what each vendor does well and what it does not do well. Even if we chose to do a pilot with one vendor, I think we would be better prepared to know what to ask for from other vendors. This process may take a little longer; however, it allows the city to make an informed decision based on actual use rather than hypothetical power point slides.  If the vendor does not want to do a pilot program, then that is a telling sign and I would recommend that they be dropped from the list.

Currently, the city purchases software which, in this case, equates to the city taking on the responsibility of handling total costs of ownership like IT-burdened labor rates, software bugs, patches and upgrades. In addition to the software, we also take care of the servers by configuring, maintaining, and backing up the servers where the software resides.  Servers are expensive in the start-up and ongoing costs. In my opinion, maintaining servers are also a burden because they use a tremendous amount of energy which creates greenhouse gases and, in addition, we need a special facility to store the servers that is temperature controlled.

Personally, I believe we should outsource enterprise software at City Hall and subscribe to software via the web as a service. Software as a service would relieve us of the maintenance costs, hardware costs and energy-hogging servers. Plus, if the software service does not work as promised, the cost to switch is minimal. Millions of Americans log into financial software via a web browser every day to manage their finances without having any software or servers at their home or work.

I am aware that change takes little steps.  I just hope that San Jose begins to take those little steps that will save us money and make us more environmentally friendly.  Millions overspent on software that does not deliver as promised means less for parks, streets and public safety.


  1. Sidenote:
    Friday night I attended a play at the Historic Hoover Theater in the RoseGarden.
    It was put on by the Renegade Theater Company and is titled, American Absurdum.

    The show consists of 2 different one hour plays that were simply hysterical.
    The show was a great escape and I did not think about our structural budget deficit once during the show!

    I recommend the show to those who normally do not like theater especially to those between the ages of 30-50.

    The final 3 shows are September 21,22 and 23 at the Historic Hoover Theater. Showtime 8PM

    If you mention San Jose Inside at the ticket window you will get 2 tickets for the price of 1.


  2. Pierluigi:

    Thanks for the great line: “Millions spent on software that does not deliver as promised means less for parks, streets, and public safety.”

    Now let’s substitute the word “soccer” for “software.”  I’ve got nothing against soccer, Mr. Wolff, or the Earthquakes.  But I do have a problem with a system that allows for city entitlements to be given to the lowest bidder.  If over $100 million (or more) can be generated through city entitlements, why isn’t there a process in place whereby the optimal return to the city is contemplated?  EXAMPLE: What if I ask for the same deal Wolff might get, but offer to return 95% of the profits generated to repair our broken city?  In a truly democratic system, the voters would be asked to select from three or four alternatives.

    pete campbell

  3. I’m not going to lie, you fill me with glee.  Maybe, because of your youth and optimistic outlook thinking you can change the way the city does business.  But, it just may be possible to bring the Sonoma Chicken Coop crowd to the table with the other special interest groups:
    Cinnamon boiled chicken crowd
    Lime jalapeno chicken crowd
    Ginger sesame chicken crowd
    Teriyaki style chicken crowd
    Grilled Tuscan chicken crowd
    Tandoori style chicken crowd
    Kung Pao chicken crowd
    Ginger coconut chicken crowd
    Rustic garlic chicken crowd
    Cacciatori chicken crowd
    Marsala chicken crowd
    Cordon bleu chicken crowd
    I wish you the best.

    George Berlin
    McDonald’s McChicken sandwich crowd

  4. If your car suddenly stopped in the middle of the freeway like your computer does when it freezes up, people would be up in arms, and the government regulators would be all over it.

    So why is it, exactly, that we put up with all the bugs and glitches with computers?  You call the software vendor and he blames it on the hardware.  You call the hardware vendor and he blames it on the software.  You get them together in a room, and they call it operator error.

    If any other consumer product performed as poorly as computer hardware and software, the manufacturers would be out of business.  We must start putting the IT folks’ feet to the fire to deliver reliability…or else.  And the whole thing of licensing rather than owning software…why do we put up with that?

  5. We put up with licensing software because quality is so bad.

    A license gives the vendor an incentive to fix his bugs, because the vendor wants to protect his revenue stream, and otherwise the customer may leave. 

    There is much less incentive to fix problems with purchased software.  You’ve already got all the money you’re going to get, so why bother?

  6. Pilot programs are the way to go. Pierluigi’s experience in industry is critical to understanding processes and implementing change for our city. There is no reason to buy based on power point presentations and hypothetical results. Lastly, I appreciate knowing that someone at City Hall is noticing the $16 million spent by VTA.

  7. #6 and JOMC’s point…
    Hardware error – software error – operator error… hmmm.  Sounds like traffic calming. 
    DOT points to Council – Council points to DOT – get them in the same room and they point to Enforcement, the State or Budget. 
    Get all them in the same room and they create new meetings, commissions or committees and Hearings to point to. 
    Get all them in the same room and they’ll all say folks just want to drive fast – go talk to them.  Hmmm.
    Good luck Councilman, you’re doing great.  I wish you all the best.

  8. Speaking of software deployment, it seems that city IT honchos have drank the Microsoft SharePoint koolaid. The spiked stuff has them talking about swinging the SharePoint hammer around wildly, and everything looks to them like a nail. They’re piping through the Microsoft marketing propaganda to other city departments pretty much unfiltered. But SharePoint is mostly the solution to Microsoft’s problems, i.e., eroding monopoly position, not their customers’. Lazy CSJ IT managers want their solutions prepackaged in an expensive box, avoiding solutions which require hiring people smarter than them; and Microsoft is great at that offering that experience. But this fast-food IT ends up wasting taxpayer money on an ongoing basis, as vendor lock-in strongly encourages unnecessary upgrades (and expenditures.)

  9. Greg Perry #7 wrote:“There is much less incentive to fix problems with purchased software.  You’ve already got all the money you’re going to get, so why bother?”

    What if the makers of cars, TVs, stereos, toasters, etc. took that attittude?  Would consumers put up with it?  I don’t think so.

    So why do we put up with glitchy software?

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