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CW@50 - Celebrating 50 years of British technology innovation

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CW@50: Bugs, blunders and bad practices

Computer Weekly’s arrival on 22 September 1966 reflected a growing global industry and the hopes for British computing

As the nascent British computer industry took form, Computer Weekly highlighted the adoption of IT among businesses and government.

Early contracts were for hardware, which shifted to software, then to bureau and shared services, and then outsourcing.

All along, the journalists tried to ascertain why the IT was being purchased.

A strategic decision was made in the early 1980s to shift Computer Weekly’s focus to become an advocate for the enterprise customers of the IT industry and a mouthpiece for the newly emerging discipline of IT management.

In part, the shift was a direct response to technology and business change.

The software industry was emerging and its development was speeded by the US government’s decision to force IBM to split its hardware and software operations.

There was a shift from mainframes to smaller, departmental-based servers, desktop computing and the looming disaster dubbed the “millennium bug”, or Y2K.

Millennium bug

Y2K presented IT decision makers with serious challenges. The mainframe technology which many businesses relied on was costly to run. They also required the legacy software running core business functions to be rewritten, since many applications were written years earlier when programmers wanted to limit how much storage they used.

As a result, applications were coded such that their date fields only used two digits. Any application relying on a two-digit year would give back wrong data at the turn of the millennium, leading to a computer systems meltdown.

The drive to sort out Y2K, combined with a shift away from mainframe to client server computing and PC applications, coincided with a huge shift in sales tactics among software, hardware and IT services firms, in an attempt to cash in on the poor IT user.

Arguably, ill-conceived business cases – fuelled by slick selling of systems to problems that may or may not have existed – led to IT implementations that sadly failed to deliver on expectations.

The voice of the user

Computer Weekly was well positioned to highlight, comment on and draw lessons from the problems businesses faced with IT implementations.

In 1993, then editor John Lamb launched the Computer Weekly CW500 Club, an organisation for senior IT directors and managers where they could meet regularly to discuss their issues and concerns in an off-the-record environment.

This gave Computer Weekly a unique relationship with its readers and provided a platform for powerful reader advocacy and award-winning investigative and campaigning journalism.

Tony Collins, then executive editor at Computer Weekly, led several major investigations into project failures.

He says: “Our belief was that users should drive what was happening in the IT industry, rather than the suppliers – who usually held sway. It was a challenge. IT users don’t usually like to talk about their projects, but suppliers always want to talk.”

There was a growing sense that IT suppliers seemed to under-deliver on promises, put up prices arbitrarily and take maximum advantage of ridiculously complex licensing. Computer Weekly took up the cudgels, even if it meant campaigning against some of its biggest advertisers.

Commercial IT project failures

During the 1990s and early 2000s there were a number of major IT project disasters. Some of the failures cost businesses millions of pounds. Some drove the business into bankruptcy and Computer Weekly set out to highlight the lessons to be learned.

Although it was not in the short-term interests of either the software supplier, the systems integrator or the customer to have public scrutiny of these failures, their costs could not be completely hidden.

Buried deep inside a FTSE 100 or Fortune 500 company’s annual report, a single line would often reveal a major technology problem, and Computer Weekly grew increasingly adept at winkling out the stories.

The publication highlighted failures at US confectionery giant Hershey, carmaker Volkswagen, high-end Danish Hi-Fi manufacturer Bang & Olufsen, ICI, Hewlett Packard and WHSmith, among others.

These projects all involved SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations, but elsewhere implementations of software from other suppliers were proving equally problematic.

Roll of honour

  • 2001: Campaign of the year – Chinook
  • 2002: Campaign of the Year – Stopping Microsoft in its tracks
  • 2004:  Campaign of the Year – NHS IT Watch
  • 2005: Campaign of the Year – Shaking up government IT
  • 2007: Editorial Campaign of the Year – Campaign to secure a parliamentary inquiry into NHS IT programme

In drawing attention to project failure, Computer Weekly was sometimes accused of denigrating the industry and individuals it was supposed to serve.

But current technology editor Cliff Saran, who broke some of the stories at the time, says: “Many of these projects had the same root cause of failure. The software worked perfectly well, until it was massively customised.

“The customers often lacked sufficient project management skills to oversee multimillion-pound IT-driven business transformation initiatives; projects were driven from the top down; requirements were changed, leading to scope creep and escalating costs.”

Often, systems integrators lacked experience and insisted on contracts that delivered substantial revenue, regardless of whether the projects were successful or not.

But, in hindsight, Saran says: “It seems CEOs quickly pointed the finger at IT for poor financial results. The reality was somewhat different, and the business benefits of the software were often mis-sold, both on the supplier side and from the main project sponsors.”

Unscrupulous selling

In terms of unscrupulous selling, around the turn of the millennium, one company in particular seemed to epitomise what was wrong: Computer Associates – second only to Microsoft in the race to be the first software company with revenues that exceeded $1bn.

CA, now known as CA Technologies, is a radically different company to the software house that came under Computer Weekly’s radar in the late 1990s.

Stories of public interest

CW always championed public interest cases. One of the earliest was its investigations into the mysterious deaths of 25 scientists who worked for GEC-Marconi, the defence arm of GEC, on the Sting Ray torpedo project between 1982 and 1988.

Another was its investigation of the infamous 1994 Chinook helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994. All 29 people on board were killed, effectively wiping out the leadership of Britain’s intelligence forces and police special branch in Northern Ireland.

The Ministry of Defence blamed the pilots, but Computer Weekly uncovered evidence that safety-critical software on the helicopters was not fit for purpose and that the MoD had suppressed evidence that would have exonerated the aircrew.

The company emerged with the growing enterprise software market in the 1970s and developed software products for IBM mainframes. It grew rapidly through a series of acquisitions to become the largest independent supplier of mainframe infrastructure software and dominant supplier of enterprise security software.

The acquisition spree continued, and by the end of the 1990s Computer Associates was the assembly of some 200 acquired companies with a business model that, to many of its customers, seemed predicated on extorting massively increased licence and maintenance payments from its acquired clients.

For UK enterprise IT professionals, Computer Weekly’s Stamp Out Stiffing campaign helped focus attention on appropriate business practices in the software industry – an industry that had come from nowhere to find its products at the heart of almost every organisation worldwide.

“CA was the biggest culprit, but there were others,” says former Computer Weekly editor, Karl Schneider. “CA’s method of operation was to take over a company and then to trawl through its customer base looking for organisations that could be found in breach of contract.

“They were very inventive in finding organisations in breach. Internally, the practice was called ‘stiff, wrap and roll’. They would stiff the customer over minute breaches of contract.”

Software assurance reprieve

Microsoft was a very different organisation to CA, but the strength of its Windows software had given it a virtual monopoly on the desktop.

When it sought to impose significant licensing changes, with no regard to the budgeting and financial cycle of corporate IT departments, Computer Weekly cried foul on behalf of its readers. It launched a campaign against the world’s largest software house – also one of its largest advertisers – and won.

John Riley, who was managing editor at Computer Weekly at the time and led the campaign coverage for Computer Weekly, says: “We set out to encourage co-ordinated customer opposition. We weren’t telling Microsoft it couldn’t change the pricing. We were saying it had to understand its corporate customers’ governance policies and purchasing cycles.”

Computer Weekly’s campaign led to Microsoft delaying the changes worldwide until July 2002.

Microsoft acknowledged that its change of plan was prompted directly by the level of opposition from the UK, and specifically by the co-ordinated response from customers and user groups to Microsoft’s UK managing director, Neil Holloway.

“We ran a campaign against one of our biggest advertisers. From the UK alone we persuaded Microsoft to delay a global change. We got a result for our readers. We won a major industry award for our campaign, and the next year our advertising revenue from Microsoft actually went up,” adds Riley.

If the private sector was enduring the pain to learn and adopt IT best practices, in central government the problems were larger and the willingness to learn lessons much more limited. This became the focus of a series of Computer Weekly campaigns in the years after the millennium.

Government IT

In the 1990s, Whitehall mandarins outsourced vast swathes of government IT. They also outsourced the capacity to manage these outsourced contracts themselves – with predictable results.

At the turn of the millennium, the situation was compounded by the government’s enthusiasm for e-government – the automation and simplification of many government services.

Computer Weekly shared the enthusiasm for transformation that technology could bring, but it was also determined to highlight the prerequisites for e-government to be successful.

The publication championed government efforts to impose discipline on IT projects through the newly formed Office of Government Commerce and gave the first E-Envoy, Andrew Pinder, a platform to promote his ideas to the IT industry.

However, Computer Weekly journalists feared for Pinder’s effectiveness when his direct boss, prime minister Tony Blair, was happy to let it be known that he didn’t know how to turn on a computer.

For Computer Weekly, success in public sector digital transformation depended on openness and transparency surrounding government’s major IT projects and an unrelenting focus on giving the users – and by extension, the public – systems they would use and services they required.

It was not an approach shared in Whitehall, as the publication exposed a series of government IT project failures under editor Hooman Bassirian.

Explaining the rationale, Computer Weekly’s then executive editor Tony Collins, whose investigative work underpinned the campaigns, says: “In the private sector you use the IT the company provides for you. If you don’t like it, you accept it or quit.

“In the public sector, there isn’t any meaningful accountability for the systems that are implemented”
Tony Collins, past editor of Computer Weekly

“At some level there is accountability for the systems that are implemented – do they benefit the business or not? – because it shows on the balance sheet,” he says.

“In the public sector, users don’t have to accept new IT and there isn’t any meaningful accountability for the systems that are implemented. That’s why the role of independent publications is so important – to provide a voice for the users. On many of the big stories I worked on, we provided that voice.”

Computer Weekly shone the spotlight on failing government IT projects, from the passport office and probation service to tax systems and the Child Support Agency. Some of these failings still have ramifications today – such as the Post Office Horizon system.

These troubled projects had a direct impact on millions of people and thousands of businesses and, as their frustration grew, Computer Weekly journalists were called on with increasing regularity to explain the issues and suggest solutions.

The publication’s staff briefed ministers, gave evidence to parliamentary select committees and acted as advisers to those select committees.

With the judicious use of text messaging (in the days before instant messaging services were ubiquitous), Computer Weekly journalists provided questions to members of Parliament (MPs) during public sessions where they quizzed complacent Whitehall mandarins, minsters and IT outsourcers who were sometimes “economical with the truth”.

NHS IT

Perhaps the biggest campaign that Computer Weekly undertook was its questioning of the National Programme for IT (NPfIT) in the NHS.

The £13bn project was being pushed through by its director general, Richard Granger. But as then managing editor at Computer Weekly, John Riley recalls: “No one seemed to care about the people who would have to use the systems.”

The campaign began when officials were unable to answer Computer Weekly’s questions and reader concern started to build.

According to Collins: “Paul Mason, former Computer Weekly deputy editor, but then on Newsnight, interviewed me about the launch of the NHS IT programme in the early 2000s.

“I said that if construction company salesmen tried to persuade ministers to build a bridge from Britain to America they’d be laughed out of the office. But when technology suppliers suggested building the equivalent for the NHS, they were asked: ‘When can you start?’

“We knew later, from documents released to us under FOI, that nobody at a Downing Street meeting to discuss the NHS IT programme in 2002 challenged the feasibility of the scheme.

“Suppliers and some senior civil servants thought it a wonderful idea – and it was, just as a road to the moon may be good idea until you consider the practicalities. Why not have standardised IT throughout the NHS, and a single national health record?

“The answer was that many hospital managers and GPs had IT they were happy with. They did not want to replace it with inferior common-good systems. Our campaign reflected their views.

“Some at the Department of Health held us in contempt for our stance. They wanted us to ‘get with the programme’. But, for as long as I remember, we represented the views of those at the coalface.

“As officials tried to force compliance with the programme and NHS managers and GPs resisted, we had ample material for a campaign and years of news stories, features and commentary.”

It wasn’t until 2011 that the government finally announced a “dismantling” of the NHS IT programme. Some parts of it survive – but billions were wasted. It was perhaps the biggest IT disaster ever.

“Nobody was ever held accountable,” says Collins. “But at least our coverage brought to light much that would have been hidden. The moral of the story is that Whitehall desperately needs constructive naysayers. Otherwise, irrational exuberance will sometimes overwhelm common sense.”

User power

In this age of cloud computing, social media and startups, people are far more inclined to vote with their feet; walking away from applications that they consider not fit for purpose.

They are also happy to “spill the beans”, publicising their experiences using social media platforms to “name and shame” those they consider to offer poor service. The balance of power has changed.

Industry giants are merging, consolidating and even disappearing at a faster rate than ever before. New industry leaders are emerging and, in dealings with their customers, the IT supplier is often on the back foot.

Computer Weekly remains focused on representing the voice of the IT leader. Their role is changing. This is the age where users bring their own smartphones and tablets to work, where managers choose their own applications and the ability to buy IT on-demand through the cloud rewrites best practices of the past.

Read more CW@50 articles

This was last published in August 2016

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CW@50 - Celebrating 50 years of British technology innovation

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