Big D, Little IT

Big D, Little IT

In overhauling Dallas's antiquated IT system, the city's first-ever CIO has a Texas-size challenge on his hands.

Reader ROI

- Discover how Dallas's new CIO plans to overhaul the city's outdated IT.

- Learn about the technical difficulties of the project.

- Find out about the CIO's unique political challenges.

"It's a nightmare, our Achilles heel,"says Dan McFarland, describing the city of Dallas's antique, home-grown operating system. Suddenly, the last city employee who knows anything about it walks past the glassed-in conference room where McFarland is holding forth. "There goes Harold right there!" says McFarland, the 56-year-old Dallas CIO. "That's the infamous Harold! If he gets killed on an elevator, we're screwed."

McFarland may be laughing, but he's not kidding. Harold Nogle, 59, is the only programmer left in Dallas who knows the ins and outs of LINC, the city's 32-year-old operating system. No one, not even Nogle, can recall what the initials once stood for. "The majority of the people who worked for the city who were instrumental in implementing LINC have all retired - or are dead," says McFarland. Then, taking a pot-shot at the technology he inherited when he arrived as CIO in April 1999, he roars: "And if they're not, they deserve to be!"

His face grows solemn. "Harold is our foremost expert on [the system]. So when he was over in Europe for three weeks, everybody was breaking out in a sweat. We really are at risk."

Come again? Dallas, the high-tech hub also known as Silicon Prairie, is tottering on a three-decades-old infrastructure supported by one 59-year-old programmer? That's right, McFarland says. "See, all of our key systems are written in LINC, like our 911 (000 in Australia) dispatch, 311 information, payroll," he explains.

Michael Jones, assistant director of CIS, interrupts. "Let me clarify," he says. "Dispatch is on LINC; 911 is not on LINC." "Which is the same thing," McFarland interjects and mimics a 911 caller. "‘Hey, I'm getting shot!' Operators at 911 take the call, but then dispatch [relies on LINC]." He lowers his voice. "I don't want to describe Armageddon here," he says. "What I want to describe is we really have a plan, and we recognise we have to move on this as quickly as possible. That is absolutely our number-one objective."

Others agree with McFarland's assessment of Dallas's IT. Governing magazine gave the city's technology a dismal D+ rating in its recent report "Grading the Cities 2000" (see "City IT Scorecard"). "IT has long been a mess in Dallas," said the magazine, a monthly for state and local government officials published by Congressional Quarterly. "Most of the information systems in the city aren't integrated, and it's difficult to get access to the data that exists."

Welcome to McFarland's world. A world that consists of sweating bullets each day over the city's pitifully outdated technology. A world in which his job is to convince city hall politicians - who are too busy wheeling and dealing for the latest glamour deal, such as the city's new sports arena or Dallas's bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics - to pay attention to boring comp-uter cabling in the basement. But McFarland isn't the type to boo-hoo in his beer. The CIO - Dallas's first - says he has a plan. A multimillion-dollar, Texas-size plan to toss out the technological tumbleweeds that blow through city hall and turn it into a 21st century e-government centre. He says he sees IT as the "great enabler" to make city government more efficient and attract top companies and the best and brightest employees. In a move that analysts are calling an "industry milestone project", McFarland plans to rebuild the infrastructure using a relatively new technology that's never been implemented on such a major scale. Pull it off, and McFarland could walk away a hero. Fail, and he could have a digital version of Boston's Big Dig on his hands (see "The Money Pit", CIO May). And failure - given that Dallas city hall is infamously fickle and fractious, the task is king-size, and McFarland's background is chiefly in telecommunications, not IT - is a definite possibility.

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