Sometimes my job as a City CIO keeps me up at night. There are some pretty horrible things which can happen to the technology which keeps City and County governments running. Halloween seems like a perfect time to confront a few of our most frightful fears, and here are a few of mine.
Water. And Fire. Or Fire followed by Water. In my data center. The City of Seattle has multiple data centers, but our main one, constructed in 2001, has well over $15 million of stuff in it. Things like the e-mail servers used by the entire City government, or the disk array holding all our financial data. And about 500 mid-range servers. Our data center is in one of the most modern, earthquake-resistant buildings in town. But my real fear – and much more likely than the predicted 8.0 earthquake – is a fire or a gushing water leak. I guess it’s time to test that disaster recovery plan again!
E-mail. Gosh, e-mail is the most important application we have – more important than utility billing systems or computer-aided dispatch or financial management systems. We all get an avalanche of e-mail every day, and the City of Seattle’s great Postini spam filter from Google cleans out most of the viruses and junk mail. But it is really the content of the e-mail which scares me. Like that occasional email which says “hey, we’ve decided to cut your budget for xxx (fill in the blank) by $500,000 but you still get to do the project, on time, with reduced budget” or “oh, hey, Mr. CTO, your Wi-Fi network in the University District is down. Again. And the Mayor has a public meeting there at 3:00 PM”. The only thing more frightening than some of the e-mail messages is arriving in the morning to find that the e-mail system is … ah … “down”. And down HARD!
Tablet computers. Ah the great promise of laptops and tablets! You sit at your desk, and it is a desktop computer. You unhook it. You take it to every one of your meetings so you can view documents electronically, and don’t have to print paper to take along. You take notes using Microsoft One-Note on the tablet, rather than writing stuff on paper (and, like me, promptly losing the paper in one of the giant piles in my office). You demonstrate that you are “friendly to the environment” by personally reducing your paper use by storing everything electronically. Then you forget to back the tablet up, you trip on the stairs with the laptop in your hands, and it crashes. Into the wall. Literally.
BlackBerries. An extraordinary combination of the two most nefarious technologies known to humankind, the cellular telephone and electronic mail. Now you get to be available to your customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The real killer is discovering, one September day, that one of my last havens where most cell phones and BlackBerries didn’t work – beautiful little Republic, Washington – had been jerked into the modern era (see blog entry Fossils and Technology). The Blackberry worked there! Arggh. The only thing worse than a fully functioning BlackBerry is one which doesn’t work, so you are out of touch! Arrgh!
Mayor’s briefing. You show up to brief the Mayor and his senior staff on your latest new hotshot tech project, hoping to convince them to make a relatively small (less than a million bucks) investment. But, as you walk into the Mayor’s Office, the Dow drops 500 points, Lehman Brothers fails, AIG needs a $85 billion bailout, sales tax revenues drop precipitously right along with consumer confidence, Boeing goes on strike and the room’s technology systems go on the fritz.
The Help Desk. So you call the Help Desk (206-386-1212 for the City) about any one of the problems above, and they fix the problem over the phone. Quickly. Efficiently. Surprisingly well. And you – the Chief Technology Guy – are really frightened, because the problem was “user error” and the user is you!