Category Archives: e-mail

– Transclucent to the User

GEM Project Team with Mayor Nickels - click to enlarge

GEM Team with Mayor

On Monday night, December 8th, the Seattle Police Department started to use Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for electronic mail. This culminated moving more than 11,000 City of Seattle employees, over 12,400 e-mailboxes, and 900 BlackBerrys from an older e-mail technology to the Exchange 2007 product. All of it “translucent to the user”.

I’ve previously blogged about project management, and specifically identifying and reducing risks in large technology projects (“the P-I test“). With this entry I’m highlighting somewhat different project management practices.  We used certain techniques to reduce the impact of the technology changes on front-line City workers such as firefighters, accountants, and street maintenance staff.

(In case you think I’m just tooting our own horn, I am, but I’ve also blogged about my biggest project failure and you can read about that here, too!). 

We called this e-mail migration project GEM, for GroupWise to Exchange Migration.

Not only was the project on-time, under-budget and delivering all of its objectives, but there were very few whimpers from most City employees at this major change in their work lives. How was such a change so seamless?  

Electronic mail is, arguably, the most important technology used by workers in almost any company today, whether government or private.  It has supplanted the telephone and even the desktop computer as the key tool for many workers to be productive and efficient. Decisions which might take days or weeks without e-mail can be debated and handled rapidly with e-mail communication. Management of front-line projects (streets, water, electricity), debates and decisions on policies, notification of events, press releases, scheduling, all occur with this tool. Most importantly, it is a primary way for constituents and customers to communicate with City workers and elected officials and the way for those officials to coordinate the City’s response. 

Of course, when anything is this valuable in your life, you are extraordinarily skittish when it is NOT available or about to be significantly changed.  Managing this “culture change” – in the working habits of thousands of City workers – is the elusive key to success in a technology project.

I won’t get into the current debate (war?) about use of internal e-mail versus a hosted service, or whether Google’s g-mail is better or more cost effective than the Microsoft product set. Because e-mail is so important in our work lives, and because many people use Outlook at home (or in a previous job) anyway, it was the right choice for the City of Seattle. Because many e-mail messages are sensitive, and since I have a skilled and dedicated set of employees to manage and operate it, we would not have it hosted or managed elsewhere. Microsoft Exchange/Outlook is an established product, well-supported, used by 65% or so of the organizations in America today.  And many many other applications (purchasing or human resource systems, billing and customer service systems) are written to use Outlook/Exchange for communication.

Here are the elements of success for GEM:

  • Strong executive leadership. Mayor Greg Nickels fully supported this change, and every department director knew it. The nine-member Seattle City Council voted to fund the project ($4.9 million) after considerable, reasoned debate. These elected officials were able to articulate the rationale for making this change. This support helped immensely in cooperation for training, scheduling and acceptance throughout the Government.
  • Strong project leadership. My deputy department director sponsored the project – she has formal and informal ties to many line departments, and she’s managed many brick-and-mortar projects (e.g. building Parks community centers). She chose a strong project director who is a hard-nosed negotiator, and a skilled project manager who pays attention to both people and details.
  • Support. We chose, via competitive bid, a knowledgeable private partner – Avanade – to give us advice, skilled support and knowledge transfer. Avanade had helped many companies with similar conversions in the past, and performed in an outstanding manner for us.
  • Training. We gave employees a chance to purchase Microsoft Office 2007 via the home use program, and 2,000 of them took that chance, thereby learning the product suite at home. A month prior to each department’s conversion, we told them how to prepare, for example, by deleting old e-mail and taking training. We offered training in classes, video and reading material for anyone from heavy e-mail users to people who just needed a refresher on Outlook.
  • Communicate communicate communicate. We told all 12,000 employees at the beginning of 2009 what we planned to do (“to” them!)  One month out from their department’s conversion, we told them how to get trained and ready.  Two weeks out we communicated details via their management chain and via e-mail message. The day before conversion, each employee had a sheet of instructions placed on their chair. The day after conversion, technology staff chosen for their great “deskside manner” walked the halls and cubicles to answer questions and solve problems.  We had a skilled service desk / help desk and a special e-mail contact point. And all along we had a detailed, fact-and-fun-filled internal website with information, training, FAQ’s, and links to more resources.
  • Skilled City employees. We already had a highly competent help desk, capable desktop support staff and experienced engineers supporting servers and storage and messaging system.  We trained and leveraged this skilled and motivated set of employees, coupled with Avanade, to do the technical work on the project.
  • Finally – and perhaps this is most important, we drafted departments into the effort. Each department had at least one and usually a team of people who worked with the GEM project team to customize the training and conversion plan for that department’s unique needs. Police patrol officers use e-mail differently than Parks groundskeepers who are different than budget analysts who are different than electrical utility engineers. These “extended teams” in departments not only participated in the planning, but became natural advocates for overcoming problems and socializing the change in each department.

Leadership, communication, user representation, strong private partner, skilled and motivated technical staff – a GEM of a project, translucent to the users!

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Filed under e-mail, management of technology, project management, Seattle DoIT

– E-Mail Mangling

e-mail-hellMost people complain fervently about how electronic mail they get. My opinion: electronic mail is the best invention since sliced bread – or, at least the best since the Internet.

When you scratch the surface (or “open the envelope”), most of us are probably addicted to electronic mail and its newer cousins BlackBerrys, text messaging and twitter.

I know what large organizations did before e-mail. They wrote memos. They wrote stacks and stacks of paper memos. There were legions of clerks and secretaries who prepared memos for their bosses on typewriters.

I learned to touch-type on manual typewriters at North Tama High School in Traer, Iowa, a rural community school which wisely foisted typing class on every student, boy or girl. Why it was mandatory, I don’t know, as secretarial jobs were seen as menial even then. Perhaps the principal Bob Clark clairvoyantly foresaw (even before Al Gore) the Internet and computers? I know he died without a lot of wealth, so he wasn’t clairvoyant enough to buy Apple or Microsoft as startups, but clearly he was a prescient educator.

With paper memos (and carbon paper), bureaucracies took a loooong time to make decisions. And those decisions were hard to communicate other than via staff meetings or the ubiquitous company bulletin boards.

Usually very few people were involved in such decisions because of the amount of paper, the interoffice mail deliveries, and the slowness of the whole process. Beyond typing memos, pre-e-mail bureaucracies (to include corporations and private businesses as well as government) made a lot of decisions via small face-to-face meetings and the telephone – usually one-on-one phone calls.

E-mail changed all this. Now information can be rapidly disseminated to an entire company, or indeed, the entire world (skirting those ubiquitous spam filters). Through prudent and frugal use of e-mail, information can collected and decisions made, often without the need for face-to-face meetings. We’re more productive. We get more done in a shorter period of time. And we can get input from throughout our organization, not just the people we see face-to-face or in meetings every day.

Certainly millions of secretaries have been put out of work, but millions of much-higher-paid and more respected geeks (aka information technology workers) have been put INTO work, not just for managing e-mail, but also for all the related technologies (servers, storage, spam filters and so forth).

The City of Seattle is deep in the throes of converting from Novell GroupWise to Microsoft Exchange/Outlook for electronic mail. This $10 million project (including standardization on Office 2007) represents the 4th generation of electronic mail for us, starting with IBM’s CICS Office, thru a Diaspora of LAN-based e-mail systems to standardizing on GroupWise and now to Outlook. A team of 20 technology employees is hard at work at this conversion.  I’m looking forward to June 24th, when I (as CTO, Chief Geek, and Chief Dog-food-eater) become one of the first log-in to my newly-minted Outlook.

E-mail: the bane of our existence? A vast improvement in productivity and decision making? A way to flatten and democratize our existence? Yeah, it is all that and more.

E-mail: I like it.

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Filed under BlackBerry, e-mail

– Death to Newspapers

Horsey-02-15-09.pngPrint newspapers are dying. The evidence is everywhere and was recently highlighted on a Time Magazine cover.

Local government officials should be ecstatic about this event, right? Daily newspapers are much more likely to have negative coverage of local government’s activities. And if they do carry positive news, it is usually buried on page 16 of the “G” section.

David Horsey, wonderful cartoonist and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote an insightful February 15th column about the National Press Association’s recent awards dinner. That dinner was essentially a funeral dirge for newspapers. Note: Horsey himself may very well be out of a job at the end of March when his newspaper ceases printing.

Despite the plethora of negative coverage, I suspect most city and county officials are as quite upset about the difficulties of the daily papers. First, I do believe a lot of the daily newspapers’ coverage is negative, and I’ll cite some examples:
•   Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle’s long-time Police Chief, has been extraordinarily successful as chief. Seattle is adding cops to its force even now, in a serious recession. And our crime rate is at the lowest in memory. Kerlikowske is leaving for a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration. So what do the mainstream media write about when announcing his departure? The Mardi-Gras riots of 2001. An event which lies at the feet of a sleeping Mayor Paul Schell and his deputies.
•   Indeed, “crime” is the poster-child for negative reporting. Newspapers of all stripes regularly report the details of criminal acts and give neighborhood “activists” a forum to blast government about everything from failure to patrol the streets to accusations of racial profiling when such patrols are conducted too aggressively.
•   Streets and transportation are another favorite topic for reporting. Rarely (but sometimes) will you see an article about new sidewalks or bike paths or street paving projects which are finished, usually on time and under budget. Potholes, mistimed traffic lights, traffic delays are frequently highlighted however.
•   Although the City of Seattle invests at least $100 million annually in building and maintaining information technology systems, rarely are successful technology projects mentioned in a daily newspaper. Inaccurate reports about high electricity bills from a new computerized billing system helped Seattle City Light’s former superintendent Gary Zarker lose his job. And the one headline I’ve received in five years as CTO is about a botched e-mailing to 2000 cable television customers (which was, indeed, the fault of my department).

In contrast, coverage in community newspapers and in the trade press (e.g. for me, Government Technology Magazine, Network World, Computerworld) is considerably more positive. Perhaps that’s because those media outlets have small staffs who rely more on government for press releases and interviews to create their content. Perhaps they have a readership and advertising base which desires and reads news which is more informative, less “sensational”.

Given this, am I happy about the decline and impending death of many newspapers? Absolutely not. The investigative reporting which newspapers have funded has not only improved government, but also highlighted issues with private companies such as John Thain’s infamous $1.3 million office remodel while running his company Merrill Lynch into the ground. Newspapers have changed the direction of the nation from high-profile issues such as the Watergate Investigation and the botched war in Iraq to exposes such as toxic medicines and failed cancer drug trials. Just have a look at the past 20 years of Pulitzer prizes for more examples.

Is there a business model which will allow the local daily newspaper to survive? Time’s Walter Isaacson suggests a possibility in his February 5th article – essentially having readers pay for content on the web just as they pay for content today by subscription or at the newsstand. I agree with Isaacson that the “advertising” model is flawed. Not only does relying solely on advertising lead to ethical conflicts, but it also drives the need for sensational and negative reporting I mentioned above. I’m not sure that a micropayment model will work, and I have no other bright ideas to offer.

But I do hope newspaper reporters continue to be there to call me – and other local officials – even if they are writing a negative story!


Filed under e-mail, newspaper

– Tech Nightmares Frighten a CIO

Tech Horror

Tech Horror

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 Horror

E-mail Horror

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 Computer

Tablet Computer

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!

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Filed under BlackBerry, disaster, e-mail