Category Archives: people

– FUD

Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt

For people who work hard to make government work, we live in frightening, uncertain times.   Even small messages and signals to the people who do the day-to-day work are important.

Recently we had an employee in my department (Department of Information Technology – DoIT, City of Seattle) whose card key was shut off to get to a certain floor after hours. It was inadvertent and an oversight – we were just trying to remove after hours access for anyone who really didn’t need it.  “Enhancing physical security”. 

But this employee immediately became frightened for his job – “are they planning to lay me off?” was the first thought he had.

Even small signals are important. 

I try to smile and greet each employee as I see them walking through the hallways or in work spaces.  I am very intentional about this.

First, I have a genuine respect and admiration for the people in DoIT – and around the City of Seattle – who make government run.  But also I just enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories. I know the first name of every employee in DoIT, and many other IT employees throughout City government, and I’m genuinely concerned about them, their families and their work.

Sometimes I forget, however, and I’m lost in thought, and I walk down the hallway scowling and forgetting to say hello. Employees can interpret that as “the boss is mad at me”, when, really, I’m just thinking about an especially difficult meeting I recent had, or a thorny problem I have to solve.

These are frightening times.

City government revenues are down, positions are being cut, and employees are being laid off. We have more difficulties coming down the road, and there is a significant amount of FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt in the air. All you have to do is read Publicola, the local scandal sheet (now known as a “blog”) to see the facts and hear the rumors about this.

Yes, I know that I and other department directors will be faced with more cuts and more difficult decisions in the coming months. I am really hoping that the next budget process will be the last time we are cutting and we can stabilize the government after that. I’m a “glass half full” guy.

Nevertheless I lose a lot of sleep and spend a lot of time worrying about these issues and the effects of cuts on employees and their families.  And, even more importantly, on the health and well-being of the 600,000 people who live in Seattle and depend upon their government for safety, utilities and quality of life.

My lost sleep is irrelevant, of course – if I’m not here, the facts of the budget situation are still the same, and the cuts will still come, but it will just be someone else making the decision.

So if I scowl at you as I walk down the hallway, please don’t take it personally. I’m just puzzling over that next difficult decision.

2 Comments

Filed under budget, management of technology, people, Seattle DoIT

– The 108 Degree Data Center

The 108 Degree Data Center

The 108 Degree Data Center

November in Seattle is always cool and rainy and sometimes stormy – windstorms, that is. Seattle’s all time high temperature – for any day of the year – is 100 degrees. That all time high is, of course, outside. But it reached 108 degrees here on Sunday November 16th. Inside a data center. The City of Seattle’s data center.

To make a short blog entry even shorter, I’ll skip to the root cause: a failed power breaker on a pump for the domestic water supply to the building housing the data center. The water supply flows to CRAC (“crack” or computer room air conditioning) units which, in turn, cool the data center. For HomeCity Security reasons, I won’t reveal the actual location of the data center, but let’s just say it is in a downtown 60 story skyscraper which also houses about 3500 office workers during the week. The problem started about noon and was fixed at about 8:00 PM.

The data center holds about 500 servers, storage systems and other equipment. We shut down a lot of servers and many services starting almost immediately. Nevertheless the temperature in the data center rose to that toasty 108 degrees, setting a new record high (sort of) for Seattle.

So why is this notable? For two reasons: the problem and the response.

In terms of the “problem”, let me assure you (especially if you live in Seattle) that cooling problems like this will be rare to non-existent in the future. Years ago we installed a one megawatt generator for backup power. This year we’ve been working a project to install “dry coolers”. These aren’t really “dry”, but the water cooling the data center will flow in a “closed loop” between the new coolers and the center, so we’ll no longer be dependent on external water or power supplies. Unfortunately, the dry coolers don’t come online until January, which is why we went to 108 degrees last Sunday.

But there’s a more general issue here – every city and county government has data centers and servers and vital information. Every area of the country is subject to some sort of a disaster and every government needs to have a backup and recovery plan.

But for what disaster should we prepare?

Here in Seattle, everyone is concerned about the “big one” – a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. While we need to be ready for an major earthquake, we have about one of those “big ones” every 300 years. Much more likely are disasters like last Sunday – a failure of water and cooling, a “meltdown” if you will (non-radioactive, however!). Or perhaps the disaster will be the opposite – too much water from a broken pipe, and a flood drowning those servers. Or – and this also happens in computer centers – a fire followed by (drum roll), a flood as the fire suppression system kicks in. Should we have a plan for “the big one”, that earthquake? Sure. But most of our disaster preparation effort should plan for the much more probable disaster of fire and water.

Finally, any disaster response plan has one element which is vastly more important than any other: people. And, on November 14th, the “people” (employees) of the City of Seattle and its Department of Information Technology performed splendidly. A dozen IT professionals showed up on site within two hours (despite interference from the traffic around a nearby Seahawks football game). The computer center manager – a 44 year employee and true hero Ken Skraban – was on site and immediately in charge. Two employees set up an IT operations center with an incident commander and support staff. Several responded to the data center and shut down servers in an orderly, pre-planned, color coded (red-green-orange-yellow) fashion, with the most critical servers (for example “Blackberry” support) staying up continuously. Server administrators from every major department in City government responded on site.

And when the crisis was past and cool water was again flowing to the “crack” units, those same folks brought all services up in an orderly fashion. And there was not a single call to the help desk on Monday morning as a result of our unanticipated “summer” high.

Disasters happen. Careful planning and skilled, trained staff will always mitigate their effects.

2 Comments

Filed under disaster, people, Seattle DoIT

– Awarding the Police

Seattle Police Foundation

Seattle Police Foundation

The Seattle Police Foundation’s annual awards banquet was last night, October 17, 2008. Almost 200 Seattle police officers and civilian employees received awards for excellence, valor and impact.

Speaking of impact, the “technologization” of law enforcement was a thread which ran throughout the evening.

The Seattle Police Foundation was created to seed new programs and encourage innovation in law enforcement. More than 90% of the police department’s official $213 million budget goes to personnel costs. Using those funds, Mayor Greg Nickels and Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske have launched a number of innovations using both technology and community partnerships, but funding for those improvements is still limited.

The Foundation is supported by a number of prominent local people and firms, including James Sinegal, co-founder of Costco, Costco itself, Philips – which provided Heartstart defibrillators in every Seattle police patrol car, and even two Seattle Police detectives, Randall and Pilar Curtis, who contributed more than $10,000 of their personal funds.

Technology was highlighted during the evening in the awards, stories, and video. Here are some examples:
•   SPIDER – Seattle Police Information, Dispatch and Electronic Reporting. This project has already installed a records management system (RMS) which is now used by officers throughout the department to enter reports directly into the system from laptops, vehicle-mounted computers and desktops. It will deliver a new computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) system next year which includes automated vehicle location (AVL) and new uses of geographic information systems. Three civilians and a detective received awards this year relating to their work on SPIDER. And the RMS training team of 30 officers and civilians received an award for their work training the entire department – one of the largest training efforts in the history of the department.
•   VARDA – this technology has actually been around since the 1960s – devices which send a radio signal when an alarm is tripped, a vehicle stolen, or when activated by a human being who is in danger.
•   SeaJIS – the City’s justice integration system initiative. Many cities have such initiatives which attempt to link police, prosecutors and courts to allow seamless flow of information about defendants and cases between the parts of the criminal justice system. In Seattle’s case, SeaJIS also connects to King County’s jail booking system and other outside systems. The project manager received an excellence award for her matrix management (“leading without having direct supervision”) of the work.

Other technologies mentioned last night and used by the department are too numerous to mention, but include BlackBerries, in-car digital video systems, red-light cameras (which have reduced auto accidents but are now in jeopardy due to Initiative 985 on the fall ballot),  and many more. Learn more about the department here

There are some interesting side effects of this wide-ranging use of technology. One is the amount of electricity needed in police vehicles. A typical patrol car is loaded down with radios, data modems, a fixed-mount computer, emergency lights and a variety of other equipment all of which draws power. Finding cars and batteries to support this is a continuing challenge for the City’s Fleets Division.

Another side effect is just all the “stuff” that a typical patrol officer has to carry. When I was a street cop in the mid-1970’s, I carried a weapon, nightstick, handcuffs. Now officers also have handheld radios, cell phones, BlackBerries and laptop computers – almost a walking Radio Shack!

In this article, I’ve emphasized the technology, because I’m a CIO/CTO and that’s the goal of this blog.

But the real purpose of last night was to celebrate the people involved – the officers, the police department civilians, those in City and County government who support them, and the wonderful sponsors who contribute to the Seattle Police Foundation.

In the end, it is not really the software and systems and techie gadgets and devices which keep us safe, but, rather, brave people such as those we honored last night.

1 Comment

Filed under people, Seattle Police

– Hiring Felons

rogue.jpgShould local governments be hiring felons? Or, more to the point, should government technology workers undergo background checks?

San Francisco found itself locked out of its own data communications network in July after a rogue employee, Terry Childs, refused to share the password necessary to access network elements such as routers and switches. Childs had been convicted of aggravated burglary and robbery and actually served prison time in 1983, many years prior to his employment in San Francisco.  A relatively routine check of convictions databases by San Francisco would have disclosed this fact.

But, should local government technology workers undergo background checks?

On first thought, you might think the answer to this is, as expressed by my teenage daughter “no duh”. Of course such background checks should be conducted. Government agencies work in a fishbowl. Freedom of information act requests and public disclosure acts and open meetings laws mean that almost everything we do is subject to public scrutiny. Scandals and mistakes and incidents like San Francisco’s are front page news and sell a lot of newspapers and “advertising by Google” on Internet sites.

Government agencies should be held to a higher standard of service and scrutiny. We spend thousands, millions and billions of dollars. ($3.6 billion at the City of Seattle next year.) These are taxpayer and ratepayer dollars, not voluntary contributions from the public. We definitely should not be employing felons.

But, as in everything else, there is always a simple answer to any given question and it is almost always wrong.

So what is a “background check”? At its basic level, this is a search of public or law enforcement databases for convictions. Are we looking for felony convictions, or misdemeanors and felonies? A misdemeanor in one state is a gross misdemeanor in another is a felony in a third.

Does the crime conviction have a nexus to the work of the employee? In other words, is a conviction for drunk driving a reason not to employ someone as a database administrator? If I was convicted for possession of an illegal substance when I was in college 20 years ago, but have a spotless record since; am I unemployable in all governments throughout the United States for the rest of my life?

Do we search for arrests, as opposed to convictions? If I am simply arrested for drug possession, but not convicted, should that “count”?

Should we do a credit check on potential employees, on the theory that they may take government property and sell it on craigslist if they have a history of bankruptcy or bad debts? If a potential employee has racked up hundreds of unpaid parking tickets in Milwaukee should they not be employable in any other government anywhere in the nation?

Furthermore, let’s presume I pass the background check, keep my nose clean for 6 months or a year or whatever the probation period is, and become a “permanent” civil service employee. But then, 5 years after starting to work, I have an altercation with my spouse and am convicted of domestic violence. Or perhaps I have multiple drunk driving convictions. Or maybe I declare personal bankruptcy due to my inability to manage my credit card debts.

Should we (government) conduct checks for criminal convictions every year? Should we constantly pull credit checks on our employees? Or, once you get “into” the civil service system, are you home free for a life of working – and, in most cases, diligently serving – government?

I just don’t know the answer to all these questions.

But I do know this: if you are a felon, you need not apply to work at the City of Seattle’s Department of Information Technology.

I won’t hire you.

Leave a comment

Filed under people

– Matching People to Technology

Council member Harrell and Jefferson Terrace Awardees

Council member Harrell and Jefferson Terrace Awardees

Original post:  5 August 2008

We often hear requests for contributions for a variety of charitable causes. Sometimes those causes use the phrase “for less than the price of a latte a day you can … (fill in the blank with the good deeds which the organization can do)”.
Well, you’d be surprised what Seattle’s government – with a little help from a lot of volunteers – can do with about one-fourth of one-cent a day.
City Council member Bruce Harrell and I proudly presided at significant event on July 30th – the awards ceremony for the City of Seattle’s 2008 technology matching funds.
This is a program which is fairly unique. Almost every City in the United States which has cable television collects a franchise fee from the cable provider. The Mayor and Seattle City Council decided to dedicate some of that franchise fee to this technology matching fund (TMF) program. The cost to a typical cable subscriber is about $1 per year. TMF helps non-profit and community organizations to use technology to improve their communities and to bring access to computers and the Internet to people who otherwise do not have them. The neat thing about the program is “matching”. Each group must at least match the dollar amount of the grant with their own funds or in-kind labor. They use the funds to purchase computers or video equipment or other technology. And then they teach young people or seniors or immigrants how to use the technology to improve their lives and their neighborhoods.
Some of the organizations include Reel Grrls, which brings video production skills to teenage girls and the Seattle Hip-Hop Youth council which, similarly, is using video and audio equipment along with help from local artists to teach young people in the Central Area to create media and art.
Read more about the event here and read about all the grant recipients here.
And thank you, Seattle, for that third-of-a-cent a day, $1,500,000 over 10 years!

1 Comment

Filed under community technology, people, Seattle DoIT

– Kids in Uniform in Afghanistan

Captain Aaron Bert - Seattle Parks Employee and Soldier

Captain Aaron Bert - Seattle Parks Employee and Soldier

Original Post:  3 June 2008
The purpose of this blog – blog.chiefseattlegeek.com – is to render some ideas and opinions about the role of information technology and a chief information officer in a municipal government.   That’s not stated anywhere, yet, I guess, because the blog is still an experiment for me. 
Any senior government official, by definition, is involved in politics.   Politics in the honorable, “can do” sense – government is all about community – people coming together, and, together, doing what they cannot do individually or in private business – providing water, parks, policing, firefighting.  For this we need elected officials, legislatures, laws and Chief Executives.  And politics.  In the honorable sense.
I have a friend, Aaron Bert, who works at the City of Seattle who is on his second deployment to the Middle East.  In his first deployment, he was activated as a Captain in the Washington National Guard and sent to Iraq for over a year.  Leaving two kids and, ultimately, a marriage behind.   Now he’s in the Army Reserve and in Afghanistan.  He should be here in Seattle, managing capital projects for our Parks Department. 
He’s not.  
He writes a blog published in the Seattle Times here, and it is sometimes painful to read.
There is another City of Seattle employee – also an Army Reservist – who is a server administrator.   He’s also been notified that his unit will be activated – again – for deployment to the Middle East.   The first time it was Iraq, and this time to Kuwait.  At least initially.    He also leaves two kids and his wife here to worry until he returns.
I spent 22 years in the Army and Army Reserve.  I’ve been out for more than 10 years, and my military retirement will kick in this year (and THAT tells you how hold I am).   I’m proud of that time – that I did more to earn my citizenship than just pay taxes.
But I feel sorry for these two “kids” – young men in their thirties, really not kids – and their kids, who will be without fathers for the next year or more.
Read Aaron’s blog.
And, while you are at it, buy some shoes for Afghani kids.

Leave a comment

Filed under people, Seattle Parks, war

– Internet Pin-up Girls (and Guys)

Internet  Filtering for Government - click for more

Internet Filtering for Government - click for more

Original post: 31 May 2008
First, let me congratulate Mark Stencel, who will be filling at least a portion of Peter Harkness’ shoes as Peter retires from his position as Editor and Publisher of Governing Magazine.  Mark, long-time technology columnist for Governing and governing.com, is a terrific guy with great insight into the often uneasy marriage between government and technology.
In Mark’s recent column, “At Work on the Web” he argues for the reduction or removal of Internet filtering in government agencies. While his reasons are noble, with roots in trust of workers and the fundamental democracy of the web, the realities of working in government agencies give me a different view.
Let me first say that almost all the employees I know at the City of Seattle are ethical, diligent, and hard-working. I see that diligence, that dedication, every day.
But everyone (government employee or not) has their weakness. Some folks are addicted to alcohol, others to shopping, many to cigarettes/smoke breaks and many others to surfing the Internet or YouTube. They can’t help themselves from surfing or bidding on e-bay or browsing MySpace for their friends.
Pin-up girls. The very phrase evokes images from World War II barracks. In City of Seattle call centers in the 1970s, we had problems with pin-up girls decorating cubicles. Then it was pin-up guys. Naked pin-up guys. In guy’s cubicles. We ended up banning all such photos from the workplace and no one would think of allowing them back in today.
Yet I’ve had workers visiting dating sites, and leaving images of half-clothed people on the computer screen scandalizing a co-worker. I’ve seen workers leaving their City e-mail address for craigslist and e-bay sales. I know of employees surfing Internet sex sites. We “flatten” at least five computers (out of 10,000) a week.   (This is a process also known as “re-imaging” or wiping a desktop computer clean and re-installing all programs.)   Why?  Because they became infected with malware from visiting non-business websites.
In every single case cited above, the City employee was a good employee. Hard working and well-intentioned. Someone I’d be proud to call a friend. But they either didn’t know the rules or had to indulge a low-level addiction to the Internet.
One department director tells me how much he loves the “websense” (Internet filtering software) installation in his department because it reduces the number of loudermill hearings he conducts, disciplining workers for non-business use of City computers. Websense helps keep honest people honest.
And hard-working City employees chafe when they see co-workers wasting time “surfing”. My experience is that morale among the top-performing City workers improves when they see low-performing employees unable to indulge their Internet addictions and/or disciplined for it.
Most City government workers earn a living wage. They work 40 hours a week, and many get overtime for hours beyond that. They have both the ability to buy a personal computer for home and the time to indulge themselves in the cyberworld at home. Public employees are held to a higher standard than workers in any other industry. When there’s a disaster, private employers shut down and their employees go home. Public employees work 12 hour shifts for the duration of the emergency.
Those same higher standards apply to use of City equipment, and conduct at work day-to-day, and the Internet content filters remind all of us of our duty to meet that standard.
The Pin-up Girls are long gone from the workplace. Let’s not bring them back with the web and Internet.

4 Comments

Filed under internet, people