Rhode Island Recommits to Failed Vendor

This morning I saw the following tweet from Aaron Snow in my timeline:

Stories like these frustrate me greatly as someone who builds technology for government. The first reason is the size of these contracts are enormous relative to the cost of developing good software. At MAPC our projects tend to all be budgeted under a million dollars. We deliver them in the span of a year or so with a small team of developers. The magic part about software is unless you reach enormous scale, you can serve millions of users without spending lots of extra money. At Berkman Klein I worked on a project that served millions of users via Google Search on a daily basis and had three developers on it. The team that fixed Healthcare.gov fit inside a single mansion. You do not need a large team to build great technology.

The second reason is the human impact this has. This broken technology at millions of wasted taxpayer dollars has taken that money from available social services. It has made it more challenging for the most vulnerable among us to qualify and register for the social services they are entitled to. This impacts on the Rhode Island economy and the faith of people in their government. In an era where people trust government less and less, we need it to make better decisions about technology so people have more faith in it. We can and should do better.

Experiencing the BAA 5K

The morning is early. I look outside. The unrelenting winter gave way to a respite of spring. My outfit is laid out from the night before. Synthetic shirts and shorts designed to wick sweat from my body. No shower is necessary. I rinse my hair and change into my uniform. I load my phone into its armband and set my playlist. I open a KIND bar, the familiar taste of peanut butter giving my body the calories it craves. My friend is visiting. It is early but worth it because it is a morning for friends.

We walk to Harvard Square. Five blocks. We pass the turnstiles. We see others dressed like us. Kindred spirits coming together in the morning for a common purpose. The train arrives. We sit down and share our excitement. The train stops and more people wearing familiar blue and gold bibs join us. We are coming from different places but our destination is the same.

We arrive to the starting line by walking across the Boston Common. Along the way we meet with more friends, old and new. Our backgrounds and abilities might be different but in this morning we are all athletes. Clamoring for camaraderie and a taste of warm weather. We walk through a sea of people to take our place, set at our own pace. Fifteen minutes to start.

Time passes. I stretch. Earbuds in. Playlist set. Watch ready. Gun fires. Anticipation grows. I walk with my group. Three minutes forward towards the starting line. I see it. Two bumps in the road. I pass over them and am off. It feels crowded and I feel trapped. I start sighting paths through the throngs of people. This will not be a straight run but a weave. Right. Left. Slip between two people. I am trying to reach my pace. I am trying to find my people.

Mile one I finally get there. My heart beats fast. Mile two I enjoy the scenery. This feels relaxing, familiar, and different. Mile three I look up. It is the marathon finish line. Not our finish line. The screen says 0.75 miles to go. The moment passes as quickly as it came. My focus moves forward. My chest starts to hurt. My breathing is heavy. My body moves but it feels strangled. Anxiety sets in. I know how to get out of this. I gently inhale through my nose. I exhale through my mouth. I count it. One, two, three. I feel my heart rate back under my control. I turn a corner. The finish line in sight. A few hundred feet of grit and determination stand between me and accomplishment. I push harder, legs move faster, wind passing my head quicker. Target in sight. One hundred feet. Fifty feet. Twenty five feet. I reach my goal. I can finally stop. My body has reached the finish but my breathe is still on the field.

Problems with Pensions

As a government employee instead of a regular retirement plan I participate in a pension. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts participation in this pension is not optional. The end result of a pension is that when you vest you are entitled to fixed amount of money from the government once you retire. While it looks like a good benefit, Massachusetts pension system is riddled with traps and unfairly locks down talent in our mobile economy.

Massachusetts pension is not optional and highly punitive towards job switchers. You cannot accrue any pension benefit until you have been with the Commonwealth for at least ten years. During this time Commonwealth employees do not accumulate any credits towards social security since Massachusetts does not participate in it. If you decide to leave the system you can cash out your contribution but you only get credit for a meager amount of interest. For anyone planning to leave state employment before the end of ten years it is functionally a pay decrease.

Massachusetts pension system is also unequal. As part of the pension state employees are required to contribute 9% to 11% of their salaries to the pension. Although this contribution is excluded from federal taxes, the commonwealth taxes it as regular income. Then if you leave the commonwealth, unlike the result you obtain by staying in Massachusetts, many states will tax your pension distribution.

The scariest thing about putting all my eggs in this one basket is that despite having a higher than median contribution the Massachusetts pension remains underfunded. There is no guarantee the benefit will be what has been promised.

One saving grace is that Massachusetts does offer what it calls a SMART defined contribution plan. However it has made the mistake of not offering Vanguard as a place where retirees can make their investments. The SMART plan vendors charge fees to manage your money in a way that Vanguard does not. Massachusetts employees deserve the best low cost investment firm available and that is Vanguard.

The best investment firm. An alternative to the pension. Equal tax treatment. Participation in social security. These are all things Massachusetts can do to put itself at parity with the private sector and make its jobs more attractive to people in my generation.

The Power is in the Role Models

When people say something cannot be done one of the best ways to disprove that is to do it. Nowhere do I think this is more true than in the field of energy where organizations are fighting climate change. A few interesting role models that came across my desk this morning include:

  1. Apple is now globally powered by 100 percent renewable energy
  2. Portugal ran on 100% renewable energy for a month

Articles like these remind us what is possible when we put our time and energy behind something.

Objects versus Apps

After finishing the Steve Jobs video from yesterday’s post I thought Jobs took an interesting position on what software companies should do. He said they should spend more time building objects than apps.

I thought this point was important because it suggests that software companies should focus on building the tools that the makers are going to use and then non-technical organizations should hire software developers to build the custom tools they need to do their work. This seems to imply that many of the challenges faced by organizations were specific enough that off the shelf software was not sufficient. Or the cost of marketing software is so expensive that it is just as cheap if not cheaper to pay an engineer to implement a custom solution using objects sold by other companies than it is to buy an off the shelf solution from a software vendor.

The best choice is going to depend on the organizations usage. My own experience shows that off the shelf solutions are great for pilots and small scale operations but as usage scales up, the cost exceeds what the organization wants to pay or building a custom solution looks less expensive. Another challenge is the organization sometimes has so many custom needs for their software that the vendor becomes an outsourced custom developer for the organization. The tension between serving a large customer and building a real product then festers. The product then either becomes a salad of needs from different users that make no sense together, or the organization has to go without features it needs and users begin to resent it.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.