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The FBI Software Upgrade That Wasn't 381

Posted by Zonk
from the there's-a-reason-for-that-low-bid dept.
Davemania writes "Washington Post reports that the FBI's attempt to modernize their department has once again failed. The 170 million dollar Virtual case File system, the agency's second attempt to go paperless is reported to be useless. The finger seems to be pointing at the FBI leadership, greedy contractors and bad software management." From the article: "It appeared to work beautifully. Until Azmi, now the FBI's technology chief, asked about the error rate. Software problem reports, or SPRs, numbered in the hundreds, Azmi recalled in an interview. The problems were multiplying as engineers continued to run tests. Scores of basic functions had yet to be analyzed. 'A month before delivery, you don't have SPRs,' Azmi said. 'You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors.'"
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The FBI Software Upgrade That Wasn't

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  • I love you (Score:4, Informative)

    by neonprimetime (528653) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:01AM (#15934247) Homepage
    I love helping you /.ers out. Instead of spending painstaking hours clicking thru multiple page news stories, I sit here and quickly provide you with printer friendly links [washingtonpost.com]
  • by mulhollandj (807571) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:02AM (#15934253)
    If the anybody can screw up a big project like that it is the government. If it was 170 million of somebody's own money I think that it would have been done a lot better but since it is only the taxpayers money they seem to really mess things up. Perhaps this is one of the many reason we should limit the federal govt to their proper role as given in the Constitution.
    • by NexFlamma (919608) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:13AM (#15934346) Homepage
      I've never understood why the government (whose inefficiency in regards to monetary spending has become almost cliche) doesn't set up a system for these sorts of big projects where the funds for it ARE someone's money.

      As you said, there would be much more motivation if it wasn't just taxpayer money, so why couldn't they use a system whereby they have several firms fund and set up different solutions and then the best solution gets a predetermined amount of money from the government?

      Since the firms would be initially shelling out their own money on the projects without a guarantee of reimbursement, you had better believe they would be busting their asses to make sure the products did what they needed to do quickly and efficiently.

      I'm living in a magical dream world, aren't I?
      • by lancejjj (924211) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:19AM (#15934394) Homepage
        Software problem reports, or SPRs, numbered in the hundreds,

        If this software system runs under Windows, they started with a Problem Report baseline in the thousands. If they got it down into the hundreds, Kudos!
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by punkr0x (945364)

          If this software system runs under Windows, they started with a Problem Report baseline in the thousands. If they got it down into the hundreds, Kudos!

          This is modded funny but I seriously agree. What perfect world is this guy living in? I've seen software that doesn't even GET tested before it starts shipping.

          'A month before delivery, you don't have SPRs,' Azmi said. 'You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors.'"

          He's got it all backwards!

      • by Silver Sloth (770927) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:24AM (#15934422)
        I used to be a civil servant, and yes, here at the Dept. for I'm Not Allowed To Tell You we wasted vast sums of money. Then we were outsourced to a certain IT company, again, I'm not allowed to say whom, even if it does sound like an ex Englang goal keeper, and they are certainly more efficient, at wasting money.

        Yes, I've worked both sides of the fence, and quite frankly, the civil service side wasted less, had fewer penpushers, was more rigourous in vetting suppliers, and brought it's project in nearer budget and deadline (that was nearer, not on!)

        • by MECC (8478) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:33AM (#15934488)
          It really sounds as though the FBI needs a real IT department of their own, not the isolated geeks helping out Mulder and Scully. And, if some "CIO" type waddles in and recommends another outsourcing, maybe the sidearm arguement should be used.

          Outsource, and this is what you get. They must hire MBA's. Really, sensitive government data projects like this one should never be outsourced, if only for national security reasons.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by sgt_doom (655561)
            FBI leadership, greedy contractors and bad software management.

            Really, it goes far beyond this (not that I don't fundamentally agree with your point). SAIC is simply another war profiteer and 9/11/01 "security" profiteer aligned with this administration. Their profits have soared with the attacks of 9/11/01 and the invasion and bloody occupation of Iraq. One need only look at their personnel roster to get a solid impression of what's wrong with the present fascist regime and globalist congress.

            The poi

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Rorschach1 (174480)

          I have to agree with this. I've worked as a contractor along side civil servants and uniformed military personnel. It's rare for the military folks to stick around more than two years in one place, and one job - in some posts, 9 months was about average. The civil service guys had typically been around for many years, and had a much greater sense of ownership of their systems and processes.

          I worked on a system that was developed in-house by civil servants. It was an effective system because it was dev

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Lurker187 (127055)
        Interesting idea, but then you'd eliminate anyone but the Halliburtons, Lockheeds, and in this case maybe the big tech companies who have the assets to front the funds, especially since if this works and they all do their jobs, there is still no payment to all but one of those who designed a perfectly working system.

        Instead, I don't see why companies aren't fined (put it in the contract) or sued for everything the government spent on a system that has to be scrapped. Smaller companies would be run out of bu
      • by flooey (695860)
        As you said, there would be much more motivation if it wasn't just taxpayer money, so why couldn't they use a system whereby they have several firms fund and set up different solutions and then the best solution gets a predetermined amount of money from the government?

        A lot of defense contracts are awarded by biddable contract, and I've heard (though not from a reliable source) that new marines are told during boot camp to always remember that their rifles were made by the lowest bidder.

        It definitely h
      • by GMontag (42283) <gmontag&guymontag,com> on Friday August 18, 2006 @11:07AM (#15934744) Homepage Journal
        I am a defense contractor, Defense Financial Manager.

        Actually, the funds are someone's money. The Contracting Officers are legally "on-the-hook" for the things they sign for. If they authorize payment for something that was not delivered and the government does not get it's money back, then they are supposed to be liable for the money they released.

        If they continue working for the government a payment schedule is arranged and they have money deducted from their salary. If they get any other money from the government (ex:retirement) that is used toward the debt.

        The rules over here at DoD tend to be much more strict than at other agencies, contrary to what some in the media would lead you to believe.

        I hear that one of the problems now, with non DoD activities, is that there are not many prosecutions going on for that sort of thing. Also, the way these stories are written, there may not have been any wrongdoing at all (check my .sig) other than the exagerations by the reporter. It could be a case of a badly written contract that the government accepted, but if the terms for payment were met then nobody is on the hook for the money, but should be losing their job.

        In my case, since I am just a contractor and not a government officer, in this role, (in another position I am sometimes in uniform for the Reserves) I am never on the hook for the agency funds, but my customer is and if his error is due to my doing bad work then I am at risk of losing my job, which can happen with no notice.
      • by electroniceric (468976) on Friday August 18, 2006 @11:46AM (#15935109)
        The problem isn't really that it's someone else's money, cause that's true at all companies. How much of your company's market cap did you or your boss or your boss's boss put in? In most cases, approximately 0 - it's Wall Street's money, which means it's millions of pension-payers' money rather than millions of tax-payers' money.

        The driving problem is the rigidness and stagnation of the government's bureaucracy. The impulse to build this kind of lumbering bureaucracy was a good one - it's called civil service, and it's basically a way to insulate long-term government functions from short-term politicians, keep government employees from becoming the minions of whichever politician wants to build a personal empire. There's no question that the limitations of that approach are killing government. On the other hand, do you really want a civil service that can be downsized or force to work on producing bogus intelligence so we can invade 17 more countries? Or a government whose job is to buy as many copies of Microsoft Vapor Server as it can possibly cram into an appropriations bill? The idea that the government is fundamentally incapable is a useless one, sorta like existentialism, in that it fails to answer the question of what we DO as a result of that insight. Do you seriously propose that the FBI be run by a private interest? I'd rather not have someone like Verizon or ChoicePoint watching my back, thank you - at least the government has a mandate to protect people and not just make money off of them. And there's a name for the head of an large private armed force: warlord.

        The article touches on the fact that government has progressively become a comparatively worse place to work than the private sector, because of the bureaucracy and because the salaries don't keep pace with the private sector. A friend of mine is working on Sentinel, and he's been really surprised to find an FBI-side partner who actually wants to oversee the work. If you do think that police work at the federal level should be the job of government, then how do we go about really fixing the FBI?

        Government is what citizens make it. And here's the rub: under the past 25 years of leadership of the small-government zealots, we managed to prevent government from making important investments - e.g.: roads (any idea how many bridges in this country haven't been maintained in decades, and what the long-term maintenance will cost on the vast numbers of roads we've built?), emergency planning, a healthy population, an educated workforce, etc. These investments are the infrastructure on which the economy is built. And this stellar leadership has not only managed to give short shrift to the future, but it's utterly failed to address the real problems they correctly identified with government. Anti-government conservatism is a bankrupt ideology - it's nice to kick the government for it's failures real and perceived, but when push comes to shove, it offers no real alternative for building the public underpinnings of our economy and our lives, just faith that the free market fairy will come fix all our problems. We live in an extraordinarily pragmatic age: one where you can assemble data on a large scale to decide if something works or doesn't. It's time to stop carping and give our government a mandate to do this and find its way out of quandaries like the civil service vs. Tamany Hall problem.

        Sorry for the rant. Somebody talk to me about fixing the FBI.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by starseeker (141897)
          Fixing the FBI is not possible in general - without very good people there is simply no way to make a good organization. Specific issues might be addressed, however:

          1) First step, IDENTIFY THE REQUIREMENTS of a new system. Create use cases. Observe what actually is done day to day for at least three to six months (this will need people with security clearance out the wazoo). Be sure to follow some issues beginning to end. Also, identify relevant policy and law that the FBI needs to observe - the syste
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)


          under the past 25 years of leadership of the small-government zealots


          What country are you referring to again, and who are these small government zealots that have been leading it for the past 25 years?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by diersing (679767)
      Its not just governments, if you have a corporation dedicating a load of money towards some project the same will happen. Although the principles of project management, software development life cycles and security have matured, their adoption (of the processes) has not.

      So you end up with directors forcing managers, PMs and the like to adopt the formalized procedures and their unfamiliarity with the process leads to cost overruns and issues. So you outsource it and inevitably (every case I've personally

      • Project Managers (Score:5, Informative)

        by Epeeist (2682) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:27AM (#15934443) Homepage
        Spit.

        The trouble with project managers (and security people) is that they have a checklist mentality.

        PM: Have you done this as yet.

        You: No, there is no need for it

        PM: But I need to get it checked off on my plan

        You: It shouldn't be on the plan in the first place

        PM: But it is on the plan, so I need to get it checked off. When are you going to do it.

        And so on.
    • by EatHam (597465) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:43AM (#15934560)
      Parent is hardly flamebait. I have a very hard time thinking of anything at all that this or any government has accomplished that was two of:
      On time
      At, under, or near budget
      Performed as designed.

      Mark it flamebait or troll if you want, or just reply with any example.
      • by edremy (36408) on Friday August 18, 2006 @12:01PM (#15935262) Journal
        The I-10 bridge rebuild following the Northridge earthquake: details here [epinet.org]

        This is how big government projects *should* be done. Hire a good contractor, set a minimum and then give bonuses for good performance and penalties for bad. Did the final tally cost a lot in bonuses? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes- they fixed a major problem in amazing time and did it correctly, plus they had a bunch of blue-collar folks make serious coin working triple time, all of which got plowed back into the local economy.

        You can argue it wasn't on budget due to the bonuses, but it was assumed from the beginning they'd be paying out. Since the daily economic loss to LA was higher than the daily bonus for finishing early, I'd argue it was actually under budget.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by hswerdfe (569925)
        The Apollo Program...sigh I went back to the 1960's
  • Paranoia! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Enoxice (993945) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:03AM (#15934261) Journal
    Personally, I'd prefer the FBI not go paperless. Because (a) paper trails are nice in investigations and such (y'know, when the FBI finally goes up against the Supreme Court) and (b) stuff that doesn't have a hardcopy tends to get lost more often than physical objects...especially embarassing things...especially by government agencies.

    Yes. I'm slightly paranoid.
    • They spend their $170 million wiser. Why upgrade the computers?
      Leave the paper trail, and instead build robots to sort and manage the paper trail!
    • Re:Paranoia! (Score:4, Informative)

      by acroyear (5882) <jws-slashdot@javaclientcookbook.net> on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:12AM (#15934338) Homepage Journal
      y'know, when the FBI finally goes up against the Supreme Court

      Actually, all the unconstitutional crap is being done by the NSA. The FBI got warrents (over 120) through the FISA courts for every single aspect of the British plane bombers investigation that they participated in.

      which goes to prove that the NSA warrentless program is utterly unnecessary to stopping terrorism.
    • by div_2n (525075)
      As long as they do regular backups that are retained off-site, no problem. Actually, this should be required (if it isn't already) that regular backups for all government agencies are stored in multiple redundant highly secure bunker-type areas. It is easier to shred a few pieces of paper than to make many different copies of backups from multpile locations vanish.
    • I'm just as paranoid, but the cynical devil's advocate part of me wonders if a paperless system would be all that different in practice from the magically disappearing hard copies they've always used.
    • by computational super (740265) on Friday August 18, 2006 @12:27PM (#15935462)
      Personally, I'd prefer the FBI not go paperless.

      Everybody who has to use the bathroom at FBI headquarters agrees.

  • it remained riddled with shortcomings:
    Agents would not be able to take copies of their cases into the field for reference.
    The program lacked common features, such as bookmarking or histories, that would help agents navigate through millions of files.
    The system could not properly sort data.
    Most important, the FBI planned to launch the new software all at once, with minimal testing beforehand. Doing so, the NRC team concluded, could cause "mission-disruptive failures" if the software did not work,
  • by TripMaster Monkey (862126) * on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:04AM (#15934265)
    'A month before delivery, you don't have SPRs,' Azmi said. 'You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors.'

    Can I get the icon in 'cornflower blue'?
    • by magixman (883752) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:20AM (#15934401)
      That quote was just too funny. In any huge huge huge project the state of play a month before is usually going through the thousands of trouble reports, deciding which features you will turn off so you can ge the release out, figuring out work arounds for the rest of them, discovering that the analysis was flawed on some functions and of course by now you ditched many other features because the analysis was not done at all. And yes you change a few icon colors to keep key users happy and get your sign-off. This is for a successful 1.0 implementation.
    • by xtracto (837672)
      'A month before delivery, you don't have SPRs,' Azmi said. 'You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors.'"

      Haha, this guy does not have a clue of what Softwar Engineering is about. Making things pretty is what you do for *the first* preview of your product, that is what you will show to your clients, the pretty screens with pretty buttons that will do things, of course neither the buttons nor the screen do anything more than get their attention and showcase void promises that you will try to fu
    • by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Friday August 18, 2006 @11:28AM (#15934924) Homepage Journal
      That is so not funny. I worked for a little CLEC [mpowercom.com] headquartered in Las Vegas, and somehow ended up being picked to manage the trouble ticket system. So, I fly out to Vegas to meet the people who will be using the system and the consultant we'd hired to install it.

      To put it bluntly, the guy in charge of the NOC was (is?) an incompetent jackass. He'd used the same trouble ticket system at his last job and hated it - not because it was bad, but because the admins at his old company had no idea how to run the thing. Long story short, he had one absolute demand before he'd let it be used in "his" NOC: the consultant had to change the window background color from green to blue, because green reminded him of the last installation.

      He was serious.

      And he actually scheduled a formal compliance test where he would run through the system to make sure he didn't see green anywhere, and informed the consultant and me that if he did, he was rejecting it forever. I was amazed to find that he actually had management backing on this; it's apparently difficult to find managers with obsolete product knowledge, or something like that. So, the company spend a fair number of kilodollars to make the software blue (to the endless delight of the consultant, who drove a nice Corvette and took me to good expense account dinners - which are the best kind!).

  • Government Contract$ (Score:5, Informative)

    by Billosaur (927319) * <wgrotherNO@SPAMoptonline.net> on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:05AM (#15934279) Journal
    But the problems were not the FBI's alone. Because of an open-ended contract with few safeguards, SAIC reaped more than $100 million as the project became bigger and more complicated, even though its software never worked properly. The company continued to meet the bureau's requests, accepting payments despite clear signs that the FBI's approach to the project was badly flawed, according to people who were involved in the project or later reviewed it for the government.

    And that is how you get rich doing work for the government. The government agency comes up with a half-assed plan, you put in a low bid, they accept and start handing you checks, and you make things look pretty, all the while hiding the flaws. In then end, you've become rich, the goverment runs a deficit, and the American taxpayer foots the bill.

    • by LordKazan (558383) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:21AM (#15934406) Homepage Journal
      that's why government contractors that do this kinda shit (fail to deliver product) should be required to return all the money to the government, and if they don't they can rot in jail and the government will SEIZE their assets
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mgblst (80109)
        Sure, I think we all feel that way after reading this story. But the error could also lie with the Agency. If they are constantly asking for changes and new additions, what can the programmers do.

        And this would make it very difficult to get companies to do government contracts in the future.

        Perhaps they should have taken in past history as well as cheap price, when deciding on contractors.
        • Sure, I think we all feel that way after reading this story. But the error could also lie with the Agency. If they are constantly asking for changes and new additions, what can the programmers do.

          It seems to me that the idea of doing software as a project is purely fiction. Everybody knows that software has bugs, everybody knows that new features are needed as the landscape changes, and everybody knows that software can be made better. So why do people insist on this flawed idea of a project?

          I've come to re
    • by $1uck (710826)
      As someone who's seen this first hand, you should be modded to +6 and beyond.
    • That's it. I've had it.

      I've spent too many years working my rear off.

      It's time to start bidding on government programming contracts.

      Imagine, being paid loads of money and not having to produce anything functional, with the worst repercussion being having to change your company name before bidding on a new contract.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by grassy_knoll (412409)

      And that is how you get rich doing work for the government. The government agency comes up with a half-assed plan, you put in a low bid, they accept and start handing you checks, and you make things look pretty, all the while hiding the flaws. In then end, you've become rich, the goverment runs a deficit, and the American taxpayer foots the bill.

      You seem to have left out a step: The government agency changes the requirements after the bid is awarded, usually in the user interface. If you're a smart bidder,

    • I hate the lowest bidder system. It seems like the root of all screwups in the government. It's not as black and white as you are competeing for model number 00120 of product X. All but the simplest of cases shouldn't have to go through the whole lowest bidder system. Quality is extremely important and low bids don't take that into account. This story didn't really mention whether this was a low bid deal or not, keep in mind.

      Look at pretty much any government building that was built on the lowest bidder
  • by TopShelf (92521) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:06AM (#15934287) Homepage Journal
    Wouldn't it make sense to go for a more basic application as a first run, to at least provide a unified collaborative work environment, and use the working experience therein to define a more strategic, long term technology plan for the FBI? As I understand it, today's world involves many separate stores of information, electronic and not. Simply bringing those together in the crudest of fashions could provide significant gains in a relatively short time frame.
    • ...This turned into the typical "Boil the Ocean" project. Features kept being added and scope increased until there was no way it could be successful in a finite time/schedule.
    • You seem to forget were talking about the Government here.
    • Aside from making too much sense for a government project, your plan has a political disadvantage.

      Be it a politician showing off for his constituency, or an employee trying to gain power in an organization, small, incremental steps like the ones you describe are too "subtle."

      Hell, in the private sector I've been accused of "lacking vision" for proposing incremental changes similar to the ones you describe.

      Pointy Haired Bosses want to show off MASIVE strides that they can claim credit for, not smaller projec
  • by j.leidner (642936) <leidner&acm,org> on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:08AM (#15934300) Homepage Journal
    'A month before delivery, you don't have SPRs,' Azmi said. 'You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors.'"

    'A month before delivery,' Professor Knuth said looking up through his spectacles 'you can start implementing it if your correctness proofs are complete.'"

    Ha! Welcome to the real world, guys.

  • That it's not just the British government that can't manage an IT project to save its life.
  • by novus ordo (843883) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:09AM (#15934312) Journal
    "I'll just file this case in my Virtual Filing Cabinet"
  • by MikeRT (947531) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:10AM (#15934314) Homepage
    Call me crazy, but it sounds like the FBI didn't know what it wanted and SAIC was too scared and proud to play contractor hardball with its client to get the job done. The FBI is legendary for its fractured leadership, fiefdoms (makes most agencies look like a single organism it's so bad) and crap like that.
    • I heard a story a while back about a three-letter government agency who wanted a new air conditioning system put in. So the company doing it said, ok, I'll need to know how many people will be working in the building on average, etc., etc., and they were told that that's all classified, so they were forced to make a guess. Later, when the system didn't work so well, the same agency wanted to sue them, but it didn't get anywhere, due to the lack of fundamental information provided which was required for the
    • What the FBI needs is a small team of a couple smart guys who understand enough technology to know what is and isn't algorithmically or logically impossible, and understand how to deal with the human elements of project management from their end. Basically a real CTO and a couple good project managers and architect level technologists. If these people work with the contractors to gather requirements, build early prototypes to evaluate functionality before investing hundreds of millions in a fully function
    • You won't understand this until you've worked as a government contractor. When you are a contractor, the government employees are god (or at least that's what they think). In 90% of the projects that I have worked on for the government, it's the government employees who cause most of the problems. You are not given the authority to tell them "NO", and you must live with their idiotic decisions, even when you know that it will just cause more problems.
  • by faqmaster (172770) <jones,tm&gmail,com> on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:15AM (#15934366) Homepage Journal
    What do you expect? They don't have time or resources for testing because all the agents are too busy listening in on my calls to my grandmother.
  • by cryfreedomlove (929828) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:16AM (#15934368)
    They should have just started by picking a decent directory structure for the documents and then hooking up a decent search engine like the Google Appliance. Then the users could simply use web browsers instead of a weak, buggy, and expensive custom application.

    Non CS people who commission custom software development often have no clue how expensive their ego driven non-standard features can be.
  • ObSimpsons (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:16AM (#15934371) Homepage Journal
    The finger seems to be pointing at the FBI leadership, greedy contractor and bad software management.
    The owner of said finger, one N. Muntz, was quoted as saying "Ha-ha!"
  • I have the perfect solution for the FBI's IT woes.

    It's called WOM, or Write-Only Memory system. This system has near-infinite storage capacity, and can be implemented across the entire enterprise.

    Document retrival in the WOM? Not a problem! Just create imaginary documents! Isin't that the way it's done, anyway?

    Oh, and if you need a record expunged, not a problem! In fact, it requires almost no effort at all!

    Write-Only Memory Virtual Filing System. It was good enough for Nasa, it ought to be good enough for the FBI.

  • Do you feel safer while we're more in debt, to China, than anyone was ever in debt before to anyone, while spending a third of a $TRILLION in Iraq, $BILLIONS on fake FBI upgrades that do nothing but enrich scam contractors, and the richest among us demand more tax breaks, like "estate tax" breaks after they're dead?

    WHERE'S OSAMA?
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:25AM (#15934431) Homepage Journal
    "You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors."

    That's the FBI policy: they're part of Homeland Security, so their job is mainly to tells what color today is [dhs.gov]. Otherwise terrorists might have trouble knowing which days we're not checking everyone or paying closest attention.
  • by Chelloveck (14643) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:26AM (#15934436) Homepage
    'A month before delivery, you don't have SPRs,' Azmi said. 'You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors.'

    Wow... I have never, ever seen a software product that wasn't working on QA bug reports right up to the minute the gold disc is burned. And afterwards, of course, working on all the pre-release bugs that had been classified as 'known issues'.

    • by bigpat (158134) on Friday August 18, 2006 @11:06AM (#15934731)
      Wow... I have never, ever seen a software product that wasn't working on QA bug reports right up to the minute the gold disc is burned. And afterwards, of course, working on all the pre-release bugs that had been classified as 'known issues'.

      Seconded. Clearly this guy either doesn't know what he is talking about or is just playing politics (office and/or party). I've personally encountered bugs or (incomplete features) in past releases of Oracle. I don't recall the specifics of the feature I was trying to use, but it was a documented feature that should have been available and according to Oracle's own knowledge base the function should have worked a certain way, but only to dig a little deeper to find that it was just a stub function that hadn't actually been written yet. This was an enterprise product used by thousands of big businesses and it simply didn't do what they said it did.

      To say that you are just changing colors on a software product a month before delivery is a rediculous thing to say, and really this guy shouldn't be in his job if he actually believes what he said, vendors are working on bugs for years after delivery on anything as complex as this would need to be.

      Hell, even NASA even built in a way to update the software on the Mars landers, when they were on Mars. That isn't to say that this FBI software project has been well managed, well specified, or even well coded, but a certain amount of imperfection must be understood in any project management and design.

  • How is this news? (Score:5, Informative)

    by EnderGT (916132) <endergt2k@v3.14159erizon.net minus pi> on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:29AM (#15934455)
    The FBI abandoned the VCF program in 2005. The replacement program, called Sentinel, is being led by Lockheed Martin. It is budgeted at $425 million, and won't be ready until 2009.

    Rereading the summary, the submitter has it wrong - "FBI's attempt to modernize their department has once again failed" implies that Sentinel has failed - which is definitely not the content of the article. Even the snippet quoted is about VCF having problems, not Sentinel.

    • by ScentCone (795499)
      Rereading the summary, the submitter has it wrong - "FBI's attempt to modernize their department has once again failed" implies that Sentinel has failed - which is definitely not the content of the article. Even the snippet quoted is about VCF having problems, not Sentinel.

      Way to just melt the tinfoil fun right off the story, dude. How can we have a slashdot groupthink paranoiagasm Hate-Teh-Bush-Fest if you go and point out the actual facts? Honestly, you're a total buzz-kill.
  • Going paperless (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Guanine (883175) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:43AM (#15934558)
    It would be nice if, sometimes, large organizations realized that applying computers to solving the problems of a paper trail is going to cause many many problems before any benefits are seen. In working with my university, I've seen time and again the tendency of higher-ups to see computers as a panacea to any/all problems an office might confront in keeping records on things.

    For example, our housing lottery system was, until this past year, an in-person process where people were assigned times, showed up, claimed rooms, and was a fair system that worked. Then, the university got all fancy pants and replaced that lottery with this unbelievably crappy system called Residential Management System [rms-inc.com]. To use: kill ad blocker, only use it in IE for Windows, ensure javascript settings are correct, and then wait until the clock allows you into the online lottery system. Attempt to use a non-intuitive UI that is completely new because you couldn't look at it before while time ticks away and other people claim the rooms you wanted. Even though I got the room I wanted, the experience was horrifyingly bad.

    For these large organizations, I think less can be more. Keep your paper trail, but create a highly efficient system for digitizing documents. That way, you start to have some advantages of computers (search, organization, cross-referencing) without the liability of a completely paperless system. From here, you can slowly make a transition from leaning on paper to leaning on machines. But that would be the sane way of doing things, and we're talking about a governement organization here.
  • Insanity (Score:5, Insightful)

    by adavies42 (746183) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:45AM (#15934574)
    The new project is even worse than the old. No software, with the possible exception of truly safety-critical stuff like missle-control or nuclear power plants, needs to cost $425 million and take four years. You could have a custom OS written in pure assembly for a quarter of that!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jafac (1449)
      You could have a custom OS written in pure assembly for a quarter of that!

      Not from a CMMI-Level 5 organization (given all the paperwork, change management, formal testing, etc. that the Government Requires). - worse still - when you're talking about a DoD contract, add DISA STIG, and IA compliance, etc. etc. etc.

  • by pvera (250260) <pedro.vera@gmail.com> on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:46AM (#15934584) Homepage Journal
    What TFA describes is the current state of general software development for hire, which has changed very little in the 18 years I have been programming.

    It doesn't matter how well planned the project is, or how well educated the customer is, or the proper allocation of project champions on the client side, we all end up getting hit with b.s. look-and-feel complaints that end up taking higher priority than fixing bugs.

    If you give the client the option between tweaking a template to a report, and tweaking the queries that feed the damn report so it runs 10% faster, the client will ask you to first make it pretty, then worry about the queries. If you dare ask them why, they will give you a b.s. explanation that it is all about perception. That the pretty page looks more "professional" and it looks like more work and care was put into it.

    A word of warning to those of you that are new to for-profit programming: whenever somebody uses the "it looks more professional" gambit, it usually means he has no excuse and is hoping you will drop it. He asked you to do it simply to please himself. HE wants the damn color of the page changed, or that heading two pixels taller, etc.

    Every couple of years we get hit with new programming methodology fads, but those don't help us with dealing with difficult customers. When you are pulling millions every year from the same two or three government contracts, the last thing your project manager wants is to piss off any of the primaries for the contracts. Extreme programming won't suddenly make your client listen to you.

    Why the hell do you think that programmers are so rabidly enthusiastic about working for free for a specific open source project? These same programmers will drag their feet and hate life in general when working at their salaried jobs. At the free project a hell of a lot of the people involved in running the project will actually have a clue, while at the projects at the salaried job the norm is a lot of the people in charge won't have a clue.

    • by Scarblac (122480) <slashdot@gerlich.nl> on Friday August 18, 2006 @02:15PM (#15936212) Homepage

      Although this is true, it is also true that most programmers deliver crap looking, uncomfortable to use, half-assed interfaces if left to their own devices. I know I do...

      The same is true of a lot of Open Source software. Fun to do, very powerful, but much of it does look unprofessional or at least unreasonably hard to use, except for other programmers who share the same mindset as the maker.

      The tragedy is on one hand that the people who complain about the interface issues are themselves also totally untrained and unqualified to say what exactly needs to be changed, and on the other hand that of course a solid, great looking interface design should be made up front, in the design phase, by professionals. I don't think that ever happens.

      But we programmers can start by looking a bit more critically at our own work. A bit. While bitching about those irritating users who think looking professional matters more than actual function. Right?

  • Story's not new (Score:5, Interesting)

    by orac2 (88688) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:50AM (#15934614)
    I'm an editor at IEEE Spectrum. Spectrum laid out out this story in September '05 [ieee.org]. (I submitted a link to Slashdot at the time, but the editors in their Infinite Wisdom rejected it). Despite our story being prominently featured in google, wikipedia, winning awards, etc, and using similar sources, and so on, the Washington Post didn't acknowledge any of Spectrum's reporting, which has prompted Spectrum's Editor-in-Chief to complain to the Washington's Post's Ombusdman thusly:

    Dear Ms. Howell,

    We were startled to see that the article "The FBI Upgrade that Wasn't" by
    Eggen and Witte in today's Washington Post is taken directly from an article
    we did in September 2005 called "Who Killed the Virtual Case File," by Harry
    Goldstein (http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/sep05/1455). His article has won 5
    major magazine awards. Neither Harry or Spectrum gets credit or attribution
    in the Washington Post piece.

    Your writers reinterviewed all our sources, including Matthew Patton, whose
    only press interview until your story today was in the Spectrum article.
    They filed the same FOIA, etc.

    Is this plagiarism? Not exactly. Is it shoddy, lazy journalism? You bet.

    Sincerely yours,

    Susan Hassler
    • I'd be very interested in knowing what comes of this. The Post is my daily paper, and I've had occasion to fire off letters to Ms. Howell on a couple of occasions. Both times she's responded to me, and on one the subject (if not my letter) made it into her column. I believe she'll take your charge seriously.
    • by porslap (472285) on Friday August 18, 2006 @11:33AM (#15934974)
      full disclosure: I wrote the "Who Killed the Virtual Case File" story for Spectrum, which ran last September.

      Here's some more food for thought about the "reporting" behind the FBI story:

      What's the news angle that warrants front page attention in the Post? That the Post reporters obtained the "unreleased" Aerospace report? Not news: the report was released to Spectrum at the end of April after nine months of litigating a Freedom of Information Act Request.

      All the Post reporters had to do was google "virtual case file" and voila! the story pops up as number 1, right there for them to rewrite!

      But say they are too lazy to bother googling. They just want the summary. The Spectrum article is the basis for the Wikipedia Entry on the Virtual Case File and the only external link. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_Case_File [wikipedia.org]

      The Spectrum article was the first and until the Post article, the only one to mention Matthew Patton, who was unearthed by dint of investigative reporting nowhere acknowledged in the Post article.

      The Post article purports to turn a spotlight on SAIC, in part by quoting David Kay, the Iraq weapons inspector, who was a former SAIC VP--but who had absolutely no firsthand knowledge of the VCF project.

      The Post article uncritcally takes FBI CIO Azmi's word that the follow up project Sentinel is on-budget and on-time, when other news outlets have recently reported about a growing sense within the FBI that this project is doomed to a fate similar to the VCF's.
    • How long have you worked in journalism, Susan?

      If someone else does a story, especially a big story like yours, a magazine/newspaper has two options:

      1. Reprint your story. Credit you. Pay your organisation money. Look, to their readers, like schmucks because they missed a big story.

      Or, and here's what usually happens:

      2. Match the story. Re-interview the same sources. Go over the same ground. And then publish a very similar story. This way you not only VERIFY that the original story is true and well reported,
      • by orac2 (88688) on Friday August 18, 2006 @06:03PM (#15937578)
        Actually, Susan is my boss, but I'm going to assume you paid attention to where I indicated that in my original post, and are addressing your comments rhetorically. For the record Susan's been in journalism for decades, is a frequent judge for journalism awards, lectured at NYU's journalism school, etc, etc., and been the EIC of Spectrum for over six years. So drop the patronizing smarm. Finding your own angle on a story that's going around is one thing: failing to give adequate attribution is another, and is violation of, e.g., the Washington Post's ethics policy [asne.org]:

        Attribution of material from other newspapers and other media must be total. ... It is the policy of this newspaper to give credit to other publications that develop exclusive stories worthy of coverage by The Post.

        Certainly, for example, digging up Matthew Patton was an element of the VCF story that was exclusive to Spectrum's coverage, as Patton had not appeared in other media outlets before or since Spectrum's coverage until today.

        Even when publications are chasing the same story, when one publication gets something unique it is normal to see lines such as "As first reported in the New York Times..." etc in stories in other outlets. A similar attribution in passing in the text was all that would have been required: instead the only attempt at attribution by the Post article is buried in the credits list for the accompanying timeline graphic, where the "Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers" is credited as a source, which is a) insufficient and b) wrong (the source was "IEEE Spectrum Magazine". Crediting the IEEE is like crediting General Electric for information taken from a "Today Show" segment.)

        As a concrete example, let's look at the recent Sony-BMG DRM rootkit controversy. I did a story [ieee.org] on that, interviewing many of the people involved, people who got interviewed by a lot of media outlets at the same time, but when I found a nugget that had been exclusivey reported by one other news outlet--a video of a DHS offcial talking to a local buisiness group about the issue--I gave credit where credit where was due. To the Washington Post in fact: "One party that cares is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which includes cybersecurity as part of its portfolio. On 10 November, as reported by the Washington Post, Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for homeland security, made a pointed reference to the Sony BMG protection system..." [Emphasis added]

        Speaking personally as someone who hires freelancers, and who's been a staff journalist and editor for somewhat more than a week myself, if your post is indicative of your grasp of the ethical standards of journalism, you can be sure this is one editor who wouldn't call on your abilities as a stringer, or anything else.
      • by BroncoInCalifornia (605476) on Friday August 18, 2006 @06:17PM (#15937628)
        Shoddy lazy journalism? No. That would have been uncritically reprinting your original story.

        They just "matched" it. That's the industry term. As a stringer for many years (a "stringer" is a type of freelance journalist) I was called by editors many, many times to "match" stories.

        You've worked in journalism for, what, a week now? Welcome to the industry. You may want to check with some people in your organisation who've been around the block a few times before firing off embarrassing (to you) letters to the Post Ombudsman.



        You help me understand why the mainstream press is in such bad shape these days. Shoddy Lazy Journalism is accepted as standard industry practice.

  • This was old news when the IEEE Spectrum featured it in an issue about failed software engineering projects.

    On another note, does anyone else find it infuriating that SAIC intentionally refused to alert FBI to the project's going awry? I mean, we're not just talking about stealing taxpayer dollars, we're talking about a system that could save lives.

  • by Erore (8382) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:53AM (#15934640)
    Seriously, I have no idea all of their needs requirements, but it seems like a big one is cross-connecting one set of data with another. The intricate connections of intelligence data probably defies anyones ability to design a system that could capture it all. But, a Wiki, which automatically creates links can do it for you, on the fly. So, create some Wiki templates for information about people, cases, incidents, whatever, and create Wiki links on the keywords when you fill out the templates (names, dates, code names, case numbers, and so on) and let the Wiki link everything together for you.

    With a lot of data already entered, in no time you'll be typing in a routine report and find out that the name you just typed already has a Wiki page, and lo and behold! some agent in Nebraska is looking for that exact person for a child abduction. Case closed. All praise the Wiki.

  • Maybe, just maybe, the FBI needs to hire a software development manager - and 20-30 software developers and testers. Maybe this whole government contract thing just doesn't work any more.

    Look at huge projects like the Big Dig, and this FBI software upgrade. Outside companies collect the cash and hand over a botched project.

    I'll bet that if these developers and PMs worked for the government on this project and risked losing their jobs, this project would have turned out differently.

    -ted
  • Microsoft Office would've never taken hold...
  • by Nerd_52637 (938469) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:57AM (#15934665)
    From the original post: the FBI's attempt to modernize their department has once again failed

    Failed once again? The article (you have to read the whole thing) says it's on track.

    The article is 90% about the Virtual Case File system ("built" by SAIC) and it's eventual demise in early 2005, almost 2 years ago. At the end, they discuss the FBI's replacement for VCF, saying:

    "Last year, FBI officials announced a replacement for VCF, named Sentinel, that is projected to cost $425 million and will not be fully operational until 2009. A temporary overlay version of the software, however, is planned for launch next year. The project's main contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., will be paid $305 million and will be required to meet benchmarks as the project proceeds. FBI officials say Sentinel has survived three review sessions and is on budget and on schedule."


  • by sheldon (2322) on Friday August 18, 2006 @10:58AM (#15934681)
    We've learned this over and over again at my company. The likelihood of scrapping the whole thing because you've got nothing is logarithmic to the cost. That is, the more the costs go up, the more likely you scrap the whole thing.

    The project has to be bitten in chunks. Lay out the functionality, and then start implementing it one small piece at a time, integrating as you go along. The Big Bang approach is always doomed to failure, or explosive costs, especially when you get to the reality that to deploy you need to shut down the business for two weeks to manage the data conversion. Lot's of small $1 million projects are more likely to succeed and be at budget then one big $20 million project.

    This isn't news. It's the whole momentum behind a lot of modern development techniques such as Agile, or architectural such as SOA.

    There's also a corrolary that any project involving a big consulting company like EDS, CSC, Anderson(or whatever the hell their name isnow), etc. is more than likely going to cost double what it should.
    • by rcw-work (30090) on Friday August 18, 2006 @12:19PM (#15935407)
      Amen. From Wikipedia's Systemantics [wikipedia.org] article:

      15. A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works.
      16. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

      IMHO, John Gall's observations on political systems are incredibly apropos to technical systems.

  • One of the keys to project management is to have an understanding of the project itself. Another key is buy-in from the project sponsor. And the prime key is planning. I cannot emphasize enough how important the planning process is.

    When we moved our office we planned ad nauseum but because of that planning had contingencies in place so our operations didn't suffer. The move went off without a major hitch. We also have a fairly good I.T. project management system in place that we use.

    Because failure to under
  • by SysKoll (48967) on Friday August 18, 2006 @12:41PM (#15935557)
    This came up last year alreaady, when the Virtual Case system was officially written off. Why on Earthis it news? It is ONE YEAR OLD, for crying out loud. Are they that slow at the Washington Post?

    More likely, they are just tools for the FBI's PR branch. As in:

    FBI IT boss: "We need a new IT budget for a project that will really work, this time, we swear."
    FBI director: "Errr, that's risky. The previous two were embarrasing failures."
    PR manager: "Let's revive last year's VCFS story and put a "lesson learned" positive spin on it!"
    FBI director: "Positive spin??? On a $170 million piece of crud? Come on! Who would be stupid enough to print it?"
    PR manager: "You obviously haven't opened the Washington Post recently..."

  • complex or simple? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by geoff lane (93738) on Friday August 18, 2006 @01:03PM (#15935718)
    I wouldn't be at all surprised if 90% of the functionality could not be provided by secure web servers and good quality wiki.

    But that would be cheap and quick to implement and not much chance of making a vast profit.
  • Aha! (Score:3, Funny)

    by stunt_penguin (906223) on Friday August 18, 2006 @09:36PM (#15938394)
    'A month before delivery, you don't have SPRs,' Azmi said. 'You're making things pretty. . . . You're changing colors.'"

    So that is what Microsoft are doing with Vista. We should have known!

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