Weast Moves Fast in First Test or System Collapses, Butthead Hornhair Fires Everybody

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Weast Moves Fast in First Test

By Brigid Schulte Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, September 12, 1999; Page C1

On Aug. 2, Jerry Weast made his much-anticipated start as Montgomery County's $300,000 superintendent. That same day, a long-awaited computer system came on line. "Holy mackerel," Weast said, beaming at the possibilities and loudly praising the man responsible with hearty backslaps.

One month later, the vaunted $4 million Student Information System had failed miserably, freezing for hours during the first days of school, refusing to take attendance, eating classes, offering up strange, unintelligible advice before shutting down. Hundreds of high school students lolled near counseling offices or in cafeterias or were sent home because the system could not enroll and schedule them. Principals were frustrated, registrars in tears.

And Sept. 4, the man Weast had hailed, Ronald H. Walsh, once a program manager for International Business Machines Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., became the first senior executive fired from the county's public school system in decades. Walsh was told to leave immediately, not allowed to empty his desk and banished from the central administration building.

The system collapse was the first critical test of Weast, who has promised to make gains in student achievement and shake the dust from a system that some believe had become complacent.

It was clear two cultures were clashing badly; the techno world, where system lags and crashes are almost expected, and the very human world of harried staff, angry parents and anxious, bored students slumped in hallways. Weast could not tolerate this.

All eyes were watching as he handled this embarrassing crucible. Some whispered politics, fall guy and grandstanding by a high-priced, untested leader. Others were clearly impressed and powerfully aware that Weast meant business. Now.

"This was a shot across the bow from the superintendent that he expects a certain level of performance," said Board of Education member Mona M. Signer (Rockville-Potomac). "And if people don't meet it, they will find they don't have a place here."

General Patton had arrived.

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 1: As the county's 189 schools opened and 131,000 students poured in, Weast and other senior staff visited schools, greeting students, hobnobbing with teachers and checking on the new computer system.

The system is designed to replace a clunky, ancient one, circa 1975, that was about to expire, reading the year 2000 as the year 1900. Using the latest software and a powerful database, the new system would track virtually every piece of information about a student--grades, attendance, gender, schedules, test scores, even what clubs they belong to--from prekindergarten through adult education. It would hold 14 million pieces of data.

But Wednesday, it quickly became apparent that it wasn't working. Eyes rolled when Deputy Superintendent Steven G. Seleznow asked people in schools how it worked. One registrar desperately tried to withdraw a student. She couldn't. Seleznow sat down and tried. He couldn't. He called the help desk. The line was busy. He called the supervisor. He got voice mail. He called the supervisor's supervisor. Voice mail.

At briefings that evening, Walsh assured Weast and Seleznow that the hang-ups were expected and that the computer staff and the contractor, Marconi Systems Technologies Inc., a $500 million division of Marconi, a giant defense contracting company, were "tuning" the system to make sure it worked.

"On Wednesday, I was expecting what I had been told to expect, a rollout of something that worked," Weast said. "You always expect technical problems with a new system, but not to the degree and not to the depth we were seeing. And it didn't appear anyone else expected them either."

THURSDAY, Sept. 2: More problems. One middle school secretary punched the "print" button, and her attendance list came out on a machine across the county. The system was still slow, ridiculously slow. "I made two schedule changes in an eight-hour day," said Fran Landau, a guidance counselor at Walt Whitman High School.

"Talk about wanting to cry," said Mark Kelsch, principal at Richard Montgomery High School. "You just feel so bad for these kids."

Weast had had enough.

At 5 p.m., he called the president of Marconi, Bruce Hamilton, and the president of its small Canadian software subcontractor, Brian Curry, of Administrative Assistants Ltd. Within 30 minutes, Curry and five Marconi senior vice presidents and technical experts had arrived at Weast's office. At 9:30 p.m., principals were called in for a meeting.

"They didn't tie us up and burn us at the stake, but they made it very clear what they were expecting from us," said Larry Wise, a Marconi vice president. "It's a new system, but we can't make excuses. It's got to perform as promised."

Worlds collided. The technocrats thought they had been in control. The frustrated human beings on the other end thought they were completely out of touch.

"There is always anxiety at the beginning of the school year, and when a new system is introduced, anxieties are usually raised. That's not unusual," said Curry, who has installed systems in hundreds of schools. "But the extent of the anxiety in Montgomery County, I haven't seen anything like this."

The key word was urgency. Walsh and his team planned to get the system "balanced" in a few days. Weast wanted it balanced yesterday.

"We're dealing with real children," Weast said. "If they planned on letting them wait in cafeterias for two days, that's not acceptable to the new superintendent. If they say they anticipated the problems, I saw no evidence of a plan. That really boggles the mind. That gets my Irish up."

That night, Walsh and the Marconi "Tiger Team" worked into the wee hours.

Weast told principals in an e-mail that he understood their aggravation and outlined steps to fix the system. "That was unprecedented," said Brian Porter, spokesman for the school system. "The central office never communicated with principals like that, ever."

FRIDAY, Sept. 3: "Please use the good old method of paper and pencil to take attendance today"--10:30 a.m. e-mail message from the help desk.

A computer told one secretary she couldn't take attendance on a weekend day. "If I had only known, I could have stayed at home."

The system was designed to handle about 800 users at a time. It started to clog after 200. But even in their exhaustion, some counselors said the system could be "excellent." If it worked.

By now, Weast wanted answers. He called Walsh into his office.

"Jerry is extremely tech-savvy and he knew the right questions to ask," said Board of Education member Stephen N. Abrams (At Large). "And he knew when he was not getting an answer. He simply lost any confidence in Ron."

Weast has ordered a full review. Some nagging questions predate even Walsh. Administrative Assistants Ltd., or AAL, a tiny company with 28 employees, had never installed its software in a school system this large. And although it was supposed to be phased in, that didn't happen because AAL didn't have the software ready.

That evening, Signer asked Weast whether he planned to return home to North Carolina to see his wife, Linda. "You can't leave in the middle of a crisis," he said. "That isn't the modeling behavior of a leader."

SATURDAY, Sept. 4: The river had jumped its banks, Weast said, using a favorite metaphor, and now he was in full get-out-the-sandbags mode. More than 100 people--computer staff, registrars, attendance secretaries--flowed into and out of schools and the central office building. Their kids played video games as they worked.

A casually dressed Weast was everywhere, asking questions, eating pizza with staff, stressing the urgency of their work, watching them do it. Another memo to principals went out, this time recognizing that everyone needed more training and promising they'd get it.

"I was impressed with the ability of our people," Weast said, cautiously optimistic that the worst was over. "And I was aware that what had been done before was not even close to being enough."

Late that afternoon, Weast called Walsh into the office and sacked him. While details are sketchy and neither man will comment, the firing sent shock waves through the school system.

Walsh had been "loaned" by Lockheed Martin to the school system in late 1997. A letter in December that year from then-Superintendent Paul L. Vance praised his work.

Walsh became chief information technology officer in April 1998. "He was very structured, very professional. I was very impressed with him," said a former colleague, who asked not to be named. "He understood everything he needed to."

But there were problems. Walsh had a reputation for not holding contractors' feet to the fire and not recognizing when they had oversold their skills and should be dumped. In one such case, involving the payroll and employee records system, a contractor terminated in May is just steps away from litigation.

That system, which won't be running until November, has had county officials up in arms. County administrator Bruce Romer has expressed "grave concern" that progress wasn't being made until Weast arrived.

"That's been a welcome change," Romer said.

On Thursday, calls to the help desk dropped 45 percent, to 245. Still, students such as Johanna Pemberton were in limbo. The Richard Montgomery senior was in guidance counselor John Randall's office again trying to get a schedule. She'd been doing homework for one history class she was now forced to drop. "I have to worry about college," she said. "It's been very stressful."

Randall was working on another student's schedule. "Okay, it saved this time," he said tiredly. "Let's see if it'll print." Linden Ellis, a sophomore, scrunched her face and crossed all her fingers.

Weast said he recognized people like Randall were exhausted, spending emotional energy he'd rather they used to help students. That justified his quick action, he said, not the pressure of proving himself in his first crisis.

"If I am to raise student achievement, the last thing I need is for the students I need to reach most to be left out," Weast said. "I'm not trying to send any messages. I'm just trying to get service to children."

) 1999 The Washington Post Company


-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), September 14, 1999


"The system is designed to replace a clunky, ancient one, circa 1975, that was about to expire, reading the year 2000 as the year 1900."

"the vaunted $4 million Student Information System had failed miserably, freezing for hours during the first days of school, refusing to take attendance, eating classes, offering up strange, unintelligible advice before shutting down"

"Ronald H. Walsh, once a program manager for International Business Machines Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., became the first senior executive fired from the county's public school system in decades"

Poster boy for the DGI's? He's got my vote.

-- @ (@@@.@), September 14, 1999.

Homer -

Only the PM, not "everybody", got sacked. He couldn't deliver satisfactory answers to the new superintendent (the executive sponsor) after a month of production failures. That'll get you removed in many places throughout industry. "You or your replacement will fix this problem." Backslaps at cutover and a pink slip a month later. Ah, the wonderful life of the project manager...

From the accompanying articles on the Post, the new super is anything but a hornhair. He's apparently a classic "driver" personality: focussed, task-oriented, data-driven, and probably hell-on-wheels to be around. Also something of a technophile, for whatever that's worth. A fixer or turn-around artist, a "General Patton" (according to the article.) One of the best execs I ever worked with fits this description to a "T". Not a hornhair at all.

School systems are awful to deal with, and that PM may have banked on their "non-accountable" culture to give him breathing room to fix the problems. The new super doesn't do "non-accountable." Dude had posters printed up showing each school's test scores and the name of the principal in big letters at the bottom. *gulp*

-- Mac (sneak@lurk.hid), September 14, 1999.


Let the blame games begin. Well anyway he can be the first nominee for DGI posterboy.

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), September 14, 1999.


"Blame games?" The taxpayers hand this joker $4 million for a compliant computer system, and he hands them a pile of crap. He deserves to get fired - simple as that.

-- @ (@@@.@), September 14, 1999.


I was reacting to the spin of the Washington Post. Their headline implies little if any problem.

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@bellfry.com), September 14, 1999.


Point well taken.

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@bellfry.com), September 14, 1999.

I wonder how many times this type of fiasco will happen between now and next June.....

-- Kristi (securxsys@cs.com), September 14, 1999.


Corruption is the government's middle name. There is probably so much embezzling going on right now, and the records will be so screwed up we'll never know where the money went for all these computers. They'll just raise our taxes some more.

-- @ (@@@.@), September 14, 1999.

I don't believe for a MOMENT that they had problems lasting that long!

ANY Y2K problems will be fixed in 2-3 HOURS, right?

RIGHT? .... RIGHT? ....

-- Dennis (djolson@pressenter.com), September 14, 1999.

Now, Dennis, why would you even THINK this is a Y2K problem???


-- Chuck, a night driver (rienzoo@en.com), September 14, 1999.

Chuck, I'm 90% sure you were being sarcastic, but to be safe: the article clearly states that the previous system was about to "expire" due to inability to handle year 2000. So, even if the problem(s) per se that the system has have nothing to do literally with 2000, or any date for that matter, it clearly is there only because of Y2K and should be considered as an early Y2K disruption. And a great example of what a fouled up system can do!

Ahhh, yes, Montgomery County, Maryland, home for that Koskinen flunky Steve Davis, and supposed Y2K compliant poster child as a role model for all the other counties. Gawd.

-- King of Spain (madrid@aol.com), September 14, 1999.

Instead of trying to install a computer system than can do everything,why didn't Walsh go with a simpler system that would get the job done and thus be easier to work out any bugs? It is getting awfully late in the game for large, grandiose projects.

-- Stanley Lucas (StanleyLucas@WebTv.net), September 15, 1999.

You should be able to get an awful lot of computer power for $4 million dollars, especially when all you have to do is keep track of 131,000 students.

When you work at IBM you make a lot of friends in the computer industry. When you work for County government you can pretty much spend their money wherever you want as long as you give them a receipt. This guy probably has some very happy friends who made some pretty good cash for doing a whole lot o' nuthin. Such is government.

-- @ (@@@.@), September 15, 1999.

Ahhh, bureaucrat-ese. Big-brother-style tracking of students from K-12.

Another couple of reasons to homeschool?? I feel overwhelmed with my home schooling responsibilities, but they're cake compared to *that*!!


-- Denise (sbryce@coastlink.com), September 16, 1999.

From NHNE Update 60: 9/15/99:

" ... here is a letter from Steve Davis of Coalition 2000 who helped implement and manage Montgomery County, MD's Y2K efforts.

Montgomery County, you may remember, has long been held up as one of the nation's most progressive Y2K communities. Among other things, it was positively showcased in the special report 60 Minutes ran on Washington D.C. in May of 1999.

Steve writes:

"As many of you know, I retired from Montgomery County, MD last Spring after helping to implement and manage their Y2K project. Because we published best practices, methodologies, and metrics, we got a lot of national attention. We planned to be done by 12/31/1999 and test through 1999. Last December they held the first large scale Y2K exercise and got a lot of positive press -- they said the 'problem was fixed.'

"Recently the Chief Administrative Officer was on a magazine cover with the heading: 'This Man Survived Y2K, Will You?'. The project and its leaders are good, smart, hard-working people that have given their best effort. However, it now appears that all is not well with the project. One of the systems that was rolled forward for the test is still not 'in the bag' and many others are not completed. The County Council just got the bad news -- read what the local paper has to say and realize that few projects will be 100% successful."

"I am less optimistic today than I was yesterday. I hope that this will be a wake up call for the media and the public -- all may not be as well as the PR makes it seem."

Steve Davis
Coalition 2000

Here's where the article in the local paper that Steve is referring to can be found:

"County's Y2K-Readiness Questioned"

-- Ashton & Leska in Cascadia (allaha@earthlink.net), September 16, 1999.

Oh S**T.

And all of this from a system THAT WAS FIXED, in a county TOUTED NATIONALLY for being ready ahead of time, that tested systems, that basked in the national publicity to show that "everything will be okay..."

Now, image the problems in the 50% of the counties that are doing nothing, in the 45% of the local governments that are only partially finished, and the cities that are only 20% complete.....

You ain't seen nothing yet...

-- Robert A. Cook, PE (Marietta, GA) (cook.r@csaatl.com), September 16, 1999.

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