by Angela Genusa

Overhauling Dallas’ IT System

Apr 15, 200114 mins
IT Leadership


* Discover how Dallas’s new CIO plans to overhaul the city’s outdated IT

* Learn about the technical difficulties of the project

* Find out about the CIO’s unique political challenges

“It’s a nightmare, our Achilles’ heel,” says Dan McFarland, describing the city of Dallas’s antique, homegrown operating system. Suddenly, the last city employee who knows anything about it walks past the glassed-in conference room where McFarland is holding forth. “There goes Harold right there!” says McFarland, the 56-year-old Dallas CIO. “That’s the infamous Harold! If he gets killed on an elevator, we’re screwed.”

McFarland may be laughing, but he’s not kidding. Harold Nogle, 59, is the only programmer left in Dallas who knows the ins and outs of LINC, the city’s 32-year-old operating system. No one, not even Nogle, can recall what the initials once stood for. “The majority of the people who worked for the city who were instrumental in implementing LINC have all retired–or are dead,” says McFarland. Then, taking a potshot at the technology he inherited when he arrived as CIO in April 1999, he roars, “And if they’re not, they deserve to be!”

His face grows solemn. “Harold is our foremost expert on [the system]. So when he was over in Europe for three weeks, everybody was breaking out in a sweat. We really are at risk.”

Come again? Dallas, the high-tech hub also known as Silicon Prairie, is tottering on a three-decades-old infrastructure supported by one 59-year-old programmer? That’s right, McFarland says. “See, all of our key systems are written in LINC, like our 911 dispatch, 311 information, payroll,” he explains.

Michael D. Jones, assistant director of CIS, interrupts. “Let me clarify,” he says. “Dispatch is on LINC; 911 is not on LINC.” “Which is the same thing,” McFarland interjects and mimics a 911 caller. “’Hey, I’m getting shot!’ Operators at 911 take the call, but then dispatch [relies on LINC].” He lowers his voice. “I don’t want to describe Armageddon here,” he says. “What I want to describe is we really have a plan, and we recognize we have to move on this as quickly as possible. That is absolutely our number-one objective.”

Others agree with McFarland’s assessment of Dallas’s IT. Governing magazine gave the city’s technology a dismal D+ rating in its recent report “Grading the Cities 2000.” “IT has long been a mess in Dallas,” said the magazine, a monthly for state and local government officials published by Congressional Quarterly. “Most of the information systems in the city aren’t integrated, and it’s difficult to get access to the data that exists.”

Welcome to McFarland’s world. A world that consists of sweating bullets each day over the city’s pitifully outdated technology. A world in which his job is to convince City Hall politicians–who are too busy wheeling and dealing for the latest glamour deal, such as the city’s new sports arena or Dallas’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics–to pay attention to boring computer cabling in the basement. But McFarland isn’t the type to boo-hoo in his beer. The CIO–Dallas’s first–says he has a plan. A multimillion-dollar, Texas-size plan to toss out the technological tumbleweeds that blow through City Hall and turn it into a 21st century e-government center. He says he sees IT as the “great enabler” to make city government more efficient and attract top companies and the best and brightest employees. In a move that analysts are calling an “industry milestone project,” McFarland plans to rebuild the infrastructure using a relatively new technology that’s never been implemented on such a major scale.Pull it off, and McFarland could walk away a hero. Fail, and he could have a digital version of Boston’s Big Dig on his hands. And failure–given that Dallas City Hall is infamously fickle and fractious, the task is king-size, and McFarland’s background is chiefly in telecommunications, not IT–is a definite possibility.

Broken-Down Palace

Nationally, Dallas is viewed as a key high-tech center. The high-tech industry is, in fact, growing faster in Silicon Prairie than in Silicon Valley. Dallas’s high-tech sector–made up of the data processing, semiconductor and telecommunications industries–is roughly three times as big as that of its high-tech neighbor, Austin. The region accounts for nearly half of the state’s technology revenue and more than 40 percent of Texas’s high-tech jobs. The “Telecom Corridor,” in the suburb of Richardson, boasts over 600 companies and the largest concentration of telecom companies in the country. Dallas is now the nation’s fifth-largest cybercity in high-tech employment and the largest cybercity in Texas, according to a study by the American Electronics Association.

When it comes to the public sector, however, Big D isn’t so big. In Governing’s report-card rating of 35 cities, Dallas was one of only four to score a D, joining much smaller cities, such as Nashville, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio, at the bottom of the list. And not only do independent observers give the city’s IT the thumbs down, so do City Hall insiders. “Essentially the city of Dallas is behind the times with its technology largely because of its lack of investment in new technology and a lack of leadership to provide the technology necessary to the city,” says Robert Melton, the city’s former auditor who resigned last summer. McFarland replaced former IS Director David Morgan, who had been with the city for 16 years, and filled a spot that had been run by interim directors during the Y2K critical months of December 1998 through April 1999.

Just how outdated is the city’s technology? The key applications run on the LINC operating system and mainframe computers. The police, city attorney, fire and water departments, and financial management system each have their own local area networks, all 5 to 8 years old, and another, equally old LAN serves all other department systems. Installed in 1985, the city’s 911 system has never been upgraded, and it and the 311 system, installed in 1995, must be replaced. Telephones run on an ancient analog Centrex system, and there are more than 5,000 manufacturer-discontinued phone sets for which parts are no longer available. “The probability for failure increases as the systems get older and older,” McFarland says.

Forget integration and standardization. The city has eight database programs, five e-mail systems, six separate large data networks and dozens of smaller networks. Five word-processing systems are used. PCs are mixed with Macintosh computers as are operating systems that range from Windows 3.0 to 98. Maintaining nonstandardized equipment and software configurations for the 6,000 data users and 8,500 voice users in the city’s 36 departments is “literally impossible,” McFarland says, and costs the city millions of dollars annually. Dallas offers no e-government services whatsoever, and the city’s website, with its slogan, “Dallas, the city that works: diverse, vibrant and progressive,” is little more than a City Hall vanity page.

But McFarland insists he can turn all this around–and in record time–putting Dallas’s public-sector IT on par with that of Austin, San Francisco and Boston, which won with a solid B ranking from Governing magazine (see “The Boston IT Party,” Page 86). “We’ll be ahead of all of them by the time we’re through,” he boasts.

The Man Behind The Plan

Some might wonder if McFarland is suited to tackle such an enormous challenge. A ruddy-faced native of Greenfield, Mass., he has a jocular, bull-in-a-china-shop style. When the former Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran pitches his master plan, he punctuates it with drill-sergeant-like calls to action. “You’ve got to go for it! Huh! Huh!” He also has a proclivity for hyperbole. When initially interviewed, he stated he had been “the head of IT” in San Francisco when in fact he had been general manager for the department of electricity and telecommunications. McFarland began his career in the telecom industry in 1971 with New York and New England Telephone and Telegraph, where he spent 14 years. From 1985 to 1991, he held various positions with companies specializing in telecommunications and communications networking services. His initiation into the public sector came during his five-year tenure, from 1991 to 1996, in San Francisco.

McFarland’s performance there has received mixed reviews. Angela Alioto, former president of the board of supervisors for the city and county of San Francisco, gives McFarland kudos for his handling of multiple contracts in his department during a controversial period in city politics. “Dan was Mr. Information,” she says. “I vividly remember Dan always being available, always well-informed and always prepared. One thing has to be said about Dan: He was respected. That’s rare when you’re in the middle of a storm.” However, Ed Harrington, controller of the city and county of San Francisco, who headed information technology during McFarland’s tenure, says, “I don’t believe he was viewed as being very successful.”

Between San Francisco and Dallas, McFarland was president and chief operating officer of a communications integration systems company in Iowa, followed by two short-lived stints: one as IS director for Boone County, Mo., and another as director of distributed computing services with MCI Systemhouse (bought by Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems). McFarland was appointed to his position as CIO of Dallas, where he reports to the city manager, just eight months before the Y2K deadline. Of his initial thoughts on the condition of the city’s IT when he arrived, he says, “Let’s just say, it’s probably one of the largest undertakings I’d ever make–a daunting task.”

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Shortly after he was appointed, McFarland began shaking up the IS department. In his two-year tenure, he says, he has turned over 66 percent of the staff. He assembled a new team of direct reports, recruiting Jones and others from the private sector. Jones says, “Working for a city government is usually a very secure environment to work in. It’s job security. Now all of a sudden since Dan came on board, it’s just the opposite. We’re doing massive amounts of change, bringing on new skills sets….”

Next, McFarland prepared a strategic plan by analyzing the findings from several assessments of the city’s technology written by consultancies. His recommendation? Tear it down and start from scratch. He ultimately decided on a voice-over-IP package proposed by Southwestern Bell (SBC Corp.). Voice over IP blends conventional Internet and phone communications (voice and data) into one network and will allow city employees to use a variety of new communications applications. For example, employees can combine voice mail, e-mail and faxes into a single message.

Last fall, McFarland persuaded the City Council to approve a five-year, $33 million contract with Southwestern Bell. (He won over city councilors by arguing that voice over IP could be implemented within a two-year period and within his existing budget through savings achieved by eliminating ongoing maintenance contracts, circuit costs and other equipment purchases.) Now in its early stages, the project will entail replacing the existing city government computer and phone networks with one integrated voice-and-data pipeline. The entire city government complex will be rewired with approximately 4 million feet (750 miles) of new cable. The network will serve 8,000 city employees at 281 citywide sites linked through core sites including City Hall, the main police department, the library, the convention center and the city’s communications complex.

Voice-over-IP technology is still in the early stages of development, and widespread adoption has been slow because of latency and reliability hurdles. To date, it has not been implemented in a project of this size and scale. But McFarland believes the technology is rapidly improving. Besides, he argues, the risk to the city is minimal because it has so little to lose. “Our foundation is failing, our voice network is totally inadequate, and our data networks are not meeting our needs. So, what is our risk? The risks of not doing it are far greater.”

In addition to the voice-over-IP infrastructure, McFarland’s master plan includes:

Open-system servers and commercial software.

6,000 new standardized PCs for all city employees.

A citywide employee intranet.

E-government functionality on the city’s website for transactions such as parking tickets and building permits.

A new $4.8 million 911 and 311 system and a $9 million customer-request management system for 311.

Implementing a $10 million, three-year initiative to install new mobile data terminals in law enforcement and emergency vehicles.

A new $11 million automated human resources payroll system.

All this is slated to roll out, in phases, in the next six to 24 months. To accomplish this plan, McFarland will have to make creative use of his annual budget. His fiscal year 2001-2002 budget comprises approximately $46 million for operating expenses, $25 million for vendor contracts and $24 million for capital projects. Also on McFarland’s wish list is a new 800MHz radio system, which would cost $30 million to $50 million and would probably have to be funded through a special bond proposal.

The Emperor’s New It

Is McFarland promising the moon? He certainly has his work cut out for him in Dallas, where, it’s said, the business of City Hall isn’t governing, it’s making money. And Dallas has done that remarkably well. The city’s rate of economic expansion is one of the highest in the nation. But while rolling out the red carpet for high-tech companies, city leaders have largely ignored the public sector. “Infrastructure isn’t glamorous,” says Donald Evans, CIO of Public Technology, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., dedicated to advancing the use of technology in cities and counties. “Putting in plumbing, putting in pipes and digging ditches–you don’t cut ribbons over this kind of stuff.”

Mayor Ron Kirk, in particular, has been criticized by some for his commitment to high-profile, big-ticket projects at the expense of basic city services. In 1999 he persuaded city voters to approve a $125 million bond to build a new sports arena that will be the home of the Dallas Mavericks NBA basketball team and the Stars NHL hockey team. City leaders have boasted that the arena, slated to open this summer, will be the most wired public venue in the world. Never mind that Dallas currently has one of the most poorly wired city halls in the nation.

“You don’t dare say that the emperor has no clothes,” says Sharon Boyd, a former candidate for the Dallas City Council and editor of an alternative Dallas news website. “No city manager wants to tell the mayor that they need money to upgrade computer equipment or any of the other boring realities of maintaining a city. The mayor does not like to be bothered with details like aging computers and potholes.” (Kirk declined to be interviewed for this article, as did McFarland’s supervisor, City Manager Ted Benavides.)

Boyd believes that the Dallas political machine–notorious for initially underfunding and overhyping projects and leaving managers high and dry when costs balloon–will not back McFarland when he comes to them for additional funding. If the current information technology overhaul goes over budget, McFarland would have to go back to appeal to the City Council for either more funds or a bond proposal to be pitched to taxpayers. “I see real money not coming to him when it’s time to start spending it,” Boyd says. “This isn’t the kind of thing that Ron Kirk likes to go out and sell to the public.’’

A cold hard look at the figures in the city’s fiscal budget does makes one wonder if all the talk about making Dallas the most wired city hall in the nation is just that–talk. Out of an overall $1.8 billion budget, the city is allocating $24 million for technology improvements. IT ranks right up there with parks and recreation, which is getting a $17 million piece of the pie.

Despite all the obstacles, his sketchy IT background and skepticism from critics, McFarland believes he can pull it off. When asked if he thinks he can overhaul the city’s IT on time, within budget and without major snafus, he says, not once but three times, “Yes we do!” And then he adds, “It’s not a problem–not if you know what the hell you’re doing.”