How Not to Make IT Decisions

The university I work at is in the process of providing an example of how not to handle technological change, especially when dealing with technology that is likely to become obsolete in the future.

Six years ago the university introduced a new magnetic stripe ID card and also reached an agreement with a bank to link some financial services. There was a basic chip embedded on the front of the card that turned it into a smart card capable of securely handling transfers of small amounts of cash. The system was used entirely on campus.

I could go to a card reader on campus, for example, and have $20 deducted from my savings account and added to my employee ID card. Then I could use the ID card for everything from making copies in the library to buying Diet Coke at McDonald’s. It never really caught on, except for two core user groups (based on my personal observation) — a) people like me who did a lot of research in the library and b) foreign students. I’d say 90 percent of the students I’ve seen using the system are foreign students (maybe because smart cards are becoming common outside the U.S., but pretty much non-existent here?)

Anyway, the bank that the university was working with was recently bought by another bank. The new bank says it is not interested in continuing the smart card technology and the university hasn’t been able to find another vendor, so effective May 30, 2001, the system is gone for good.

That would be bad enough. I can’t believe they went through all of the trouble, expense, and time for a system that lasted a mere 6 years. You’d think they’d at least have a commitment in place in case of just such a contingency.

Even worse is the timetable. People with smart cards have until May 30, 2001, to redeem any money they have stored on their smart cards. After that, the money goes “poof.” The problem with that, of course, being that most students left campus two weeks ago with the conclusion of finals week and won’t be back until late August.

I’m sure they’ll be happy to learn that the university waited until April 26 to issue a memo noting that the deadline is May 30, 2001 to redeem any value off of these cards.

Which sort of explains another technological fiasco they’re embarking on. Somebody in the upper levels of management decided there would be nothing cooler than to set up an 802.11b wireless network all over campus. They’ve been going around with various signal testing instruments to figure out the best places to deploy the system and expect to have it up in the Fall.

The problem is that the security system in 802.11b is known to have a number of flaws that only recently came to light, but the official line here is that the security issues for a wireless and a wired LAN are exactly the same. Now at the moment nobody’s found an easy way to hack their way into an 802.11b system, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

Regardless, do you really want to spend a lot of money on a system that some 15-year-old in Finland might render unusable at any moment? Not to mention that although bigger and better versions of the 802.11 standard are in the works, its becoming pretty clear that it is very unlikely there will be any backward compatibility or cost efficient upgrade path for 802.11b.

Which doesn’t matter to me. If someone wants to go to the lengths of breaking into the wireless system I’m setting up at home, they’re not going to find much and more importantly if a hack does ever become widespread I’ll just ditch the equipment and be out what, $300-$500 or so. But the university is going to sink a lot more than $300-$500 in it (plus I imagine there would be a lot more of interest on the president’s laptop than on mine).

I know why large organizations do these sorts of things — layers of bureaucracy — but it still never fails to amaze me.

One last silly technology story. At one place I worked we used a lot of audiovisual control equipment to switch between literally dozens of different audio and video sources. One of the main pieces of equipment — which was originally packaged with a proprietary control system — was on the edge of breaking down and both it and the control system needed replacing.

So a single manager who never actually used the equipment made the purchasing decision by himself and ended up with a $30,000 piece of junk which had less functionality than a number of $6,000 to $8,000 systems on the market at that time. But, it had a visual, point-and-click mouse-driven interface which the manager thought was the wave of the future, so that was the route we had to go.

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