Saturday, May 25, 2013

Failure of the BBC's "Digital Media Initiative" and other large IT projects

I still describe myself as a Broadcast Engineer rather than a project manager - and in fairness I do spend more time looking at cable-schedules and schematics than Gantt charts. However; I am often responsible for other people's money in achieving what they want in TV and data facilities. Compared to the BBC DMI project the largest project I've had overall financial responsibility for came to a bit more than 1% of the size of that gig so I am in no means an expert. However - I have worked for dozens of large and small broadcasters and I think I've seen some of the best and worst aspects of other people's project management styles.
I feel sorry for John Linwood - the BBC's CTO who has been suspended over the whole debacle. It's telling that the Beeb now have a CTO rather than a Chief Engineer as that latter term implies that you've had a career in broadcast engineering - you've calibrated monitors, fixed studio cameras (and then racked them in live productions), installed Media Composer (and supported the editors), replaced the head-drums in VTRs as well as the myriad other bits of experience that the top technical job at the world's most prestigious broadcaster would imply. John is a similar age to me and so I'd expect him to remember mk.2 telecines, tubed cameras and 1" VTRs but he's a software guy; ex-Yahoo, ex-Microsoft and it's there you'll find both the justification for him being the Beeb's top technical guy and the reasons for the pickle he's now in. The DMI was a software project BUT software projects have a huge propensity to fail. Around 30% of software projects in commercial industry fail - but that's OK; you have to take risks and great things don't come if there wasn't a danger of failure (that's why it's a risk!). However - in government IT projects the risk of failure is an awful lot higher - typically 70% for publicly-funded IT projects. You'd expect project manager who are being paid with tax-dollars to be more risk-averse but the opposite seems true. Clearly this has been the case at the BBC with the DMI. 
Ross Anderson has written extensively about this kind of thing; he did an interview with Stephen Fry on Radio 4 a couple of years ago which makes a lot of these points; as an aside his brilliant book "Security Engineering" is now in the public domain.

Here are a few thoughts on big-organisation technical projects;
  • The danger of "not invented here" - when I was at the BBC most custom projects (i.e. equipment and solutions not bought in from external manufacturers) were often specified and implemented by Research Department. In fact too many projects were as there was an attitude of "nobody understands what we do except us" and so consequently too many things were done by people who might be doing it for the first or second time (chief engineers of facilities will have designed/built maybe two or three machines rooms in their twenty year career - I've done it dozens of times in the last decade!). 
  • "Gold plating" everything - In the late eighties/early nineties there was a guy in BBC Research Department who liked the DEC MicroVax 3100-series running VMS (at the time it was a £35k industrial computer) and so whenever a project needed an external computer we'd see a MicroVax appear in the machine room. Automated upload of new weather symbols to the Quantel Paintbox - throw a MicroVax at it. Download realtime financial data from Reuters to make the Aston strap for the breakfast news financial segment; control the caption generator with a MicroVax! However - when it fell on the maintenance department to make something work they typically used a BBC Micro (we all had them at home and new how to program/homebrew them) - the ASTED project to control external logo generators and make them work with the Aston caption machine for news programmes was all done via a £350 BBC Micro, not a £35k MicroVax.
  • In a similair vein I had a friend who was working on the NHS unified records system for EDS - he spent eighteen months working on a new secure-VPN protocol; that's not a problem that needs solving! That one is already done with a choice of closed and open-software solutions.
  • Don't despise project management methodologies. Lots of engineers have a distrust of Prince2 and it's ilk and for sub-£1m projects the overheads are too onerous, but there are so many valuable lessons that proper project managers bring. In a recent discussion with a colleague about how one project had turned quite painful we realised that the PM101 principle of fully involving the users had been almost totally missed by the customer and it was proving hard to get the poor editors and assistants to buy-into the new system once they saw the implementation.
  • "Good, Fast, Cheap - choose only two" - this is the warning PMs often give and it's regarded as customers as a prohibition rather than a good principle to run a project by. The tension of having to hold those three ideas and adjust the sliders as necessary means you don't push them all to the max and expect the best outcome. If they had regarded this principle there is no way they would have let the thing drag on for five years. Timely projects are the best kind.
  • Specify, specify, specify - the more you leave to fortune or to the contractors' discretion means you have too many undefined problems.
  • Don't disregard experience - the engineer who taught me all I really know about broadcast SI - Chris Clegg - had one thing he used to say about designing facilities; "...given a crew of qualified operators they should be able to run this studio/OB truck/machine room with only fifteen minutes instruction from the usual operator". You can't do that without intimately understanding how TV workflows interact with facilities and how operators and assistants operate. The point is that the best broadcast project managers have years of experience in those areas. Professional project managers (who aren't experienced engineers) don't have those insights.
One thing I can't understand is why Siemens were initially given the project; are they renowned for any of the things that were trying to be achieved? - big database, large video storage, transcoding, version management and the underlying filesystem to make it all hang together? Given that it also has to work with your editing, transmission, and VOD platforms why on Earth not get Avid, Isilon, Google etc involved; OneFS for the backend and GFS for the database sound like they were designed for this (and they also run most of the big Internet media sites).

It'll be interesting to see if the BBC takes on an experienced engineer as their next CTO.

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