City of Austin's IT Department

by Joe Barr

There have been some major changes in the City of Austin's IT department since last I visited with then CIO Brownlee Bowmer. For one thing, Bowmer has transferred to a new position with the City's Waste and Wastewater department. Next, one of the first things his replacement did was to reorganize the department. For another, the city is now very serious about finding ways to cut costs.

As a result of all the above, the city's attitude towards the use of Linux and open source software has taken a 180 degree turn. When I first started tracking the City of Austin/Microsoft/Linux saga two years ago, a deputy director in the IT department told me that if he found Linux being used on a desktop he would have it removed.

Not long after that conversation, the city signed an Enterprise Agreement licensing deal with Microsoft. It seemed to many, myself included, that even though they were chanting "TCO, TCO" as they signed the deal, being cost effective was the last thing on their mind. That's not the case today.

I recently had the opportunity to spend some quality phone time with Pete Collins, the City's acting CIO. I'm impressed. Keep in mind that I have dealt with IT management in state and municipal governments for many years, both as a consultant and manager with EDS and as a journalist. I've met some good folk and I've met some that make Dilbert's PHB look sharp. I've never been more impressed more quickly than I was with Collins.

I asked Collins how he ended up in Austin as the CIO. He took me back a few years with his reply. He finished college after he got out of the Air Force, where he had been a jet engine mechanic. He said he learned self-discipline in the service. He studied accounting at Dominican College in California and planned to become a CPA. But in his last year of school, his dean approached him about a new class being sponsored by Fireman's Fund. The class was on COBOL. Only three people from the school would be allowed to attend. He took a programming aptitude test and was selected as one of three. That was his first experience with computers. In his own words, "It was better than a drug." It was at this point that I began to suspect there might be a geek side to Collins.

Although he completed his degree in accounting, it was also the end of his accounting career. He dove head-first into computers. He worked with Unix back in the day, writing shell scripts to automate data collection, learning C, even writing an application called "The Friendly Administrator" to help AT&T 3B2 customers manage their systems.

Any lingering doubts I had about Collins' geek side vanished when he explained how he managed to compress a 750 meg database. The database contained 21 pages of financial history for more than 5,000 firms. He needed it to fit on an 80 meg drive. He began by trying the Huffman compression algorithm. It didn't squeeze tight enough. It would take the air out of the text portion of the database just fine, but numbers were more difficult and didn't compress as well. One day when he was driving home, it came to him. He converted the numbers to base-256 and voila, it worked and the entire database now fit easily on the 80-meg drive.

There have been a lot of turns in the road for Collins' career since then. Computer burnout led him to switch jobs and take a position as a sheriff's deputy in California. In fact, when he relocated to Texas it was to join the Austin police department. While there he got involved again with computers and networking and design. One thing led to another, and with his track record at the city he was the logical choice to fill the role of acting CIO when the need arose. The acting part of his title may very well disappear in the next few months.

Of course, having a geek side doesn't equate to being a good manager. As many have pointed out, and Collins freely admits, many great geeks make horrible managers. Collins seems to have that rare ability to balance the soul of a geek with managerial savvy. Whereas a true geek might spend countless hours experimenting and toying with the latest technology just for the sake of technology, Collins wants to see results.

The first item on his agenda after assuming the post a couple of months ago was to conduct one-on-one interviews with everyone in the department. That's over 200 people. He told me "I wanted to get a pulse for the department. I wanted to see supervisors and managers. I wanted to personalize it, to get to know them." He also wanted to personally deliver a message to each and every one. The message he gave them was "I am customer oriented, and if our customers don't want to do business with us, then we go out of business. And I have no intention of going out of business."

It was during the one-on-one's that he heard a number of people suggest that he take a look at Linux. They described its benefits and how it could save the city dollars. He listened, but when they asked that he look at it with an open mind, he told them "Save your breath. I'm already there."

Collins had already been thinking of a pilot for Linux, but only for the department of public safety. Now, as CIO for the city, he has the opportunity to do a pilot on a larger scale. And that is exactly what he is doing. A project manager for the pilot will be named in the next day or so. The length of the pilot and the specifics of exactly what will be tested, and by whom, are not yet set in stone. Collins hopes that what he calls a "non-emotional Linux pilot" will allow the city to test and quantify what savings can be achieved in a number of areas.

Collins said the pilot will include the use of Linux not only as a server but for desktop usage as well. In fact, he is going to be running Linux on his own desktop so that he has a good feel for what his pilot customers are experiencing.

He is especially interested in seeing what sort of performance and savings he can get out of running office applications on a server with terminals as the desktop, ala the Largo, Florida, solution reported by Robin Miller.

I asked Collins about the possibility of embedded Linux being used in mobile computers like those in APD squad cars. He told me that those devices are currently Windows-based, but that he has asked Motorola, who makes them, about the possibility of using Linux instead.

In closing, I asked a two questions about things with the potential to cast dark shadows over the pilot: Microsoft and SCO. Is he concerned about Microsoft trying to have him removed from office for doing a Linux pilot? No. He has already met with Microsoft. They know he wants to lower licensing costs, and they know he will be doing a Linux pilot. Is he concerned about SCO's sword-rattling? No, but like any competent IT manager he will be keeping an eye on the situation.

Collins is not a Linux or an open source advocate. He does not envision the day will come when the city runs exclusively on Linux and open source. His vision of the future of IT at the City of Austin is of a hybrid environment: using the right tool for the right job without blind allegience to any platform. My bet is that he is exactly the right guy to make that vision a reality.

Joe Barr (joe@barr.com) is not just another freelancer, he is a loveable old dweeb. He started programming in 1974. His first personal computer was a Trash 80 model one. He's been writing exclusively about Linux, network security and open source since 1998. He won the ASBPE (American Society of Business Publication Editors) Silver Medal for Best Web Commentary in 2001 for an ITWorld.com column called "Dumbing down Linux."

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