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The Big Dig and difficult software

Software is magic – sometimes it’s magic out of control. Bad software projects, SOA or otherwise, need good analogies. So, we talk about The Long March, The Project from Hell and so on. A recent conversation adds a new analogy to the canon: The Big Dig.

When we spoke with MIT Systems Researcher Jeanne Ross, she pointed to Boston’s Big Dig as an archetypal muffed project.

This was a massive federal project to replace Boston’s Central Artery, which added a tunnel to the airport and replaced an elevated highway with a depressed one. It started in earnest in the late 1980s or early 1990s, depending on how you estimate “earnest.” Originally set for 1998 completion and budgeted at $2.8 billion, the eventual cost was over $15 billion (by some estimates, the final tag was $22 billion) and its completion occurred late in 2007.

From Ross’s point of view, The Big Dig was an example of classic underestimation of the kind that can happen in software development. How much are we spending on an existing system while we are laboriously rebuilding it? Some people don’t deal with those figures. Here is Ross’s take:

I highlight the Big Dig here in Boston because the thing cost over $15 billion dollars. The idea was: “We’re going to take this highway that goes over the city, and we’re going to put it under the city.” Brilliant idea! The main thing they underestimated was what happens to [existing systems] while you are building the new capability. They were just trying all kinds of new technologies and approaches to doing things, and they really had no way of estimating how long it would take or how much it would cost.

The lesson in it for architects in IT is that at least a third of the $15 billion was spent on just making it possible to continue to do business, for cars to continue to be able to navigate their way to the airport, to the office, wherever it is they’re trying to get to, even while this major transformation was taking place downtown. So, a third of the money is not going towards the new capability, it’s going towards being able to continue to exist while you’re building the capability. I think that’s a thing as a rule that architects would like to shy away from. It feels like such a bad use of your money.

To read the rest of Ross on business capabilities, go to “MIT’s Ross says exploiting IT business capabilities is next EA step.”  Ross, director and principal research scientist at the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) at the MIT Sloan School of Management, spoke with us shortly after speaking at The Open Group Conference in San Francisco. – Jack Vaughan

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