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Silicon Crisis? How Info Tech Poses Risk for Electric Restructuring

Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 1998

changes in these areas will tend to continue, long term, as experience is gained with restructured markets and related power grid operations.

Table 1 provides a summary of the computer system changes that are being caused by restructuring. The table uses a set of computer and communications areas originally developed for identifying the requirements for the Utility Communications Architecture (UCA) project. The UCA is a data communications protocol suite developed by the Electric Power Research Institute and originally intended to support enterprise-wide integration of computer systems in a vertically integrated utility. The UCA today represents a potential enabling technology for implementing aspects of the restructuring.

An important example of a factor that has been ignored by regulators and legislators is the time required to complete the computer project. Inadequacy of time, staff, and budget have been identified by renowned experts as being among the preeminent reasons for software project failure. For example, in his classic book The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Frederick Brooks states, "More software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined."

The California restructuring provides an interesting illustration of the impacts of restructuring decisions on the related computer project. The California legislature set Jan. 1, 1998 as the date for the restructuring. The computer project to develop the systems for the ISO and PX got started in about March 1997, giving the project about nine months for completion. Proper estimates of the time required for project completion were rumored to range from three to five years. That corresponds to an attempt to compress the project to under 25% of its properly estimated time. According to the Project Breathalyzer, a document for assessing Defense Department projects, any attempt to compress a project below 80 percent of its properly estimated schedule makes the project highly risky.

The California restructuring computer project appears to bear all the earmarks of a "Death March" project, which is defined by Edward Yourdon as a computer project allocated less than 50 percent of its required schedule time and/or other resources. For example, the project manager reported at an industry meeting in February 1998 that the project personnel had been working long hours seven days per week since the project began. That meant working every day, including weekends and holidays, for most of a year without a single day off. Yourdon indicates that while some Death March projects are successfully completed on time, most are not. In the California case, the Jan. 1 date was missed and extended three months. The second date was met, but only by delaying the delivery of major capabilities beyond the originally planned date.

In addition to schedule and resource adequacy, there are numerous other issues that can cause computer projects to fail. Issues that can be affected by legislative and regulatory decisions include requirements adequacy and feasibility, suitability of off-the-shelf products and standards, and misunderstanding or miscommunication among members of different professional cultures.

The Year 2000 Problem

Even as the industry revamps its operational systems, another major impact is waiting in the