Senior DBA responds to latest track and trace fiasco

“It’s just not a database!”

I have worked in IT for thirty years now, including many years as a senior database administrator (DBA) for some big businesses. Databases have been a passion of mine for years and always will be. As a child, I’d organise Smarties by colour for goodness sake. I take a lot of pride in databases and find it sad to see them so often implemented poorly as do many of the great DBAs I have worked with over the years.

Yet I find it staggering that many businesses and organisation are still dependent on HR, payroll and finance business functions that rely on overly complex spreadsheets and individuals with a basic understanding of ‘how data or systems work’. On many occasions when I’ve asked a staff member to explain what they’re doing, I hear, “I get emailed a spreadsheet, I update it and then send it (over email again) to the next person”.

In a world where most organisations experience daily cyberattacks (yes daily), it’s terrifying that these bodies are responsible for often ‘highly sensitive’ data, or data that impacts our lives.

The recent Public Health England (PHE) situation with the Covid-19 data should not be a surprise to those in my line of work, but it will surely fill many with dread. It is a malady that inflicts organisations like PHE, and should be a firm reminder of why government sector projects (Tory or Labour), are often so poorly implemented.

Most governments or organisations like PHE work on short-term projects and deliverables. Inevitably they ‘fire and forget’, so it’s not a surprise that ‘legacy systems’ (a term that personally makes me shiver) are born. It’s always the next person’s problem. Server patching, upgrading and maintenance all requires effort and budget. As with a car, if you don’t service your system then it will eventually fail.

If you look at the PHE response, it’s also very revealing. Any IT person would immediately suggest they simply upgraded to the latest version of Excel. Surely that’s a small cost and ‘quick win’. That they haven’t done so suggests even bigger concerns around the version of Windows they’re running in? Do the people maintaining the solution even understand how it works?

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And if there’s one thing any DBA would remind a business, it’s that a spreadsheet is NOT a database. Excel is a death trap for hidden logic, rules, losing data through filters … the list goes on. It’s like calling Notepad a word processor.

What worries me most though, is that governments still think they can do IT ‘on the cheap’. You can do it cost efficiently that’s certainly true and these are things I look at daily. But if you do it cheaply, then you simply get a cheap solution. Governments seem to repeatedly land cheap solutions, or pay way over the odds for poor solutions.

Disreputable IT software houses are also somewhat to blame. They will smell an easy profit whenever government projects are mentioned. And who can blame them when our current tranche of politicians are literally throwing taxpayer money at them because they don’t have a clue about IT.

Dominic Cummings talks of ‘bright young minds’. Yes, young minds bring fresh ideas. But they also lack wider business experience and you need a balance. You also need people who aren’t lining their own pockets and if you look at the Track and Trace app then that’s a classic example. Big contracts and poor return.

I would personally love to see their solution design and infrastructure costs. I’d not be surprised to see very little of the funding on actual ‘tech’ and an awful lot on ‘consultancy and expenses’.

If Boris Johnson thinks he’s getting ‘honest and independent’ advice on IT then I suspect he’s not. If he also thinks the government can bluff the experienced IT community out there then he’s also sadly mistaken.

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