“The Sun doesn’t always shine. Sometimes there’s a cloud.”
Neil Miranda, who manages the Department of Social Welfare’s (DSW) information service co-ordination unit, was commenting on the surprise decision to buy a Hewlett-Packard platform for the redevelopment of the core Swiftt benefit system rather than Sun, which has raised more than a little cloud with Sun reseller SolNet.
However, the decision is indicative of the hard-nosed purchasing methodologies Miranda has brought to DSW since he joined the department four years ago.
“The job was a chance in a lifetime, a chance to change nearly everything to bring IT up to what the business should be for the future,” he says.
“Too many people in IT come into a job, don’t do enough - or do the wrong things - then run away to the next job.”
At 45, Miranda is probably the most powerful man in the government IT sector. His is the final say on what DSW buys. He regards his relationship with DSW director-general Margaret Bazley as crucial.
“My success is only what it is because I’ve got a boss who understands. Margaret has given me the right authority, trust and support.”
When he took the job after some years at Datacom he was given the role of IS coordinator, which falls into five main categories. They are:
•Advising the director-general.
•Owner of the department’s data.
•Owner of the Information Services Strategic Plan (ISSP).
•Negotiator for any large IT contract.
•Responsibility for implementation of all departmental-wide IT projects.
It’s the ISSP which is the key.
DSW had recently been divided into business units - Children and Young Persons; Income Support; Tritec (since sold to EDS) and Internal Audit. The initial plan, put together after two years consulting from Andersens, was accepted in December 1993 by the board of DSW. Miranda joined the following April.
“The first thing was to get it accepted by government for funding,” he says. “That happened around August-September. Then we had to implement it.”
It was the first time a plan had been put together with the involvement of all the business units.
Bazley then formed a committee comprising herself as chairman and with the general managers of the business units. They report to her on progress. Miranda’s role is to ask questions at those meetings.
He describes the ISSP as a living document.
“When the government accepted it, they asked for an update within a year. That was the first time the business units realised it was real.”
The government accepted the update in November 1995, subject to the department providing a strategic business plan by February that showed ISSP delivering.
Another update has just been completed.
Each business unit has its own IT manager. But their plans have to be signed off at a corporate level - that means Miranda retains overall control.
“Every project has terms of reference,” he says. “When they want to start a project they have to reconfirm those terms of reference.
“It’s beginning to sort out those issues that would otherwise lead to waste.”
He says he believes DSW has now gets better deals because of its overall buying power.
Standardisation is crucial. For example, the number of PCs in each business unit is directly co-related to the number of staff.
General standards include Windows NT on the desktop - “We don’t recognise it on the server” - Microsoft Office, Unix on the server, and Oracle as the database - “We’ve killed off a large number of unnecessary databases.”
Miranda says a part of the standard is to move to the next release of an operating system, “or whatever”, as soon as a risk-free method is available.
“Generally, with anything that is standard, you’ve got 12 months to go to the next version. We expect all vendors to sign documents that they will have releases available within 12 months of something new on the market.”
He describes hardware as a necessary evil that has to adhere rigidly to DSW’s standards. It’s “evil” because it becomes redundant as soon as it comes through the door.
“As a result, we make sure we always have a choice.” (That applies to software, too.)
“You never deal with any vendor who is not in the top four companies worldwide in that area of delivery. That protects you from what happens tomorrow.”
He says that was one of his biggest issues with Silicon Graphics (Sun and Hewlett-Packard are the only two server vendors DSW does business with). “SGI has incredibly good technology but from a business standpoint where are they going?
“I look at the vendors every week from a business standpoint.”
Why, then, wouldn’t a major like IBM fit the bill? “At the time, IBM’s AIX was too proprietary. The onus is on them to come back to us.”
Put simply, there is always a fallback position if a vendor fails to deliver.
ISSP has a capital expenditure budget of $117 million, which Miranda doesn’t see being exceeded.
“Our operating budgets have gone down by at least 20-30% in the past four years and we’re getting two to three times - in some cases up to eight times - what we were getting before.
“For example, we’ll put in ATM into five different nodes shortly. I expect the net change in dollars spent to be zero.”
There’s an often-expressed view in the market that Miranda is bleeding edge.
“I don’t think so. We’re leading edge.
“Business is reliant on technology, so you need to start using your funds to safeguard you from a number of leaps you may have to do in whatever lifecycle.
“The Swiftt project - based on Java - will take two years. You have to ensure you’re in the present world at the end of that, not redundant.”
Miranda says he takes advice on where technology is going. “I listen to the colloquial bullshitters but they’re each trying to push their own barrel. Once a year I get done over by Gartner Consulting. They look at every bit of infrastructure and tell us if we are right or wrong or whatever.”
The latest Gartner review says that DSW has a clear, unified application approach whereas most government organisations are woefully lacking in this.
Miranda is not known for giving vendors and people second chances.
“I’ve got a huge ego and I’m very critical of people who don’t get it right. But I don’t want people to be able to criticise me for the same things.
“I’m an extremely good disaster type of person. I work best in areas where there is a problem. I keep pushing it. I think you have to go for 150%.”
He says DSW has now finished its infrastructure - it is currently rolling out its large security and navigation project - which he says is the best in Australasia as far as he knows.
“It’s so good that the government needs to extent it to other departments so they can go forward.”