Columbia Association hires consultant on computer woes

CSS system in works for six years, still won't work

August 01, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

The Columbia Association has agreed to pay a local consultant $150,000 to determine whether the troubled accounting and customer service software system, under development for much of the past decade, should be saved or scrapped.

KPMG, with offices in Baltimore and Washington, has eight weeks to make recommendations on what to do with the Customer Services System computer software, said Rob Goldman, CA's chief operating officer.

"They're going to provide CA options," he said.

The system was to have launched in May as a new, high-tech customer service and accounting vehicle for the giant homeowners' association, which is still using a patchwork, decades-old system to keep track of everything from summer camp enrollments to revenue.

But before the launch, the project was shelved indefinitely when CA officials said they determined that much of the accounting portion of the system, designed by a firm in Bangalore, India, doesn't work.

"Some elements are working very well, others not at all," CA president Phil Nelson told the board recently.

Nelson said of the $1.3 million earmarked for the system, there was $384,000 left, and some of that money could be used to pay a consultant. Board member Alex Hekimian said the issue dates to 2001. Before being elected to represent Oakland Mills, Hekimian headed the Alliance for a Better Columbia, a small, private group whose members have criticized CA's effort to create a new software system for years.

"The first target date was April 2002," he said, and it's been put off "year by year" since then. "It's very frustrating to have spent all this time, all this money and what have we got?"

He said CA has spent $2.7 million over the nine years. Board chairwoman Cindy Coyle said she, too, is frustrated.

"They may tell us the whole program has to go," she said. Any more frustrating delays, Coyle said, "and I personally will lose it. I can't take another year of this again."

Nelson assured the board that the staff is even more frustrated after working 15-to-20-hour days to get the system operating — only to learn at the last minute it doesn't work. One staff member is out on extended sick leave as a result, he said, while another has a back-related nerve problem.

Although "it's maddening to us," he said, he refuses to use the system as is.

CA's Communications director Steve Sattler said he felt if CA employees had gone to India to work directly with the designers, the latest round of problems might have been avoided. That wasn't done, he said, because of attacks from outside groups "that were racially motivated, I believe" and were "unconscionable."

Suzanne Waller, another board member from Town Center, said, "I too share the frustration, but I don't cotton to the blame game."

The alliance, now headed by Joel Yesley, has been consistently critical of the software development contract with an Indian firm, and although Yesley said he agrees with hiring an outside local consultant now, he suspects "gross mismanagement and incompetence" at a minimum, aggravated by the vast distance and time differences that have forced CA employees to be on the phone sometimes at 3 a.m.

Yesley agreed, however, that although his group criticized using an Indian firm and sending CA employees there years ago, he thinks sending CA people there more recently would have made sense. He called Sattler's comments about racism "totally inappropriate" and prompted by stress.

Despite the contention, everyone, both inside and outside CA, seems to agree on what is now being done.

"I think it is a good idea to hire an outside consultant," Yesley said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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