Monthly Archives: February 2014

Career Reflections: My Biggest Data Fail

This article was published on the NTEN Blog in February of 2014.  It originally appeared in the eBook “Collected Voices: Data-informed Nonprofits“.

Peter Campbell of Legal Services Corporation shares his biggest data fail, and what he’d do differently now.

This case study was originally published along with a dozen others in our free e-book, Collected Voices: Data-Informed Nonprofits. You can download the e-book here.

Note: names and dates have been omitted to protect the innocent. 

Years ago, I was hired at an organization that had a major database that everyone hated. My research revealed a case study in itself: how not to roll out a data management system. Long story short, they had bought a system designed to support a different business model, and then paid integrators to customize it beyond recognition. The lofty goal was to have a system that would replace people talking to each other. And the project was championed by a department that would not have to do the data entry; the department identified to do all of the work clearly didn’t desire the system.

The system suffered from a number of problems. It was designed to be the kitchen sink, with case info, board updates, contact management, calendaring, web content management, and other functions. The backend was terrible: a SQL database with tables named after the tabs in the user interface. The application itself had miserable search functionality, no dupe checking, and little in the way of data quality control. Finally, there were no organizational standards for data entry. Some people regularly updated information; others only went near it when nagged before reporting deadlines. One person’s idea of an update was three to five paragraphs; another’s two words.

I set out to replace it with something better. I believed (and will always believe) that we needed to build a custom application, not buy a commercial one and tweak it. What we did was not the same thing that the commercial systems were designed to track. But I did think we’d do better building it with consultants on a high-level platform than doing it by ourselves from scratch, so I proposed that we build a solution on Salesforce. The system had over 150 users, so this would be relatively expensive.

Timing is everything: I made my pitch the same week that financial news indicated that we were diving into a recession. Budgets were cut. Spending was frozen.  And I was asked if I could build the system in Access, instead?  And this is when I…

…explained to my boss that we should table the project until we had the budget to support it.

Or so I wish. Instead, I dusted off my amateur programming skills and set out to build the system from scratch. I worked with a committee of people who knew the business needs, and I developed about 90% of a system that wasn’t attractive, but did what needed to be done reasonably well. The goals for the system were dramatically scaled back to simply what was required.

Then I requested time with the department managers to discuss data stewardship. I explained to the critical VP that my system, like the last one, would only be as good as the data put into it, so we needed to agree on the requirements for an update and the timeliness of the data entry. We needed buy-in that the system was needed, and that it would be properly maintained. Sadly, the VP didn’t believe that this was necessary, and refused to set aside time in any meeting to address it. Their take was that the new system would be better than the old one, so we should just start using it.

This was where I had failed. My next decision was probably a good one: I abandoned the project. While my system would have been easier to manage (due to the scaled back functionality, a simple, logical database structure and a UI that included auto-complete and dupe-checking), it was going to fail, too, because, as every techie knows, garbage in equals garbage out. I wanted my system to be a success.  We went on with the flawed original system, and eventually started talking about a new replacement project, and that might have happened, but I left the company.

Lessons learned:

  1. If I’m the IT Director, I can’t be the developer. There was a lot of fallout from my neglected duties.
  2. Get the organizational commitment to the project and data quality standards confirmed before you start development.
  3. Don’t compromise on a vision for expediency’s sake.  There are plenty of times when it’s okay to put in a quick fix for a problem, but major system development should be done right.  Timing is everything, and it wasn’t time to put in a data management system at this company.

Where I’ll Be At The 2014 NTC

NTEN‘s annual, awesome Nonprofit Technology Conference is (obviously) my favorite annual event.  No failure on the part of other cool annual events, like LSC‘s Technology Innovation Grants conference, Halloween and my birthday; they’re great events as well, but they don’t have over 2000 attendees; four days of jam-packed networking, collaboration and education; and the inspired antics of Steve Heye. If you read this blog regularly, there’s a good possibly that you’re already booked for the event, and I look forward to seeing you there. Here’s where you’ll be able to find me:

Wednesday, 3/12: From 1:00 to 4:00 I’ll be leading the IT Leaders Roundtable with my colleagues Richard Wollenberger and Katie Fritz. Here’s a description:

Fill in the blank: “the toughest job an IT person can do is ______________.”  You might guess “program a Cisco router” or “design a SQL database”. But let’s face it — the hardest thing is gaining the trust and camaraderie of the non-technical staff who depend on our competence and, often, have little understanding of what the tech department (or person) does. Join us to share our challenges, tips and success stories about integrating IT into the organization.  Making it work. If you manage technology (as an accidental techie, a CIO, or anything in-between) or you depend on it (as a CEO, data entry clerk, or anything in-between), we’ll use this time to share our best ideas about how technology and staff successfully integrate to support an organization’s mission.

Then, at 7:00 pm, you know it: #NTCBEER. The event so iconic it’s name is it’s hashtag. The 6th annual #ntcbeer is shaping up to be the biggest – as of this writing, two weeks before the event, we have over 180 people pre-registered and the numbers go up progressively every day, as people start setting their MyNTC schedules.  We will likely fill the 225 person capacity of the Black Squirrel and spill out to DC Libertine, their sister bar, four doors down.

Thursday, 3/13: I’ll be part of a very therapeutic panel, Marriage Counseling for Comm and IT Staff, with Melissa Bear, Brad Grochowski and Andrew Kandels. This one grew out of concerns that there was animosity between the technical and marketing staff brewing at 13NTC, and seeks to not only smooth those relationships, but dispense good advice and examples of IT and Communications departments that successfully partner and collaborate.

Thursday evening is NTC party time, and I’ll be stopping by the NPO Engagement party hosted by Idealist Consulting, but probably looking for something more intimate to escape to after a while. My evenings aren’t as sewn up as usual this year, so they’re good times to have dinner and connect. Most years, I put together a dinner for the legal aid attendees, but this year we don’t seem to have as many of our colleagues showing up, although there are a few, like Brian Rowe and Ken Montenegro. There are a whopping seven of us coming from LSC, I think our biggest showing ever.

Friday, 3/14: If you want to get down and get wonky, I’m presenting solo on Requests For Proposals: making RFPs work for Nonprofits And Vendors.  I blogged about this: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The RFP for NTEN, where I said

At the RFP session, we’ll dive into the types of questions that can make your RFP a useful tool for establishing a healthy relationship with a vendor. We’ll learn about the RFPs that consultants and software vendors love to respond to.  We’ll make the case for building a critical relationship in a proactive and organized fashion.  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll all leave the session with a newfound appreciation for the much-maligned Request for Proposal.

So, how’s your second week of April shaping up? Want to connect?  The best way to reach me is Twitter. I’m looking forward to seeing you in two weeks!