New city, old problem

First you get the call – you’ve been put in charge of your company’s Y2K project office. No problem, you’re an experienced IT manager, and you look forward to the challenge.

But your organization not only employs thousands of people, it also oversees the health and well-being of 2.5 million citizens, many of whom will be keeping tabs on you – and your spending – via elected officials.

And though some of the departments have already started working on Y2K, the records of what they’ve done aren’t consistent, and there hasn’t been much in the way of communication between them.

Oh yeah, and just before you took the job, your employer underwent an unprecedented administrative overhaul, the biggest in its 125 year history.

Lana Viinamae, Toronto’s year 2000 project director, faced this and more when she was appointed to the position in June 1998. Sixteen months later, the City has declared that all its essential services are Y2K-ready, nearly a month ahead of schedule.

In between, Viinamae oversaw the replacement of 14,000 desktops, the reduction of mainframes from four to two, the fast tracking of an SAP installation and a Y2K team that grew from two to more than 400.

These are tasks well suited to an experienced project manager, but Viinamae also said her background in Toronto government gave her a valuable edge.

“I did a lot of very large initiatives with the City,” she said, “and knowledge of municipal government is critical because you have to know what the key areas are. If you have to ask questions every time, it’s hard to get to the core right off the top.”

Viinamae’s first task was going to her steering committee, which she had to answer to every week thereafter, with her first budget proposal and organization chart.

“They said ‘This is a very good report, but we don’t want to give you all the money yet, we want to give you enough so that you can do everything you need to do for the next phase, then you come back and give us a milestone report,” Viinamae recalled

She did, and the deadline for all essential services was set in stone for October 1999. Then she went to work.

One of the biggest challenges was getting all the departments to follow the project office’s lead, and to stay in touch, Viinamae said. “Keeping the lines of communications open…keeping everyone informed, that was the most difficult thing.”

A difficult enough task under normal circumstances, but life at the City of Toronto at the time was far from normal.

A decree from the Ontario provincial government required that the old Municipality of Toronto to merge its six member cities, Toronto, York, North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough and East York into one so-called “megacity”. The move meant that an entire level of municipal government, of which Viinamae herself was a part, was scrapped.

As a result, department heads were left unsure as to who was doing what, and which systems would be made redundant.

Far from being a problem, Viinamae said the timing of the amalgamation was actually a blessing, both for her and the City. The resulting duplication meant that lots of things that might otherwise have been fixed could in many cases be scrapped or consolidated.

“I like to think it was win-win,” she explained. “The [departments] were finding it very difficult to operate at seven different organizations, and then they were told they were amalgamated.

“But a lot of the amalgamation enablers weren’t in place, so along comes year 2000 and we say, ‘Okay, great. You have seven systems from seven different municipalities, we can fix that, but what we prefer to do is pick one, fix that and migrate the others in,’ so it ended up being a real bonus.”

Before amalgamation and Y2K, Toronto ran four mainframes, including its key legacy facility, which it outsources to EDS Systemhouse. While EDS provided Viinamae with a partition and test environment, she shut down the North York mainframe altogether, and combined Etobicoke’s Unisys system with a similar system in Scarborough.

Meanwhile, the number of City servers was reduced from 1,100 to 523. Of the 1,100, Viinamae managed to take 577 of them off-line. “Then we bought some, and often one new server replaced seven, or (we found that) some could take on bigger loads. So we did almost equal replacement to fix, which is a bit unusual from a Y2K standpoint.”

Viinamae calculated that it was cheaper to buy new desktops for City employees, as the age of the old PCs combined with the resources involved in sending people out and fixing each of them, made updating a lousy alternative.

The desktop applications were checked for compliance, then rolled back out to use from a central location, via Computer Associate’s TNG.

Though IT vendors have drawn criticism from some organizations for a lack of Y2K co-operation, Viinamae said the City’s vendors were so supportive that she doubts she could have finished on time without them.

“The support was spectacular. People were coming forward to say ‘We’re not in it for the short haul, we want a good relationship with the City,'” she said.

However, she admits that it took time for an IT person to get used to dealing with matters like elevators, security alarms and City fleets. She was also surprised at the media and public interest generated by the project. “I can’t think of any other project which has had this kind of visibility,” she said.

Currently, the bulk of Viinamae’s work is dedicated to making sure nothing corrupts the City’s code. She’s also making sure that all City systems and employees are prepared for the approaching deadline. Then there’s the holiday she has slated for a week shortly after Jan. 1.

She admits that it’s been a lot of work, but she says this is one project that she will never forget. “It’s definitely been the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on.”