Fix for Novopay unlikely, lecturer says

Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
A computer software engineering specialist says it would be easier to dump the Novopay payroll system and rebuild it from scratch than repair its compounding problems.

Otago Polytechnic information technology senior lecturer Tom Clark said there were many details about the ''fiasco'' he was not privy to, but believed conclusions could still be made.

Based on his software engineering experience in companies around the United States, including development of the online video systems at the PBS television network, he believed there was no reason to expect Talent2 would ever resolve Novopay's problems satisfactorily.

He said it was normal for some problems to surface after the launch of a major software system, but not to the level associated with Novopay.

''The problems we are seeing are so pervasive that they should have been caught during any credible quality assurance process.

''This means that either Talent2 does not have a functioning quality assurance process or, if they do, then they launched this system knowing that it was not suitable for use.

''Neither of these are problems that can be remedied in a reasonable amount of time - if at all.

''It's probably a more difficult task to fix it than it would be to rebuild it from scratch.''

It was also possible the project requirements provided to Talent2 were faulty, but it did not excuse the company's performance, he said.

''Problems with project specifications should be identified and resolved early in the software engineering process.

''Perhaps we can salvage something of value from this failure by producing a case study that I can use to show my students how a software project can go wrong.''

University of Otago computer science lecturer and software engineer Dr Richard O'Keefe said that based on his experience in Silicon Valley, it was well known most large-scale computer programmes were ''disasters'', and he was concerned the Government and Talent2 had not planned for problems with the system.

He said the Government suffered similar embarrassment when the New Zealand Police Incis computer system ran several years and millions of dollars over budget. It was eventually scrapped in 1999.

''If you are building a large system, you expect there to be problems,'' Dr O'Keefe said.

''The standard technique for dealing with large project rollouts is to roll it out cautiously - roll it out in small geographical areas and always have the old system ready to restore fast to take over if there are problems.

''You should have people sitting by phones ready to take calls for help, and in this case, they should have set a budget for paying teachers' wages until the problems were ironed out.''

Dr O'Keefe said Microsoft had been very successful over the years because it never built a successful large-scale system - it built a small one and grew it.

''If you are a responsible programmer, you get a dreadful fear when people's lives are involved. You worry about what you will do if it doesn't work.''

Dr O'Keefe hoped there would be an inquiry into the problems with Novopay, and wanted university software engineering and testing experts involved.

A spokesman for minister in charge of Novopay Steven Joyce said it was too early for Mr Joyce to comment yesterday because he had only been given responsibility for Novopay on Tuesday.

''The minister needs to talk to all the key parties involved to gain a clear understanding of the issues.

''It is important he be given time to look into this, ask questions and then make his own assessments.''


Novopay timeline
2007:
Talent2 wins $30 million tender to create Novopay payroll.
August 2012: Novopay rolled out and complaints received from teachers and support staff about being underpaid, overpaid or unpaid. September 2012:Secretary for Education Lesley Longstone orders Novopay Governance Board to identify issues and address them.
October 2012: Ministry of Education staff meet Otago Primary Principals' Association to further discuss Novopay problems.
November 2012: Ministry of Education provides Novopay system training to school principals and administrators.
November 2012: Retail banks offer school staff interest-free overdrafts in wake of continuing problems.
December 2012: New Zealand Principals' Federation asks Office of the Auditor-general to conduct an independent investigation into Novopay.
January 2013: Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce takes over handling of the Novopay system.


- john.lewis@odt.co.nz