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ACBLscore Update

I want to give everyone an update on the news regarding ACBLscore and technology from the recent NABC in Providence. If you need some background, you can read my article about the decision to abandon ACBLscore+. 

Some additional information was released in Providence regarding the ACBLscore+ project. The total charge for ACBLscore+ is around $1.9M (the figure given in Las Vegas was "at least $1.5M"). An additional $600K is budgeted for technology improvements in 2015, which includes some updates to the original ACBLscore. No specific timelines were disclosed, but management has a commendable list of goals for the near future, including sunsetting the DOS version of the program and adding key user-requested features, such as scoring and running Swiss teams more efficiently. 

ACBL CEO Robert Hartman announced the formation of a Technology Committee, chaired by him and composed of three members of the BOD, three members of management, and three outside experts. A preliminary composition of the committee was announced in Providence; it appears to have now been finalized. The three board members on the committee are Jay Whipple (District 9), Russ Jones (District 10), and Merlin Vilhauer (District 20), unquestionably the three most technically knowledgeable members of the BOD. The outside experts are Greg Humphreys of Bridge Winners, Uday Ivatury of Bridge Base Online, and Ralph Lipe, a former system architect at Microsoft. The members of the committee from management are Tony Lin, a consultant brought in this year, Ken Horwedel, the project manager on the ACBLscore update, and Bruce Knoll, the ACBL's Director of Information Technology. The committee's mandate is broader than just evaluating ACBLscore; it will assess and advise on all technology decisions. The committee (as it existed at the time--not all of the positions were then filled) met in Providence, and they are scheduled to travel to Horn Lake in early January for a hands-on assessment of current operations.

The proposed BOD motion on ACBLscore, which called for assembling a team of experts to assess the status of ACBLscore and ACBLscore+ and make a recommendation, was withdrawn, as the creation of the Technology Committee effectively serves the intended purpose.

There are still more questions than answers. During the Board of Governors meeting I asked Mr. Hartman for a more detailed explanation of the factors that convinced him that abandoning ACBLscore+ and focusing instead on updating ACBLscore was the right decision; I did not receive anything more than the non-technical talking points we've already heard. I had a lengthy conversation with Messrs. Lin and Horwedel (and some other ACBL IT staffers), which was in itself a positive sign, as I had previously been denied access to anyone at the ACBL other than Mr. Hartman and BOD President Phyllis Harlan. They even shared the report that their committee made in June! (Again, something that the ACBL was not willing to disclose two months ago.) I am very pleased to see that the ACBL is trying to be more forthcoming.

Still, there are incredible discrepancies between the ACBL's story and that of ERROR: UNKNOWN USER "nicolas-hammond-2" IN INTERNAL PROFILE LINK. Try username, email, or FIRSTNAME LASTNAME., the software developer whose company (Hammond Software) built ACBLscore+. Mr. Hammond claims that ACBLscore+ is all but complete, and that the places it fell behind were a result of the ACBL's failures to properly manage the project and provide his company with necessary resources. The ACBL denies that essential items were delayed. The ACBL also says that little of ACBLscore+ is functional, and that its underlying architecture is flawed, resulting in a program that is slow and cumbersome on many computers. Fortunately, we now have some people whose opinions I trust and whose credentials are impeccable looking into things.

What's clear to me is that the fundamental failing of the ACBLscore+ project was poor project management. If you have a problem with the fundamental architecture of the software you have hired someone to build for you, but you don't realize it until nearly two years into the project, the blame rests squarely on your own shoulders. Some of the IT management team has changed at ACBL, but one of the Technology Committee's main tasks is going to be assessing whether the team currently in place is up to the job of managing a major software project, whether it be updating ACBLscore, finishing ACBLscore+, or something else. If we don't have the right people, we are doomed to failure regardless of the path we choose.

My biggest takeaway from this debacle, which I hope the ACBL has taken to heart, is the value of transparency. Most of the uproar about the decision to abandon ACBLscore+ was due to the lack of explanation given for it. It's possible that this decision was right, but it seems naive to expect anyone -- particularly the community of bridge players, who are trained to question what they see and draw inferences from incomplete information -- to accept such a radical change in direction without sufficient explanation. Greg often opines about how companies like Google cultivate a culture of "celebrating failure," and Mr. Hartman used that phrase when addressing the Board of Governors. But celebrating failure requires being open and honest about your shortcomings, using failure as a way to learn, improve, and move forward. Admitting your mistakes and doing your best to rectify them earns the trust of members and customers; covering them up leads to doubt and suspicion. When "celebrated" like this, a failure can be valuable. When swept under the rug, it is doubly costly, as no lessons are learned, so the same mistakes are likely to be repeated. 

I'm cautiously optimistic that the culture at the ACBL is changing. The League's willingness to share documents with me and let me talk to the IT staff in Providence is a positive sign. So is the creation of the Technology Committee. My sincere hope going forward is that the Technology Committee can help cement this culture of openness at the ACBL, at least with regard to technology issues.

 

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