The University of Washington campus in Seattle. (Photo by James Brooks, via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

The University of Washington’s troubles with a $340 million IT upgrade is sparking commentary on why software migration projects often go wrong.

KIRO reported last week about vendors who haven’t gotten paid since the UW switched to a new financial system. The Seattle Times followed up with a report detailing the IT migration that started in July after the UW replaced legacy software systems with cloud-based infrastructure from Workday.

It’s not clear exactly what or who is to blame. The Times cited tension within UW leadership over scope and priorities, and poor estimates for the size and scale of the upgrade.

The university has a backlog of about 11,000 invoices totaling around $71 million. “We have seen challenges in a variety of areas related to vendor payments and to some research grant processes,” UW spokesperson Victor Balta said in a statement to GeekWire.

The systems update, dubbed UW Financial Transformation, began in 2018. The idea was to replace more than 800 different methods for financial-related tasks with a streamlined platform from Workday, the Bay Area software giant.

Employees are getting paid, and UW Medicine patient information is protected — two “primary goals” the UW had when it launched the system July 6, said UW spokesperson Victor Balta.

But clearly it hasn’t been a smooth transition.

The timeline for the UW Financial Transformation project. (UW Image)

The problems don’t come as a surprise to tech industry veterans who have seen other software transitions stumble without proper planning and backstops.

Kevin Schofield, a former Microsoft manager who runs Seattle City Council Insight and Seattle Paper Trail, wrote on a Facebook thread over the weekend that these kinds of major IT system swap-outs are “incredibly difficult.”

Schofield said he saw similar scenarios when City of Seattle departments tried to switch accounting and billing systems.

He cited two reasons for why the migrations can run into problems: the integration with dozens of other related legacy IT systems, and customization required for existing workflow within individual departments.

“In both cases you need to decide whether to do something clunky and fragile to accommodate the old thing, or ‘upgrade’ the legacy systems and workflow (which just further increases the complexity and pain of the change-over),” he wrote. “You can build and test the individual components, but you can’t really test them at scale until you roll out the system for real.”

Schofield said organizations can prevent potential delays and problems by staffing up a large team that can immediately diagnose and fix problems.

Ed Lazowska, a longtime UW computer science professor who started the Facebook thread, wrote that he “saw this movie many times” when he was on the Washington state Information Services board.

“I became pretty good at detecting signs of the plot: Late binding of decisions. Failure to adequately consider related legacy systems. QA consultants “owned” by the project team. People with responsibility but no authority. Disconnected executive sponsorship. And so on,” Lazowska wrote.

In a follow-up email with GeekWire, Lazowska praised UW staff trying to work out the kinks with the Workday transition.

“The current team is doing a good job of recovering from the mess they inherited from now-departed people who mismanaged the project from the outset,” he said.

Balta said the UW has hired additional staff and is conducting officer hours to address specific concerns. “Many of the remaining issues are specific to the individual circumstances of a transaction, which the team is working around the clock to resolve,” he said.

The UW also ran into delays and higher-than-expected consultant fees when it implemented a new Workday payroll system in 2015, the Seattle Times reported.

In a statement to GeekWire, Workday said it works with more than 400 global higher education institutions.

“Workday is committed to working closely with the University of Washington and its deployment partner throughout the University’s finance transformation as it moves over 850 legacy side systems to one centralized system,” the company said.

A successful cloud migration plan “aligns business drivers, generates buy-in across an organization, and manages past incidents,” according to Cloudreach, a cloud consulting company.

“Your migration plan should include a migration strategy for each application, defining the amount of change you will make to each application as they are moved to the cloud,” the company wrote. “The amount of change will determine your migration velocity — in other words — how rapidly you can move applications through the migration process. Failure to properly plan can slow down migration, miss dependencies, and cause outages.”

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