Austin Energy's deal with IBM for a new billing system has gone painfully awry, internal emails reveal, resulting in lost revenue for the utility and outraged customers.
IBM's contract to provide a Texas utility with state-of-the-art billing systems has sunk into such a quagmire of missed deadlines, buggy software, and costly errors that the utility's CIO said he's "gravely concerned" about whether IBM can fix the problems.
"We have yet to reach a stable system," said Austin Energy CIO Alan Claypool, in an email to an IBM exec dated Feb. 10. "We are extremely disappointed and continue to have serious concerns about the quality of service we have received from IBM to date."
Claypool's message followed months of correspondence between himself and his staff and IBM project managers on multiple problems. At one point, Austin Energy's general manager asked then IBM CEO Sam Palmisano to personally intervene, but Palmisano passed the request to a subordinate.
Austin Energy contracted IBM in 2009 to build a centralized billing system for the electricity, water, and waste disposal services it provides to more than 400,000 residents of the Texas capital. The contract called for Austin Energy to pay IBM a total of $55 million over eight years, but already the utility is holding back $3.8 million in scheduled payments for what it says is IBM's poor performance.
The billing system, built on IBM Websphere and Oracle database technologies, was supposed to go live in early 2011, but it's still not fully operational. Meantime, Austin Energy says it has lost significant revenue because its customers have been receiving erroneous bills or no bills at all. A business customer that should have been billed $3,000 got hit with a bill for $300,000, according to a company spokesman.
Problems date back more than a year, emails obtained by InformationWeek through an open records request show. In a Sept. 7, 2011 message to IBM VP Robert Hallman, Claypool complained that IBM was repeating mistakes as it tried to implement the system. "During the recent Dress Rehearsal 2, two separate errors by IBM cost the City project a combined total of 37 hours of delay," Claypool wrote. "One of the errors was the same type of error made by the same team in December 2010. The second was by an employee who was not available for executing a key task at the previously scheduled time."
Claypool added: "These types of issues continue to be a part of the ongoing concerns with IBM's quality of delivery."
Ten days later, things weren't getting any better. "Again, we continue to be severely disappointed by the implementation services from IBM," Claypool wrote to Hallman on Sept. 17. "As you are aware, we had an unscheduled outage while teams were preparing for our major testing this morning."
Claypool added: "As a result of the repeated errors and delays by IBM, we continue to be gravely concerned at IBM's ability to complete a successful system integration and go live."
On Sept. 27 of last year, Claypool told Hallman: "We continue to be gravely disappointed at the delays and seemingly ad hoc methods toward managing this project." That same day, Kerrica Laake, an Austin Energy division manager, informed Claypool that a portal IBM set up so customers could pay bills online wasn't working. "IBM has failed to properly set up and fully test their payment solutions for the Online Customer Care Portal," Laake wrote.
Frustrated with the mounting problems, Claypool wrote directly to Marc Lautenbach, who runs IBM's Global Business Services unit in North America, on Oct. 17. "As the City of Austin continues to face seemingly endless failures and crashes by our IBM 'partners' on the current and past implementation projects, I find myself writing you, in hopes that you will, at long last, be that person. Beyond that, I don't even know what to say at this point," Claypool wrote.
Lautenbach responded the same day: "Alan, I'm aware of the situation and I am disappointed we are not meeting your expectations ... We will get back to you with a plan."
Things apparently had not gotten any better 11 days later, when Claypool fired off the following missive to IBM managing partner Jay Bellissimo. "Jay, when we contracted with IBM for implementation services, we did not plan for, staff, or anticipate using our system and folks as the Alpha testers for the IBM code deliveries. Prior to delivery, we expect the code has been reviewed, validated, and will perform without software defects."