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UK Air Traffic Control Problem Snarls Flights over Weekend

IT Hiccups of the Week Trainspotting is still a popular hobby in UK; spotting computer-related foul-ups may soon become as popular, for last week UK residents (and many visitors) experienced a full train-yard-worth of computer woes.

We start off this week’s review of IT hiccups with the UK National Air Traffic Services (NATS) nighttime to daytime operations switchover that didn’t happen as scheduled at 0600 London time Saturday morning. As a result of the failure, which affected controller communications, hundreds of domestic and international flights into and out of the UK and Ireland were delayed and many cancelled. NATS went to its back-up system, which allowed it to operate at about 80 percent of capacity; full operations were not restored until 1900 Saturday night. The effects of the problems were felt well into Sunday.  

Early last Monday evening, the Royal Bank of Scotland Group's computer systems, which support RBS along with the two other banks (NatWest and Ulster Bank), went down for three hours, halting all three banks' financial transactions. The banks’ 15.7 million customers were not amused, it being Cyber Monday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year.  As you may recall, the RBS Group suffered a massive computer system meltdown in June 2012 that lasted nearly two months before it was fully straightened out. That snafu was preceded by a major outage in November 2011. Bank CEO Ross McEwan apologized for the latest cock-up, blaming it on RBS failing to “invest properly” in its IT systems “for decades.”  I am sure that apology was just the tonic to mollify customer anger. Just to add to the fun, on Wednesday, the three banks’ online systems were unavailable for about an hour because of a denial of service attack.

Also last week, the German-owned gas and electricity supplier Npower sent out letters to its 3.4 million English and Welsh customers apologizing for  “service issues resulting from the installation of a new billing system and a promise that customers will not lose out financially as a direct result of these issues.” It is estimated that over a million Npower customers either owe money or are owed money because of problems with the £200 million billing system that was installed in 2011. At the time, Npower was bragging that because of its deliberate approach, it wasn’t expecting any problems with its roll out.

Lest we forget, the Affordable Care Act website that was rebooted 10 days ago hasn’t fully escaped the IT-related problem orbit. The good news is that people are increasingly able to enroll for health insurance through the federal website, with more enrollments in two days after the reboot than all of October, when it was first launched. The bad news is that, of the 127 000 people who enrolled through the website in October and November, roughly one-fourth of their applications contained errors. The result: enrollees may not have insurance even though they think they do. The reboot has reduced the error rate to “only” 10 percent, the Obama Administration says, but with many more folks being able to sign up, that may not be exactly positive news. In addition, the Administration is now trying to discourage the use of paper ACA applications “because of concerns those applications would not be processed in time.”

State health insurance exchanges in Maryland and Oregon continue to have problems, while in California, the exchange secretly sent the names, addresses, phone numbers and addresses of tens of thousands to insurance agents of anyone who started a health insurance application, even if they didn’t complete it. That news hasn’t gone over well, even though California says that what it did is perfectly legal.

Finally, today is Grace Hopper’s 107th birthday, appropriately marked by a Google Doodle. I was privileged to meet her twice when I worked as an electronic engineer for the Department of the Navy in the 1970s; she was truly a remarkable person.

UK National Air Traffic Services Night to Day Switchover Doesn’t

UK Air Traffic Control Outage Causes Flying Misery

Computer Issue Hits UK National Air Traffic Control

NATS Apologizes for Flight Disruptions

Ryanair Rages at NATS over Outage

NATS Says Outage a “Just a One-off”

Royal Bank of Scotland Irritates Millions of Customers Once More

RBS Suffers Third IT Meltdown in 18 Months

Customers Furious with RBS over Latest Fiasco

Customers Skeptical of RBS Promises of Compensation

IT Cost Cutting Blamed for Problems

RBS CEO Apologizes For Latest IT Failure

Npower Apologies to English and Welsh Customers over Unacceptable Computer Billing Errors

Electricity and Gas Supplier Npower Apologizes to Customers

Npower Says “Sorry” for Those Billing Foul-ups

Npower Customers Angry at Incorrect Bills

Customer Service to be Outsourced to India Npower Announces

Of Other Interest …

Key West Flights Affected by Computer Problems

US Veterans Administration Claims System “Spontaneously” Shuts Down

UAE and Gulf HSBC Bank Customers Angry over Glitch

First Niagara Bank Customers Can’t Access Online Accounts

US Treasury Delays Securities Sale Due to Glitch

Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Department Computers Crash

Florida’s Unemployment Department Sends Tens of Identical Letters to Thousands

Photo: Steve Parsons/AP Photo

Treaty Limiting Weapons Exports Updated to Include Cyberweapons

Diplomats representing several Western governments are huddling in Vienna this week in the hopes of finalizing new, Internet-related additions to the Wassenaar Arrangement. That pact—under which the United States, Russia, Japan, France, Germany and dozens of other signatories agree to strictly limit exports of certain weapons—is being updated in order to control access to complex surveillance and hacking software and cryptography. These countries hope to keep sophisticated cyberweapons out of what they consider to be the wrong hands despite explosive growth (pun intended) in the cybersnooping market.

An example of the technology the signatories hope to keep inside the group’s proverbial fence is “deep package inspection.” According to a Financial Times article, “Western intelligence agencies are particularly concerned [about restricting access to such advances]” because they don’t want their enemies to “foil cyber attacks or gain an intimate understanding of Western screening systems and their fallibilities.” A spokesperson for the UK’s Department for Business, which deals with the Britain's export license regime, told FT that: “The government agrees that further regulation is necessary. These products have legitimate uses in defending networks and tracking and disrupting criminals but we recognize that they may also be used to conduct espionage.”

No Such Thing As a Completely Isolated Computer

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics in Germany have just published a paper describing how they created a wireless mesh network capable of sending short bits of code to or intercepting data from air-gapped machines.

How does it work? Audio signals in the low ultrasonic frequency range (around 20 kilohertz) were transmitted from one machine to another over a maximum distance of about 20 meters. According to a Computer World article,

The data was transmitted using two different acoustical modem software applications called Minimodem and Adaptive Communication System (ACS) modem, the latter delivering the best results. On the network layer, the researchers used an ad-hoc routing protocol called GUWMANET (Gossiping in Underwater Mobile Ad-hoc Networks) that was developed by FKIE for underwater communication.

The nodes on the network, in this case laptop computers, have to be in direct line of sight, but the researchers note that it’s not unusual to find computers in such an arrangement in labs and open-plan offices.

Though the network—a dream come true for cybercrooks including nation states looking to engage in espionage or sabotage—currently limits data transmission to about 20 bits per second, that’s still enough to snatch login credentials and encryption keys or relay an attacker’s commands.

In Other Cybercrime News…

Image: Getty Images

The U.S. Air Force Explains its $1 Billion ECSS Bonfire

“We learn from failure, not from success!”

Well, if we apply Dracula author Bram Stoker's maxim to the U.S. Air Force, it could make the case that it has learned the most of all the U.S. military services.

A few weeks ago, the Air Force finally released the executive summary [pdf] of its investigation into its Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS). The system was a development blunder that the service mercifully terminated last year after spending US $1.03 billion over seven years and producing a system—if you can even call it that—without “any significant military capability.”   The  ECSS project  began in 2004 as an ambitious and risky effort to replace some 240 outdated Air Force computer systems with a single integrated enterprise resource planning  (ERP) system aimed at modernizing the service's global supply chain. It was also meant to help provide the core financial information required to meet a Congressional mandate that demanded an auditable set of books by 2017.

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Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Scrambles to Fix Billing System Mess

IT Hiccups of the WeekAs it has the previous few weeks, news about the reboot of the Affordable Care Act website again overflowed the IT-related problem space last week, for the final time Obama Administration officials hope.

Obamacare website 2.0 was launched over the weekend, with the Administration claiming that the updated site is superbly better than when it was first rolled out on 1 October. For instance, according to a new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services progress and performance report (pdf), the website's response time is now less than 1 second instead of the previous 8 seconds, the per page system times out are now only 1 percent of the time instead of over 6 percent, and some 50 000 concurrent users can now access the site, instead of the measly 500 or less on 1 October.

However, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, even as she was touting the ACA website’s “dramatic improvement,” also urged potential users to visit the ACA website during “off-peak hours when there is less traffic — mornings, evenings, or on weekends” or to “sign up for coverage… by phone, in person, and by mail. In many cases, you can also directly enroll through an insurance company.” That is probably good advice, for news reports from yesterday indicate that instead of the website being able to support 50 000 concurrent users, about 35 000 concurrent users is actually the reality.

Insurers have been less than impressed with the new and improved website, though. According to the New York Times, customers may be able to sign up for insurance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually been enrolled for insurance because sign-up information isn’t reaching the insurers or the information sent contains corrupted or incomplete data. As a result, the Times reports, insurers are saying “they had received calls from consumers requesting insurance cards because they thought they had enrolled in a health plan through the federal website, but the insurers said they had not been notified.”

Insurers were also unhappy last week when the Administration announced that the back-end system needed to pay insurers was being delayed from being finished in January to a date not yet specified. The insurers have been told they now need estimate what they are owed, and then they and the government can reconcile the differences.  Small businesses also joined the unhappiness queue last week, as the Administration delayed the small business health insurance exchange by a year.  Also in line are Oregonians, who have seen that state’s exchange fall into a technological abyss compounded by admissions of multiple security breaches.

Despite all of this disquieting news, there is hope on the horizon, the Administration says. For according to the CMS progress and performance report, the team that is working on ACA website and back office systems “is operating with private sector velocity and effectiveness, and will continue their work to improve and enhance the website in the weeks and months ahead.” In fact, the team is making such good progress, that former Obama senior adviser David Plouffe was moved to optimistically predict on Sunday that the ACA will “work really well” by 2017. Plouffe didn’t hazard an estimate of how much getting to that state of ACA nirvana will ultimately cost in both financial and personal terms, however.

The other IT-related impediments, deficiencies and malfunctions of the week centered on the teeth-gnashing issues involving the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) new $162 million customer billing system. News reports state that over 70 000  faulty bills have been issued by its new customer information and billing system that was rolled out in September (pdf), which has led in some cases to DWP customers having their utilities incorrectly shut off. And in another bit of embarrassment for the DWP, it was scrambling to explain to LA taxpayers last week why it hid the fact that the true cost of the new billing system is nearly three times higher than what it had been previously publicly proclaiming.

Finally, last week’s IT hiccup news included various financially-related IT irritations to consumers during the annual period of U.S. shopping madness disguised as the Thanksgiving holiday, as well as hardware and software problems that accompanied the launches of the new Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One consoles.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Scrambles to Fix Billing System Mess

Over 70 000 Faulty Bills Sent out By LA Department of Water and Power

LA City Council Unanimously Votes To Halt DWP Utility Shutoffs

DWP Agrees To Halt Utility Shutoffs Until End of the Year

LA DWP Admits Major  Billing  Problems Won’t be Fixed Until Spring 2014

Shoppers Experience Holiday Buying Frustrations

WalMart’s Black Friday One-hour Guarantee That Wasn’t

WalMart Suffers Another Online Pricing “Technical Glitch”

SunBank’s Multiple Transaction Error Hits Shoppers across the Country

Academy Bank “Glitch” Multiplies and Declines Customers’ Purchase Transactions

Hiccups Mar New Sony and Microsoft Consoles Launches

Sony to Replace PlayStation Consoles Suffering “Blue Light of Death”

PlayStation Network in Europe Struggling with Launch of PlayStation 4

Some Microsoft’s Xbox One Consoles Have “Disk Drive of Doom”

Of Other Interest …

Florida’s New Unemployment System Continues to Frustrate Unemployed Workers

Hardware Failure Takes Out FirstLight Federal Credit Union Online Banking

Ford Recalling 7 100 2013-2014 Model Year Lincoln MKZ Hybrids to Fix Transmission Software

Software Problem Affects Issuance of Disability Certificates in India

New Speed Camera Issues Ticket to Parked Car in Chicago

Reebok Trainers Are “Free” Thanks to Online Sales Error

 

Photo: Nick Ut/AP Photo

San Francisco's BART System Went Down Due to Server Upgrade Gone Bad

IT Hiccups of the WeekOnce more with feeling: the mêlée involving the Affordable Care Act website yet again dwarfed last week’s other IT-related impediments, which were relatively few for a change.

During last week’s round-the-clock Obamacare website glitch watch, for instance, we heard a government official admit that somewhere around 30 percent to 40 percent (no one seems to know for certain) of the required ACA back-office computing functionality related to how insurance companies get paid hasn’t been built yet. Documents were revealed showing that senior Obama Administration officials were worried, just before the website’s roll out, that there could be major problems—even though these same officials have claimed they had no inkling that website’s operation would lay down and play dead once going live. It was also revealed that, in a load test conducted just days before the website went live, the system choked when 500 users attempted to access the website simultaneously.  We also heard the Administration redefine operational success: a website that would work smoothly for 80 percent who try to enroll. This was immediately followed by debates about what that 80 percent measure actually means—if anything other than that a lot of people won’t be able to enroll for ACA health insurance via the website despite the promise of an “optimally functioning” website that would “work smoothly” by the end of November. These events had more than a little bit to do with extensions to the ACA 2014 and 2015 enrollment periods in order to help meet both Administration technical and political objectives. HealthCare.gov had company in its misery: There were continued delays to CuidadoDeSalud.gov, the Spanish-language version of the ACA website. Finally, despite everything, the White House released an upbeat report assuring the nation that everything will indeed soon be fine.  

The other IT-related obstacles, impairments and nervous breakdowns of the week included two rail system uffdas—one computer-related, and one apparently mechanical-cum-human error related. The first concerns a service outage on San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system that lasted from late Thursday night into Friday morning. It was apparently caused by a server upgrade Thursday night that didn’t go according to plan. The second rail outage involved a New York City-bound Amtrak train that ended up going to Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania (outside Philadelphia) instead.

Finally, Boeing warned the 15 operators of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and 747-8 jumbo aircraft equipped with GEnx engines by GE not to fly at high attitude within 50 nautical miles of thunderstorms that may contain ice crystals. Apparently, there’s a risk of engine icing problems. Boeing and GE say that they are looking at a software fix to the engine control system which should be available early next year.

San Francisco’s BART System Goes Down for Several Hours

BART System Restored, But Commuters Left Seething

Software Problems Blamed for BART System Outage Trapping a Thousand Passengers

BART Explains Outage Caused by Bad Upgrade to Network Server

Amtrak Train 664 to New York City Ends Up in Philadelphia Suburb

Amtrak Train Crew Misreads Signal, Gets Lost

Amtrak Gets Turned Around on Way to New York City

Train Mechanical Problem Leads to Human-Error on Lost Amtrak Train

Boeing Tells 787 Dreamliner and 747-8 Jumbo Operators to Avoid Thunderstorms

Six Boeing Aircraft With GEnx Engines Have Had Engine Icing Problems

Boeing Issues Ice Risk Warning for GE-Powered 787 and 747-8 Aircraft

JAL Pulls 787 Off Two Routes

Of Other Interest …

Glitch delays 7500 Hennepin County Minnesota Employee Paychecks

Property Taxes Doubled In Princeton New Jersey Due to Software Glitch

New Election System Fails in Swaziland

Barclays Bank UK Online Systems Goes Out

Technical Glitch Takes Down Mexico Stock Exchange

Technical Glitch Blamed for Trading Halt on Qatar Exchange

Tesco Pricing Glitch Allows £9 Wine to Sell for £2.75

Restaurant Reputations in Northern Colorado Tainted by Health Department Software Error

Emergency Response System at SF Airport Failed Due To Software Problem Soon After July Crash

 

Photo: Maurits90/Wikipedia

Bridgestone Sues IBM for Fraud in $600 Million Lawsuit over Failed IT Implementation

This is already turning into one nasty, public fight.

On Monday, the newspaper The Tennessean ran an article about Nashville-based Bridgestone Americas, Inc., which is part of the Japanese firm Bridgestone Tire and Auto-service Corporation, bringing a US$600 million lawsuit against IBM. Bridgestone alleged in its complaint (pdf) that when the new US$75 million plus SAP-based invoicing, accounting, and product delivery system went live in January 2012, it found "that there were extremely serious defects in the IBM SAP design solution as implemented which Bridgestone had no reason to expect and for which IBM offered no explanation consistent with the purported concerns IBM had raised.”

As a result, the lawsuit states, “Bridgestone has suffered damages in excess of $200,000,000, and continues to suffer damages from injury to its reputation and customer relations.”

The lawsuit, which was filed 29 October, was sealed until recently. While the legal complaint is heavily redacted, in it Bridgestone alleges that IBM engaged in a “pattern of deception, intentional misrepresentation, and concealment” over its capabilities and the actual status of the project risks and problems. For example, Bridgestone states that IBM “assigned individuals, including the chief technical architect for the project, who did not possess the proper knowledge, skill, education, training, experience, technical expertise, and qualifications to perform the services necessary for the successful design and implementation." The lawsuit also says a lot of the work was outsourced to IBM workers in India and China who possessed less than stellar development skills and practices.

Bridgestone’s lawsuit alleges: (1) Fraud in the inducement and contract performance; (2) misrepresentation in business transactions; (3) constructive fraud; (4) violations of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act; (5) gross negligence, and (6) breach of contract. The company wants a jury trial.

IBM, which has taken a battering over other failed IT implementations, including the Queensland Health payroll fiasco, the Indiana government outsourcing farce which is still unresolved, the Texas government outsourcing debacle, and the recent botched Pennsylvania government system implementation, has come out swinging. IBM immediately, publicly, and vehemently rejected the claims brought by Bridgestone. IBM gave its side of the story Wednesday to Business Insider, claiming in a statement that:

“Bridgestone filed a lawsuit claiming breach of contract and fraud against IBM regarding a recent SAP implementation. These claims against IBM are exaggerated, factually wrong and without merit. From the outset of this project, Bridgestone failed to meet critical commitments upon which the performance of IBM’s obligations were predicated.

Ultimately, Bridgestone’s repeated failures had a significant impact on the project’s cost and schedule, and its decision to prematurely roll-out the implementation across its entire business negatively impacted its operations."

Among the claims IBM made were that:

  • Bridgestone understood that this would be a challenging project. It had tried several times with other vendors and failed to upgrade its system. IBM was the only vendor to succeed in completing the upgrade to SAP.
  • Notwithstanding the complexity of the project and its negative history, Bridgestone failed to staff the project with people who sufficiently understood its own legacy systems and could assist IBM in designing and converting them into a new SAP system. Throughout, Bridgestone lacked the necessary leadership to effectively manage the project; it replaced its CIO on six occasions in a 2 year period during the project term.
  • Bridgestone failed to supply the necessary software, hardware and network infrastructure for the system to operate properly. In many instances, Bridgestone supplied inferior resources or no resources at all.

There is a lot longer laundry list of complaints which you can read in the Business Insider piece, but you get IBM's gist. Bridgestone, when asked to comment on IBM's statement blaming it for all the system's resulting problems, said its only response is contained in the complaint filed with the lawsuit.

A careful reading of Bridgestone’s complaint includes all of IBM’s points above and says why the tire company thinks those points don’t hold any (legal) water. The redacted proprietary parts of the complaint (which due to someone’s poor understanding of how to use redaction in PDF documents, is easily readable) discusses what appears to be the specific promises by IBM regarding its skills and capabilities, as well as how IBM said it would manage the implementation and any problems that would arise.

Bridgestone in its complaint says that it brought the lawsuit after mediation failed. It also indicated that it was during the mediation effort that it found out “that IBM had been engaged in a course of intentional deception, fraud, and misrepresentation throughout the project.” This seems to indicate that some sort of out of court settlement, like what happened when Avantor brought a lawsuit against IBM a year ago for “reckless indifference"  on another bungled SAP project, is not likely.

How much of Bridgestone’s lawsuit will stand is anyone’s guess. Some of the specific allegations in the complaint, many of which include IBM’s representations in the redacted bits, could, to my distinctly non-lawyerly eye, be thrown out as IBM merely engaging in puffery over its skills and capabilities. That's what happened when Marin County, Calif., sued Deloitte Consulting for fraud over an SAP project in 2010. Other allegations including IBM's agreement to only use personnel possessing the proper expertise and knowledge to carry out the statement of work may be more promising.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress of both the lawsuit and public brawl.

Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

How Much Does Cybercrime Cost? $113 Billion

According to Internet security awareness training firm KnowBe4, the losses attributable to cybercrime total US $113 billion. Take a moment to let that astounding number sink in.

Now here's some more: The fourth annual Cost of Cyber Crime Study conducted by Ponemon Institute and sponsored by HP notes that costs for businesses that are victims of Internet-based attacks has risen 78 percent per year, on average, over the past four years. And from 2010 through this year, the time needed to recover from a breach has increased 130 percent. The losses in terms of personal information, intellectual property, and system damage are staggering enough. But now the average cost of cleaning up after a successful attack has passed the $1-million mark—not counting the cost of customer lawsuits against companies whose systems have been breached.  

Meanwhile, Symantec’s just-released 2013 Norton Report notes that although the overall number of victims of online attacks has actually decreased, the average cost per victim has risen by 50 percent. "Today's cybercriminals are using more sophisticated attacks, such as ransomware and spear-phishing, which yield them more money per attack than ever before," said Stephen Trilling, Symantec’s CTO in a press release.

In Other Cybercrime News…

Image: iStockphoto

Is It Fair to Steer Students into STEM Disciplines Facing a Glut of Workers?

The argument over whether or not there is a shortage of qualified STEM workers was replayed once more in a story this past week in a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled, “The STEM Crisis: Reality or Myth.” Unfortunately, you need to be a subscriber to gain full access to the article, but I thought a few quotes from the usual suspects claiming there is a STEM crisis in the United States would be enlightening.

For example, there's Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which receives a lot of its funding from high-tech companies. ITIF vehemently insists that the STEM crisis is real and that anyone who says differently is hopelessly misguided and uninformed. Atkinson argued that, among other things, college students need to be channeled towards “more useful” majors.

“We should be making some value judgments on what kind of people we'll need for the nation to move forward...The distribution of degrees right now is entirely up to students. Shouldn't we be steering them into degree types that are of more value to society, such as computer science or engineering? The American tradition is one of hard-core pragmatism. We're at risk of losing that, and we're in trouble now in regards to competitiveness.”

Atkinson goes on to imply that IT workers in the U.S. will just have to get accustomed to lower wages given that, “Companies can go overseas for workers.” Of course, the ITIF is a strong supporter of expanding the H-1B visa program for its high-tech paymasters, which has helped erode STEM wages, especially for engineers. Additionally, Atkinson maintains that, “there will be work in IT for people with the right set of skills…[and] that lower wages probably won't keep them from accepting jobs.

I would bet, however, it might discourage many potential engineering and computer students from pursuing those careers, as it has in the past.

The Chronicle article goes on to quote Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, who also insists that there is a STEM student/worker shortfall (but who also once in a moment of candor admitted that any college student with math talent would be “crazy to go into STEM”). However, in the Chronicle article, Carnevale reasons that even if there is a glut of STEM graduates moving into the workforce, that’s okay because STEM grads “do better than other types of majors and tend to move into management pretty quickly.”

There's nothing like hedging your bets.

In fact, Carnevale continues:

“Having experience in technical matters helps them [STEM students] land good non-STEM jobs. They might work in places like marketing or medical-device sales, where their technical backgrounds helped them get in.” 

Yep, get an EE or CS degree, and you too can strive to get a job shilling medical devices.  Sounds to me like a winning slogan for convincing high-school students to pursue engineering or similar STEM majors. Maybe Carnevale can make up posters and send them to all the high schools to put up in their science and math classrooms.

On another related note, last week I had the opportunity to attend a Congressional briefing hosted by IEEE-USA and the AFL-CIO (a federation of trade unions in the United States) on the impact of the H-1B visa program on the economy, innovation, and the workforce. The panel was moderated by Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and included Neeraj Gupta, CEO of Systems in MotionKaren Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tuffs University and editor and chief of IEEE Women in Engineering magazine; and Hal Salzman, professor of public Policy at Rutgers University. The briefing drew a standing-room only crowd of House of Representatives staffers.

Hira provided a quick overview of the current H-1B visa program, and highlighted the fact that no one knows (or tracks) exactly how many H-1B visa holders there are in the U.S. He estimated that the total is around 650 000, with most working in the high tech arena. Hira also reported that the program does not require U.S. companies to actively recruit U.S. workers before seeking out H-1B visa workers, and that company compliance with the H-1B visa requirements is only maintained through whistle blowers such as Jay Palmer, who exposed Indian outsourcing company Infosys’s rampant abuse of the program. Palmer was supposed to attend the briefing to describe his Infosys experience, but unfortunately, his flight was canceled.

Gupta, who came to the United States as a student, was hired under an H-1B, and later became a U.S. citizen, talked (ironically) of the difficulty he faces as the CEO of a growing IT services company competing against H-1B outsourcers. He emphasized that H-1B workers are hired by U.S. companies as well as Indian and other foreign outsourcing companies primarily to lower their labor costs using mostly high-tech workers with average skills. Gupta argued that the H-1B program needs to return to its original purpose, which was to bring the truly best and brightest from across the world, not just primarily India, to work in the United States. This is not likely to happen, since the world's truly “best and brightest” are not likely to sign up to be treated as high-tech “indentured servants” as many H-1B visa holders do.

Salzman spoke of the latest data on STEM graduates and jobs, reiterating that STEM programs turn out at least 50 percent more IT graduates every year than there are U.S. job openings. He also said that if the H-1B program is ramped up to the numbers that are being advocated (up from 85 000 to 185 000), that worker oversupply could possibly increase to the 90 percent mark or more. Salzman called attention to Georgetown University’s report earlier this year that showed recent information system majors had a 14.7 percent unemployment rate, the highest of the majors it tracks. Even contemporary computer science graduates were experiencing an 8.7 percent unemployment rate.

Well, there are always those jobs selling medical devices.

Panetta noted that expansion of the H-1B visa program has had the effect of keeping down the already small numbers of women and minorities getting computer science and computer engineering degrees, since the more visa holders there are, the fewer job opportunities are available for U.S. workers. She also noted that only a small proportion of H-1B visas is given to female STEM graduates, even though 40 percent of the STEM graduates in India are women (this is more than double the U.S. percentage, she said). Panetta also noted how U.S. STEM students are facing school loan debts which are discouraging many to pursue graduate studies, a problem many foreign STEM students don’t have.

You can read more about the H-1B briefing in a ComputerWorld story as well.

Coincidentally, a few hours after the panel briefing, House Speaker John A. Boehner announced that full immigration reform would not happen this year. Boehner wouldn’t indicate whether it might be looked into again in 2014. While it may look like the H-1B visa cap will remain at 85 000 for the foreseeable future, President Obama signaled yesterday that he is open to “piecemeal” immigration legislation. This means that the H-1B cap may in fact be raised sooner than later, which would make Facebook and other tech companies very happy.

However, with CIO’s indicating that a slowdown in IT hiring may be in store for 2014, there seems little need for raising the H-1B cap anytime soon if ever.

Photo: Getty Images

Verizon Agrees to $60 Million Settlement over NY City Emergency 911 System Delays

IT Hiccups of the WeekDare I say it? The brouhaha with the Affordable Care Act website once more overshadowed other IT-related obstructions, complications and malfunctions reported in last week’s news.  

During last week’s news cycle, we learned a great many disturbing things. Among them: only a total of 106 185 people were able to sign up for ACA health insurance through October (27 794 of this total via the federal website); IT success is now defined as 4 out of 5 (in the best case) people being able to sign up for health insurance through the federal ACA website; confidence that the federal ACA website will be working by 30 November as promised is dwindling; the main Federal ACA contractor, CGI, has a less than exemplary record on government IT projects; and the unsurprising revelation that everyone involved with the federal ACA website development knew it was in deep trouble long ago, but no one had the guts to come out and forthrightly say so. And, of course, there was President Obama calling a press conference to apologize for the federal ACA website problems, and offer a temporary reprieve for those who saw their health insurance cancelled because it didn’t meet minimum ACA standards. Obama, who insisted that if only someone had told him that the website was so terrible, he wouldn’t have gone forward with its rollout, may be ginning up IT headaches for health insurers with the administrative changes related to the Affordable Care Act that he announced. We also learned that several states, including Oregon and New York, are reporting problems with their health insurance exchanges. Finally, over $4 billion is estimated to have been spent so far implementing the state health insurance exchanges, while the Federal effort accounts for at least $350 million at last count. Multiply this total amount by three or more to get the estimated IT maintenance cost over the next 15 or so years.

Yet, while the ACA ruckus was going on, several other IT-related inconveniences were reported. For example, Pennsylvania home care workers saw their paychecks delayed or lost for months because Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare mismanaged an IT program consolidation. There was news that Verizon has agreed to pay $60 million for botching New York City’s Emergency 911 system implementation, and disclosure of plans by major stock exchanges to try to reduce the IT outages that have been striking with increasing regularity over the past few years.

Verizon Agrees to $60 Million Settlement over Emergency 911 System Problems

New York City Mayor and Comptroller Argue Over How Much Verizon Owes in 911 Screw-ups

Verizon Settles for $60 million to Resolve Delayed Emergency 911 System Development

Mayor Bloomberg, Comptroller Liu Announce $60 Million Settlement Agreement with Verizon

Verizon Agrees to Pay New York City for Cost Overruns

Stock Exchanges Outline Plans to Stem Future Problems

Stock Exchanges Offer Plans to Stop Future Glitches

NYSE and Nasdaq Offer to Support Each Other in Event of Data Stream Issues

OTC Markets to Make Changes after Outage

Asia Markets and Regulators Work to Grapple With High Frequency Trading

Pennsylvania State Auditor Slams Department of Public Welfare for Payroll Mismanagement

Taxpayers Lose US $7 Million over Payroll System Mismanagement

Thousands of Home Care Workers Go For Months without Pay

Performance Audit Department of Public Welfare’s Oversight of Financial Services Providers (PDF)

Of Other Interest …

Living Social Suffers Multiple Day Outage

Facebook Messages Goes Down

Minnesota's "Give to the Max Day" Charity Drive Hit by Website Crash

NASA Curiosity Okay after Software Upgrade Problems Fixed

Montgomery County, Tennessee, Tax Bills Delayed Due to Software Issues

California Sends Incorrect Information to 246 000 New Medicaid Enrollees

Computer Glitch Does in Parking Pay Stations in La Crosse, Wisconsin

Woes with Florida’s New Unemployment System Could Last through Holidays

New Problems Emerge with Massachusetts New Unemployment System

Computer Problem Jams Main Causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Again

Bad Computer Data Sends Firefighters to Wrong Address In Spokane, Washington

GM Recalls 44 000 Chevy Malibu Midsized Cars for Computer Fix

Google, HP Halt Sales of Chromebook 11 over Faulty Chargers

 

Photo: Getty Images

Canada’s Missing STEM Skills Shortage

As in the United States and some other countries, there has been much hand-wringing in Canada about the lack of STEM and other skilled workers. For instance, a study late  last year by IBM proclaimed that Canada would be short 100 000 workers by 2016. In addition, in October, a report underwritten by pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada argued that Canada wasn’t producing a sufficient supply of STEM students while the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association argued a few days ago that a skills shortage is significantly hurting Canadian companies’ competitiveness. Canadian government ministers have also been loudly asserting a “skills crisis.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper has gone so far as stating that the lack of skilled workers, scientists, and engineers was “the biggest challenge our country faces.”

Some Canadian economists and others have questioned the validity of these claims (including using the government’s own data to contradict Canada's official position). But the counter-claims didn't carry much weight until a few weeks ago. That’s when senior economists at TD Bank, the second-largest bank and financial services company in Canada, published an in-depth analysis (pdf) of the alleged wide-spread skills shortage in Canada and found the claims “exaggerated.”

TD's deputy chief economist Derek Burleton was quoted by CBC News as saying, “Evidence of economy-wide shortages is hard to find. Yes, across regions and occupations, skills mismatches (exist) because you are never going to get a perfect match. So it's not a complete myth, but it's not as extreme as people believe.”

Even in country’s Western provinces, which report the greatest skills shortages, wages have not risen measurably—something that happens when there is a shortage. The TD report says, “The story on the wage data remains curious, as wage gains out West have not increased to the extent that one might have thought given the signs of tightness.”

Of course, soon after the report was published, those with a vested interest in promoting the claim of a skills shortage took umbrage to it. The Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), for example, immediately issued a press release saying the bank’s analysis “does not hold up to scrutiny,” that the skills shortage was  real indeed, and that “addressing it is critical to Canada’s economy.”

This to and fro should all sound familiar to readers of my IEEE Spectrum article "The STEM Crisis is a Myth".

Photo: iStockphoto

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Risk Factor

IEEE Spectrum's risk analysis blog, featuring daily news, updates and analysis on computing and IT projects, software and systems failures, successes and innovations, security threats, and more.

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Willie D. Jones
 
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