I might have built this - just better

Parents can soon go to The Source

Starting this fall, parents of Seattle Public Schools students will no longer have to hound conveniently forgetful children for answers to those questions. That information -- and more -- will be available with the simple click of a few computer keys.

The district is launching a new online portal, dubbed The Source, that will give parents easy access to student information, allow students to view grades and assignments and, ideally, foster more collaboration between teachers. The goal is to increase parental involvement and improve student achievement.

In spring 2005, a contracting agency contacted me about putting together a web portal for Seattle Public Schools using Python as the main language. I went to the interview, expecting at most to talk to 2 people (per the contracting agency) and prepared to talk about my "hidden" (no released software) experience in the language.

Five people crowded into the very small conference room with me, rattled off their names, and proceeded to ask me incredibly basic interview questions. The red flags were "how do you deal with conflicting requirements?" and "can you handle tight deadlines?"

I punted both, using my standard "I can handle it" responses. In reality, I give those answers to buy me time to find out if the project is worthwhile. Apparently, "The Source" wasn't.

The district's technology department stepped in, starting work in January to merge the district's student data system with another used to record grades. With Google's user-friendly site as inspiration, a four-member team spent many bleary-eyed nights designing and building a one-stop portal that can be easily accessed by teachers, parents and students.

My understanding of the requirements:

  • Let parents see information the teacher inputs, including attendance, test scores, homework assigments
  • Make it easy to use - don't burden the teachers
  • Make it easy to use - many parents aren't technologically experienced
  • Satisfy all the different constituencies

And those constituencies are?

  • Parents: want all the information in one place, updated immediately
  • Teachers: don't want any more work, and want to do it their own way - all umpteen thousand of them
  • Administrators: want everything to run smoothly, everyone to be happy, and this project to go live very soon

Does anyone see a problem with these requirements? Can you say "mutually exclusive?" I know I can!

After the interview, I did tell the recruiting agency that I was interested. Hey, I was out of work, they were going to use Python, and it seemed like the team understood many of the technical issues (response times, bandwidth, storage). And I would have been a contractor - which means overtime pay.

Absolutely no response from Seattle Public Schools. I never heard from them again (I bugged the agency and the agency bugged them), no thank-you for interviewing, no declination, nothing. Very unprofessional. And then I read the news article.

"We were sleepless in Seattle all year long," Pierson said wryly.

That's because you waited to recruit help, you pissed off the help you did interview (I don't make recommendations to other programmers when the client isn't courteous), and you treated this like a secret project (the contracting agency would not give out the client's name until I agreed to an interview).

You got the late nights you deserved, folks.

Written by Andrew Ittner in misc on Mon 17 October 2005. Tags: programming