Published Online: July 20, 2012
Includes correction(s): August 30, 2012

Districts Bring Tech. Programmers In-House

New IT talent, trends add wrinkles to the digital dilemma

About a year ago, the city of Boston was searching for a way to roll out a new school selection process. Traditionally, parents were sent a 28-page brochure outlining the criteria for choosing their children’s schools, or they could access a clunky website.

That same year, Boston had welcomed to its city offices a small group of fellows from Code for America, a new organization based in San Francisco that sends young computer programmers to work in government for a year, using their skills to help solve problems. Working with the fellows, Boston decided to build a Web application for school selection.

Hiring an outside contractor would have taken the 56,000-student Boston public schools at least a year and cost millions, Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America’s founder, recalled during a speech at a recent conference. The fellows built a Web application, called Discover BPS, to serve the entire district’s school-selection process. They did so in three months. Excluding the $150,000 fee Boston paid to host the fellows and pay for their stipends, it cost the city nothing.

Boston got a good deal on transforming an outdated process, but its experience points to a broader question districts regularly face: To buy or to build? Officials must weigh whether to develop new software in-house or pay a vendor to provide it.

School districts have made such decisions for years, but the cost, speed, and accessibility of developing technology, and the increased demand for software services in the classroom, have changed the decisionmaking calculus. So too have dwindling budgets and cuts in personnel that make hiring skilled programmers difficult.

“It’s a newer generation of questions that have been going on for a long time,” said Karen Billings, the vice president of the education division for the Software and Information Industry Association, or SIIA, a trade association based in Washington.

Some educators and administrators are using the new Web landscape to build their own applications and software, bypassing the typically costly and lengthy procurement process. But some skeptical industry experts say they are doing so with widely varying degrees of success.

‘Rethink Assumptions’

In recent years, entire consumer industries have been upended by Web-based services like Netflix, Amazon, and Groupon, companies taking advantage of the speed and low cost of developing software. The public sector, including education, has been slower to seize such opportunities, technology experts say.

As Ms. Pahlka pointed out in her March speech, at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, government spends $140 billion on technology per year, compared with the $2 billion a profitable company like Apple pays its developers. Schools spent an estimated $7.5 billion on software and digital content in 2010, according to a survey by the SIIA.

“A very small team of talented people can deliver something very valuable in a short amount of time,” said Joel Mahoney, the Code for America fellow who led the Discover BPS work and a former chief operating officer for a hotel-search-engine service. He is now a technology strategist for the nonprofit group, which is supported by grants from foundations and the private sector, and fees from host cities. The organization raised $2.9 million through the end of 2011 and has since received an additional $1.5 million from Google.

“More than the software itself, Code for America is an example that we hope will shake up the procurement process and get people in city hall and education to rethink assumptions about the costs of software,” Mr. Mahoney said.

In the public sector—including education, where much of the spending power lies with state and local governments—there are many barriers. Many states, for instance, prohibit schools from using cloud-based services, which allow digital information to be stored remotely. There are requirements for spending on technology, textbooks, and supplemental educational services. Procurement often favors larger, more established vendors.

“States are designed not to allow innovation to happen,” said Nigel Jacob, a co-chair of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a group focused on innovation and technology solutions within city government.

Staff cuts have shifted the focus of technology departments as well. If 20 years ago a school technology director’s job was 80 percent technical work, now it’s flipped in favor of administrative work, said Keith Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, based in Washington.

Plus, it’s difficult for school districts to pry exceptional programmers away from bigger salaries in the private sector. For instance, Ramona Pierson says she made $60,000 a year as the director of education technology for the 41,000-student Seattle schools, a job she took in 2003 because she wanted to develop software for schools. Previously, she had earned considerably more working in neuroscience technology.

“People with my kind of skill set cost too much,” said Ms. Pierson, who left Seattle in 2007. She founded SynapticMash, a learning management company acquired by PrometheanRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader for $10 million in 2010, and now runs an education technology company, Pierson Labs.

Homegrown Software

One of the most strking examples of a district shunning the private sector in favor of building its own software is the 3,150-student Tomah Area school system in Wisconsin. Since the 1990s, Paul Potter, Tomah’s director of technological infrastructure, has developed seven software and information systems for the district.

An early application started as a way for schools, which were geographically dispersed, to make food requests of the central kitchen. Unhappy with antiquated products on the market, Mr. Potter, who holds a software-engineering degree, created one that worked in Windows.

Since then, the software, called Infinity, has evolved into a modern, Web-based course-management system used by students and teachers in Tomah, and other nearby districts. Mr. Potter developed several other applications for Tomah around tasks like content management, accounting, and assessment, with names like Raptor, Snapdragon, and Sundance.

“I live, eat, and breathe it,” he said of his development work.

By developing everything in-house, Mr. Potter can make constant changes to the software based on teachers’ needs.

But there is debate over the importance of customizability. While an in-house approach offers faster and more direct communication between developers and teachers, it may lack sophistication and scope, some experts argue.

“The benefit of working with a software developer” from the private sector “is that they are working across multiple customers to understand what’s working one place and what’s working in another,” said Mark Schneiderman, the senior director of education policy for SIIA, the trade group. He added: “There’s often never a unique need out there.”

This upcoming school year, a school district of 1,235 students in in Solon, Iowa, may offer a case study in the buy-or-build debate. Teachers will have the opportunity to choose between two Web-based student-information systems: PowerSchool, the flagship product offered by the education giant Pearson, and BlueHarvest Feedback, an application developed by Shawn Cornally, a high school science teacher in the district.

Solon recently began trying a standards-based approach to instruction, based on a mastery of concepts. In 2011, Mr. Cornally, looking for an easy way to track student progress, taught himself how to code and built BlueHarvest, a grade- and course-management application.

A few teachers at his school, Solon High School, began using the product after it went online before the 2011-2012 school year, but hundreds of teachers across the country have since signed on, he said. BlueHarvest received venture capital money and is now a company run by Mr. Cornally and a friend.

“The customization of the experience is what humans have to offer,” Mr. Cornally, 28, said of BlueHarvest’s popularity. “If I develop Google Apps, it’s for the whole universe, but it’s [customized] for nobody.”

In both Mr. Potter’s and Mr. Cornally’s cases, their distinctive sets of skills can potentially save their district large sums of money. Tomah Superintendent Cindy Zahrte estimates her district saves $12 per student by using Infinity and not having to purchase from an outside vendor. Those savings can expand beyond Tomah, which allows other districts to buy Infinity to use on their own.

But the potential savings can run into policy hurdles. As part of a $15 million effort to make collection of student data more uniform throughout Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, mandated that all school districts use the same student-information system, which would be provided by one vendor. After first being denied, Tomah eventually earned a waiver allowing it to use Infinity, but its client districts were not granted the same waiver.

(The bid process for the contract is currently suspended, according to a June 19 report by the Associated Press, amid allegations that an economic-development agency promised one vendor a tax break if it won.)

“Why does it have to be one vendor? There’s nowhere else in the world of computing where that happens,” Ms. Zahrte said.

Technology vendors would ask the opposite question of Ms. Zahrte: Why does it have to be one developer?

The most common criticism of in-house developers is that too much of the maintenance and institutional knowledge lies with too few people. Initial development costs may be far lower than buying from vendors, but long-term maintenance and hosting costs add up, vendors argue.

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“They may be able to invent something interesting and do it quickly,” said Steve Nordmark, the chief academic officer of the educational software company Knovation, based in Cincinnati. “But when you talk about innovating on it and scaling it on, schools aren’t just prepared to do that.”

Mr. Potter, in Tomah, shrugs off the questions of maintenance and of ongoing cost. By building his own network and managing it with a small team, he has avoided paying outside maintenance costs and has had no major system breakdowns, he said.

But what if he leaves? Tomah is Mr. Potter’s hometown, and he said he’s turned down more money to work elsewhere. But if he did leave, wholesale changes would be required, Ms. Zahrte said.

“That is one negative,” Mr. Potter said. “I’m very attached here. On a personal side, that’s a drawback because you can never get away. It’s the reality of life that this is your second home.”

Goal: Structural Change

With more than 500 applications, Code for America placed 26 fellows in eight cities in 2012, focusing most work on making it easier for citizens to report problems in their neighborhoods and comment on government plans. As with Teach For America, the nonprofit group that recruits new college graduates for teaching stints, there is concern that many participants don’t continue to work in the public sector. But some cities are preparing to continue the software work after the Code for America fellows leave.

Honolulu is training some of its salaried employees in Ruby on Rails, a programming language popular among application developers. Boston, through its New Urban Mechanics office, is hiring more computer programmers. Philadelphia is creating a similar office.

“It’s now become a proactive goal of ours to promote structural change, where they can be more innovative on an ongoing basis,” said Abhi Nemani, the strategy director for Code for America.

The group recently launched a program to help startups with a civic focus and an initiative to encourage residents to solve neighborhood problems through technology. It is also working with the White House on the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, announced May 23. Fifteen people from outside government will work on projects around open data, easier access to government services, and a more balanced request-for-proposals system. On the same day, federal officers unveiled a new “digital government strategy” that aims to improve efficiency and creativity with federal agencies through technology.

While there are fellowships in education that place smart young leaders and thinkers in public schools, there aren’t any specifically designed to foster technology and software development on a wide scale.

Charter schools, perhaps because they are free from many district and state regulations, have often created forward-looking software-development environments.

Rocketship Education, a national charter school network, develops its own information systems, sometimes in direct partnership with vendors.

And what started as a way for teachers at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, in Washington, to share video lessons online has now become LearnZillion, a for-profit company with venture capital investment. The company’s co-founder, Eric Westendorf, developed the software as an “entrepreneur-in-residence” at E.L. Haynes, where he used to be chief academic officer.

There’s no such position in Solon, Iowa, for Mr. Cornally. Troubleshooting the site and responding to emails from customers around the country often cut into his “job that actually matters: teaching science to students,” he acknowledged.

He envisions an education landscape that enables him to do both: teach his science classes but also have time to work with other teachers to build software and applications that help them do their jobs better.

“Should schools have these delegated characters in the building with time to do this kind of stuff?” he said. “I would love to have that job.”

Vol. 31, Issue 36

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story included an incorrect title for Steve Nordmark. He is the chief academic officer at Knovation.

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