The Big Dig Starts to Crumble

| July 13, 2006

Gerry Weinberg, who has been a leading light in software engineering for nearly 40 years, once famously remarked, “If builders build buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”

Up in Boston, it appears that the woodpeckers have struck, with tragic results.

The Big Dig, as it is known, is one of the largest public works construction projects in recent history and probably the most expensive. The idea was to bury a cross-town freeway underneath Boston. The final cost was close to $15 billion, or nearly 4 times the original estimate (adjusting for inflation) when it was first proposed nearly 20 years ago.

In my profession, I often draw parallels between construction projects and software engineering, since most Americans have enough experience with home building and regular construction projects to understand the analogies. And the examples I use are ones where the people I’m talking to typically nod their heads and say, “Yes, of course you would want to do that” or “Of course, you would never do that.”

But I have been following the Big Dig off and on over the past two decades, and the various problems, setbacks, and cost overruns have smacked far more of a badly-run, large-scale software project than a typical construction project.

The difference, of course, is that most deployed software projects don’t kill people (though there are some exceptions). And, likewise, most software projects don’t take 20 years and cost $14 billion (though the infamous IRS IT re-engineering project, taking 10 years and costing $4 billion and which was ultimately abandoned, is at least in the ballpark). But the biggest difference, of course, is that failed IT projects are so much easier to bury (and many die quiet deaths in large organzations each year), since you’re mostly dealing with bits, and ephermial bits at that. Despite being underground, the Big Dig is too big to bury: it displaced 16 million cubic yards of dirt and replaced it with a 3.5-mile long tunnel built of steel and concrete.

While complaints about leaks and the quality of the concrete used have been on-going since the Big Dig opened, the fatal collapse of a ceiling concrete panel and the discovery of “bad bolts” suggests an entirely new set of problems — as well as significant potential liability for the various parties involved.

In that light, it is interesting to read the transcript of Hugh Hewitt’s interview with Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA). Romney has been trying to fire or force the resignation of Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello for nearly two years, but it appears that the Massachusetts Legislature has been protecting Amorello — according to Romney, largely because of the patronage that Amorello can dish out. However, I suspect that the tragic death and resulting civil liability may change that quickly.

Romney’s preferred approach for turning around a trouble company or project — replace those in authority and conduct an independent review and audit — is pretty much the right one. Over the years, I have been called in on several occasions to review large, mission-critical corporate IT projects, representing expenditures of tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. I and others made our recommendations — and they were usually ignored because the same people who got the project into trouble in the first place were still in charge. In one case, I came into the same firm to review the same large-scale IT project three (3) separate times over a 5-year period; each time, the (same) senior executive over the project ignored our findings; in the end, the company fired the executive and killed the project, but only after wasting several years and many millions of dollars.

Without such a major change, the Big Dig is likely to follow a pattern (or anti-pattern, if you will) which I refer to [PDF] as “Faulty Towers” — a project that never reaches a stable, satisfactory condition, or does so only after much additional time, effort, and money. The problems within the Big Dig appear to be structural and pervasive — not amenable to a quick fix. And, unlike software, you can’t just throw away the tunnel and start over again.

In a way, the problems surrounding the Big Dig may be of assistance to me in the future — it gives me a visible, real-world example of a massive troubled constuction project. But I would trade that in a heartbeat if Milena Del Valle could have her life back. ..bruce..

UPDATE (7/15/06): The number of “bad bolts” keeps rising — not coincidently as inspectors are looking for them. This is a classic pattern in software quality assurance, namely that a systematic testing of the application will cause the number of reported defects to rise until the application has been thoroughly tested, at which point the number of new defects found each (day, week, month) will level off and then start to decline. (Hat tip to Blue Crab Boulevard.)

In the meantime, similar problems have cropped up closer to home. Denver International Airport (DIA) anticipates having to rip up and replace more than 1,200 concrete panels in its runways decades ahead of schedule due to alleged use of diluted concrete and inferior materials by one of the major contractors, Ball, Ball & Brosamer.

UPDATE (7/16/06): Austin Bay rounds up some more of the Big Crumble coverage.

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Category: Information Technology, Main, Project Management, The Big Crumble

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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