San Francisco’s Wild and Wacky World of Technology

Fact: San Francisco’s municipal IT continues to self-destruct, according to new reports this weekend.  According to an IDG story (San Francisco hunts for mystery device on city network), “With costs related to a rogue network administrator’s hijacking of the city’s network now estimated at $1 million, city officials say they are searching for a mysterious networking device hidden somewhere on the network. The device, referred to as a terminal server in court documents, appears to be a router that was installed to provide remote access to the city’s Fiber WAN network, which connects municipal computer and telecommunication systems throughout the city. City officials haven’t been able to log in to the device, however, because they do not have the username and password. In fact, the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) isn’t even certain where the device is located, court filings state.”

Analysis: In 1994 I moved from San Jose to San Francisco, and began working for Frank Jordan, Mayor of San Francisco, doing a variety of things – writing his speeches (“Fellow citizens, I can report to you that the State of our City is strong”), running his communications office over at the reelection campaign, and leading a small strategic staff to devise comprehensive policy proposals on future transportation, homelessness, and economic growth.

I had done the same thing before elsewhere. Many of the ideas were ones we borrowed for San Francisco from the emerging city to the south, San Jose – where I had previously held the same multifaceted job for Mayor Tom McEnery, the legendary “Mayor of Silicon Valley.”  The advisor who knew both mayors well, Clint Reilly, had recruited me to move north not because of my political leanings – but for my lack of leanings, and preference for solutions.  So in San Francisco our new approach was pragmatic and non-ideological, with a heavy tech focus. 

To foster growth, we focused on policies designed to spark San Francisco’s then-still-embryonic technology startup culture, which through a combination of incentivizing enterprise zones, hands-off tax policies, goosed-up entrepreneurial gunslinging – and geographic good fortune – was to grow into a powerhouse of technological activity that threatened to shift Silicon Valley’s geographic center of gravity several notches north over the next fifteen years. The Multimedia Gulch and South Park neighborhoods became known for emerging Internet-based startups such as Organic (now part of Ominicom Group), Macromedia (now part of Adobe), and even the iconic WIRED magazine itself, and before the bust came, SoMa gave birth to over a thousand dot-com businesses in the city

(Oops, sorry – “The City,” as Herb Caen would correct me – he was my upstairs neighbor in the Brocklebank for his last years.)

In the spring of 1995 we set up a pioneering political website for the Mayor’s reelection campaign that year, surprising the local “old media” world with our heavily hyperlinked pages and near-real-time reposting of ads, speeches, and news coverage.  Despite all that, the Mayor wound up losing reelection, and while the winner (Willie Brown) began to plagiarize our tech policies immediately – a satisfying conclusion from one perspective – he didn’t really know what he was doing, nor did the political hacks he scattered throughout his administration.

Here’s a synchonicity that Herb Caen would have loved: that same election year of 1995, while we were toiling away at reinventing government’s use of online information, just down the street an unknown 30-year-old man named Terry Childs was convicted on a weapons-possession charge, just one in a string of criminal convictions in his checkered life.

Usually with that kind of story you’d ask, “Whatever happened to Terry Childs?”  In fact, within a decade he was one of the most important people in San Francisco’s municipal technology world, holding the relatively minor post of network administrator in the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, but more importantly holding all the keys and passwords to the city’s WAN and datacenter. 

If you haven’t been following this affair, well you should be for entertainment purposes alone.  Among the allegations in the bizarre case, as summed up by InfoWorld:

[Childs] was arrested July 12 on charges of network tampering after he refused to provide his superiors with administrative access to the city of San Francisco’s network, which he had managed for the past five years.

Initially Childs refused to hand over administrative passwords to the city’s routers, which had been configured to wipe out all configuration information if they were reset.

After a dramatic jailhouse meeting with San Francisco’s mayor one week after his arrest, Childs handed over the data, but DTIS Chief Administrative Officer Ron Vinson said Wednesday that the city now expects to spend more than $1 million to clean up the mess.”

There’s a lot of interesting reading from the government IT perspective on this case, not least some telling observations on the lack of governmental understanding of routine IT terms and practices (see for example Paul Venezia’s technical dissection of the case on his blog). has a disturbing background piece on the overall case (“Rogue Sys Admin Still Haunts S.F.“), and InfoWorld keeps an updated “Special Report” on the case.

What led to this idiotic cock-up? A million factors, I’m sure – but a central one was the ham-handed and increasingly bureaucratic approach to urban tech policies during the eight-year administration of Mayor Willie Brown, who followed my boss in office.  I’ll let City Journal’s words sum it up from their definitive 1998 article, “Willie Brown Shows How Not to Run a City” – and keep in mind this was written early on in the deterioration of the job machine that had been painstakingly built:

Revenues of interactive media firms in San Francisco increased 150 percent last year, and Multimedia Gulch now employs 35,000 workers, up 70 percent from 1995. The highly mobile industry is worth approximately $2 billion to the city’s economy. Multimedia executives could probably live with the city’s inflated rents, but they grumble ominously about the long wait for required permits that makes expanding a successful business time-consuming and costly. A study by the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm reports that close to a third of these innovative companies are considering leaving San Francisco. Should the industry trickle out of town, San Francisco’s economic horizon will darken further. San Francisco depends on its rich cyber-yuppies, its growing local high-tech sector, and its booming tourism industry to fund a grossly bloated municipal welfare state. Mayor Brown has fattened the city budget by over $1 billion in three years—a whopping 30 percent increase.”

Those policies, and the dot-com bust, led to a widely chronicled exodus of talented tech workers, and a related decline in the talent pool for San Francisco’s government/tech policymakers and administrators.

The chickens are still coming home to roost. Willie Brown’s successor, Mayor Gavin Newsom, a friend of mine back in the halcyon early ’90s, has his hands full today with the wreckage wrought by Terry Childs, and this is no time to point fingers. I’m hopeful that Gavin will push forward with an aggressive reform broom and clean out the bureaucratic muck in the city’s tech stables.

Here’s a link to the latest news on the Terry Childs case.


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