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Ghost in the machine 

One person essentially kept San Luis Obispo and other local cities' computers running, but now she's gone

Bonnie McKee Hoadley is dead.

McKee, 45, wife and mother of two young children, died of leukemia, on March 26. She was a proud wife and mother and by all accounts, the sort of person who people loved to be around. She was also an artist, the sort of master artisan rare in this day and age.

Unlike her forebears who worked with paint, wood, or stone, she worked in computer code, creating quiet, hidden masterworks that no one truly appreciated until she was gone. In the eight months since her death, much of her creation has gone on without her, taking on a life of its own, performing her bidding in ways no one can really understand.

click to enlarge SOFTWARE ARTIST :  Bonnie McKee Hoadley, shown here with her daughter, Helen, created many of the computer systems still used by local cities. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN MCKEE
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN MCKEE
  • SOFTWARE ARTIST : Bonnie McKee Hoadley, shown here with her daughter, Helen, created many of the computer systems still used by local cities.
For the last 25 years, McKee supplied much of the computer software for most of the cities in San Luis Obispo County, as well as many local companies. The computer systems she created run much of the work of government of these cities; from payroll to building permit fees and taxes, it all went through her design and creation.

She customized the software for these cities, and she never wrote down how she modified any of it. Like many artists before her, she never bothered to explain how she did the things she did. Now she’s gone and, it seems, no one alive can fix her work if and when it breaks down.

At a time when city budgets are being crushed by a bad economy and a state government’s pilfering, all of her work for the cities will have to be replaced at a cost of millions of dollars. Cities are racing against time to replace her handiwork before it breaks down, knowing that the personal touch she brought to their computer systems and screens is gone forever.

Bonnie McKee loved her life and loved her job.

She grew up a military brat, moving every few years until her father retired from the army and moved to San Luis Obispo to run the ROTC program at Cal Poly. She majored in computer science at Cal Poly, surprising her friends and family. Happy, good natured, and pretty, she didn’t fit the mid-1980s stereotype of the dysfunctional and unpopular computer geek.

“We joked about it, of course,” said Wes McKee, her brother. “It was unusual at the time for a woman to be a computer programmer. She was smart, so it didn’t surprise us that she did well, but it wasn’t anything we saw coming.”

After graduation, Bonnie had offers to work for large companies who were eager to hire a computer programmer with her qualifications. Bonnie knew she could make a lot of money, but she would have had to move to the Bay Area or Southern California. She thought about it, but decided to stay in San Luis Obispo, the home she had grown to love.

Bonnie’s business began the day she walked into the San Luis Obispo City Fire Department in the mid-1980s. She was a young college student looking for a job. The fire department was looking to get on board the then-new computer revolution.

“She just bounced in, and we all thought, ‘Just what we need, another Poly Dolly airhead,’” said Viv Dilts, a fire department administrative analyst who was there the day Bonnie interviewed.  “It turned out that wasn’t her at all, and she really knew what she’s doing.”

Bonnie and her programming work were a hit at the fire department, where her effort earned her a chance to do programming with the police department: a parking-violation tracking program. Soon, she was a fixture in every part of the city hall. Over the next 25 years, Bonnie left her fingerprints on nearly every part of the city. Thirty-four of her applications cover virtually every aspect of the city’s work.

Public works, utilities, parks and recreation, human resources, and the finance department readily used her services.

To a great extent, cities usually have to adopt the way they do business to what the software (and software installers) will allow. Bonnie’s way was different—she tailored every program to each department. Starting with a basic program, she tweaked and cajoled the code to meet the needs of every user. She maintained the software, and when there needed to be repairs, she was always there to fix or modify anything that went wrong.

Bonnie did programming for businesses, too, as she did for Campbell’s Restaurant and Supplies.

“She was fabulous,” said Linda Campbell, the retired owner of the company. “She had an odd talent for knowing what you wanted before you knew what you wanted. I couldn’t explain what I really wanted, and somehow she created just what I needed.”

“Bonnie was a great business person, but she had the gift of being able to do that without anyone realizing it,” said her brother. “She was just one of those people who when you she was talking to you, you felt like you were the only person in the whole world.”

Word of her work spread to other cities. Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Pismo Beach, and Atascadero all used her services. Though she wasn’t employed there to the extent of her services for San Luis Obispo, she worked on everything from building permits to land-use applications, planning applications that interact with the Geographic Information Systems maps—the software was customized and integrated perfectly with other systems.

She charged $35 an hour at first, and it was $65 an hour until very recently—far below the going rate for an information technology specialist. She made money, and she only worked only as hard as she wanted to work. Friends and family tried to convince her to sell her services to cities outside of the county, to hire employees and expand the business. She preferred to keep the business the size it was because she was content with her life and loved working with her customers.

Through the years, employees from the cities she worked for would tell her they had been advised not to rely on one person to do what she did, but they went with her anyway. She used to drive a little red Miata, her mother said, and city workers noticed it and joked she should be driving a safer car.

 “They said they should buy her a Humvee to protect their interests,” said Sue McKee, Bonnie’s mother.

Bonnie died March 26.

She was diagnosed in the middle of last year with a rare form of leukemia. At first she responded well to chemotherapy and people expected her to pull through. To help maintain her business when she was sick, she brought in her brother Wes to help.

The news of her death shocked everyone who knew her; it was unthinkable for someone so young and strong to die. In addition to the loss of Bonnie, her family had to deal with the death of her father Robert less than two weeks later. Her brother and her husband tried to keep her business going, but soon they and all her customers realized what many already knew: She couldn’t be replaced.

“We thought she was going to be fine, but then the disease came back and she was gone,” said Wes McKee, whom Bonnie brought in to help maintain the business after she was sick. “She thought we could do a lot of what she did, but it turned out to be impossible. The work she did was something unique. We didn’t realize it until she was gone.”

At first, Bonnie’s family thought they could follow her example. Her customers and family assumed they could find someone to handle the technical end of the business. Unfortunately, Bonnie never wrote down the modifications she made to the computer programs she worked with. Her most used program, Visual Firefox pro, was old—its roots go back to 1984—and its present maker, Microsoft, had stopped supporting it. Turns out there are few computer specialists still well versed in its intricacies, and the ones they did find were startled when they looked at the code.

“We must have had two dozen people say they could work on it,” Wes said. “But when they looked at it, they said no, it was too overwhelming. They hadn’t worked on it in years and she had been tinkering with the code for years.”

Wes realized Bonnie was the only person who could deal with her software creations. The programs were running fine, but they were ghost programs, which now ran without her guiding hand to watch over them.

At first, few city officials gave much though to what her loss meant for the city. Eight months after her death, workers for the cities and companies she worked with still choke up and cry when they talk about her. It wasn’t until late summer that city managers realized the trouble they were in.

Bill Statler, San Luis Obispo city finance director, loves Bonnie’s work.

His office is in the basement of SLO city hall. If you let him, he will go on and on about how amazing is the software Bonnie made for his city. A bald, robust man with a barrel-like physique, Statler is scheduled to leave at the end of the year, and he’s thought to know more about the inner workings of the city than anyone else.

When the subject of Bonnie comes up, he has a hard time not getting teary.

“Look, I didn’t know her that well compared to a lot of others around here,” he said. “If she was a guy, I would call her a mensch—just an extraordinary person, a really good person. Her death has a lot of ripples.”

When Bonnie got sick, many who worked with her at city hall were convinced she would pull through. Some knew her because they biked with her and some because she had been a large part of a program where parents would take turns walking their kids to school.

Statler said he thought Bonnie’s family would be able to handle the city’s software needs. In August, he realized the city had to rebuild most of its software. For a time, Statler and other officials thought they could find someone to deal with the software, but they ran into the same problems Wes McKee had run into: Bonnie had customized the programs so much they were just too hard to figure out.

 “Sometimes a program will bring up some data on the screen that is very helpful for the user,” Statler said. “It’s the right number we were looking for, but we can’t figure out how it did what it did. It’s a total mystery how it came up with it.”

So what happens if the ghost programs stop working?

“We don’t have a plan B,” Statler said. “I guess if something went wrong, we would have to go to a more manual way of doing things: Years ago, we collected building permit fees manually, for example, and I guess that’s the way we used to do things like that.”

San Luis Obispo, along with the other cities, is moving fast to change its software. The city has shrunk a process normally done in two years down to what it hopes to be six months. According to Statler, the city would normally spend $200,000 for a consultant and take its time deciding how to convert the city’s programs. The systems are now locked in place and, in a way, much of the city’s machinery is frozen, too. It would be difficult to amend—to change a value for building permits or a rate in the formula to determine a tax.

Statler hopes to begin the software installation in the spring. A report to the city council put the cost for the transition at $500,000 to $1.5 million, but IT specialists contacted by New Times say that the cost could easily balloon to a price many times higher.

An outside IT consulting firm warned the city in 2001 to not rely on one person for “mission critical applications.” The city ignored that advice and stayed with Bonnie McKee. A report to the city council states, “While this approach was not consistent with the IT Acquisitions and Support policy, the city was well served for many years by these custom, integrated applications provided at a low cost that did an excellent job of meeting City needs.”

A single person who shepherds a city or a company through decades of computer life is unheard of, said David Martin, head of I/O technologies, a Midwest software development company.

“That kind of work is mostly done by larger companies these days,” Martin said. “The cities are in for a rough transition compared with what they’re used to. That kind of individual care is special and very rare these days.”

The city is determined to go with a company that will provide “off the shelf” software. The city will be going from the software equivalent of a magnificent, custom-made suit to an off-the-rack special from K-mart. All of the city officials contacted for this story said they had no regrets about employing Bonnie. Everyone said her work was the best any contractor had ever done for their city. More importantly, they all said the best part of the experience was getting to know Bonnie McKee. ∆

Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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