Can Fran Zovko Debug Allegheny County?

Computer Services director works out glitches in department and technology

Fran Zovko

Fran Zovko's foray into public service began as a two-year stint as administrator of the Allegheny County law department in 1996.

A computer software salesman by trade, Mr. Zovko said he made the leap as a favor to longtime friend Kerry Fraas, the Allegheny county solicitor.

Mr. Fraas remembers Mr. Zovko’s first action was to marshal the 25 support staff members and ask how he could help them do their jobs.

The result was an overhaul of legal department spending, technology and staffing.

Mr. Fraas describes his friend as a “technical wizard” with instinctive people and management skills. “One of the things he did as a non-lawyer--- he gained the respect and goodwill of the 40 attorneys in the department,” Mr. Fraas said.

In April, Mr. Zovko attracted the attention of county commissioners Mike Dawida and Bob Cranmer, who needed someone to head the computer services department. Joe Kriss, the director of the county’s General Services Department as well as the computer division, had resigned. On the way out, Mr. Kriss had complained that the computer division had too many problems and too little funding.

Mr. Zovko brings “self-taught” technological skills to the job, but relatively little management experience.

He has operated a computer sales, service and consulting business, CAD Technologies, from his McKeesport home since 1992, and helped a friend start up a similar venture, Mechanical Engineering System Associates, in Canonsburg, in 1996.

“Success was basically measured in whether I got paid or not,” Mr. Zovko said.

Before that, he sold computer engineering design tools for Computer Research Inc., of Coraopolis. He and Computer Research president Frank Moser met up again in April, when the firm was chosen as a Year 2000 bug consultant for the county’s computer services division.

The bug is a programming glitch expected to cause widespread failure in older computer systems when 1999 turns into 2000, because of the way those systems record dates.

The county faces potentially se-rious exposure from the so-called Y2K bug.

Down the hall from the director's office, in the Allegheny County office on Ross Street, is a locked “command-center” with the county's mainframe computer, a gaggle of workstations and PCs, an industrial-sized printer for county paychecks and an Internet server for 2,000 county users.

In today’s Allegheny County, technology includes 30-some network servers, 2,500 personal computers using a variety of operating systems, and dozens of software applications.

Those computers manage just about everything, including internal administration, property value and tax assessments, and data for social service arms of the county. Many of these functions could be impaired or imperiled by the Y2K bug.

Mr. Zovko just installed a new mainframe system in order to begin the process of addressing the problem. But although the new hardware is safe against the Y2K bug, the software code, which runs programs on the mainframe, has to be checked as well. Until the code is proofed, Mr. Zovko won’t know the extent of the county’s Y2K problems.

Working with limited time and money, Mr. Zovko said he has been forced to deal first with “mission-critical” applications — including the county’s land files, its new 911 system and software used to run the courts, the jail and the Kane hospitals.

He plans to hire 15 employees in the next month to work on solutions to these problems.

“I think Fran’s had a range of experience in technical areas, and I think the sum total of those experiences — even if they’re not directly applicable to the job — they still help a person solve problems and understand more possibilities,” said MESA president Sam Runyon.

Some — like disenfranchised county commissioner Larry Dunn have criticized Mr. Zovko’s spending, including about $3 million in “contingency appropriations” of cash beyond his department's $4 million 1998 budget.

But Mr. Zovko said the administration has assured him he will have the resources needed to update the county’s computers.

Jane Harter, a senior budget an-alyst for the county budget and finance department, dismissed criticism of Mr. Zovko’s spending. Past directors, such as Mr. Kriss, who said they didn’t have the resources to run computer services, simply “never appreciated” what was available to them.

“I believe (the office’s past financial woes) were the result of a communications problem,” she said.

Although Mr. Zovko’s primary management experience comes from his work at the county, law department over the last two years, his colleagues say he has a knack for overcoming communications problems and working with people.

Computer Research’s Mr. Moser said charisma is one Mr. Zovko’s strengths.

“Fran had that ability to motivate — inspire, cajole, charm others into doing things for him,” Mr. Moser said.

He said Mr. Zovko is doing the same thing with his new staff.

“Today (the staff is) meeting regularly to discuss goals and reporting on their progress toward those goals — and doing so with smiles on their faces,” he said.