Go ahead; be a nerd

An old sales saying runs something like: 'Nothing happens until someone buys something.' A uniquely American-sounding aphorism, there is a germ of truth in the notion that the willing trade of value for value is fundamental to the economy.

When it comes to IT, a comparable saying might be: 'Nothing happens until someone installs something.' That is'after all the architectures, business cases, budgets, exhibit 300s and acquisitions are done'somebody somewhere has to put software on a computer and get it to work.

With growing frequency, that somebody comes from industry.

Perhaps the distance from managerial hands-on encounters with technology explains why many agencies are hiring chief technology officers to augment their CIOs. The many management'and political'issues that consume CIOs require them to have someone else around to figure out the nuts and bolts.

The Office of Management and Budget, joined by many agency procurement executives, urges program managers to use performance-based contracts. Few are doing it, but the phrase is catching on. It makes sense: Tell contractors what you want to accomplish, and let them tell you how they'll do it. For example, if you want a world-class customer call center, why not hire a company with experience installing them for other customers?

But program and executive managers sense danger if agencies lose their nose for technology. Understanding the marketplace and the products it develops can keep you from being snowed by contractors'or your own technical underlings. It can give you a sense of the possible versus the practical. It can give you a shrewder ability to tell if a proposal simply smells right.

Certainly the last 15 years of technological advancements have had their promising, but ultimately dead-end, developments. Twelve-inch optical technology, for example, comes to mind. A couple of agencies purchased bushels of Apple Newtons.

Sound technology and sound management, in reality, aren't too far apart. Both need your agency's attention.

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