Keep a grip on the reins

Stepping away from your own point of view can give you a new perspective on your own
problems.


It happened to me--and I suspect some federal systems chiefs, too--at the recent
Information Processing Interagency Conference in New Orleans.


Steven Junk, vice president for information systems at Sears, Roebuck & Co., spoke
at length about his company's travails in using systems to bring the old-line retailer
into the '90s.


As a big, far-flung organization, Sears has much in common with government agencies. It
has huge data processing requirements coupled with a customer-oriented front end that's
critical to success. It deals with thousands of suppliers via electronic commerce, and it
has both legacy systems and new technology. Plus it has--or had--a big year 2000 problem.


Also like agencies, Sears prefers to buy off-the-shelf technology.


According to Junk, Sears discovered that data warehousing was the way to make sense of
its voluminous retail information. It set out to build warehousing applications.


What caught my ear was Junk's assertion that the tools Sears bought for data
warehousing all required extensive custom coding by Sears' programmers--not just a few
apps but the whole kit and caboodle of products from propagation tools to data loading
utilities. Warehouse tools on the market, it turns out, just don't hit the mark for any
single customer.


For a government hell-bent on buying commercial products, as indeed it should be, the
message countered the notion that the government can somehow get out of the programming
business.


Even when an agency uses contractors for a warehousing project--or to create any
complex system built of commercial parts--it should expect that some custom coding will be
necessary.


Whether agencies do jobs in-house or outsource them, they clearly must retain intimate
knowledge of modern products and programming techniques. The government, therefore, must
retain at least a cadre of technically astute employees.


Without such expertise, agencies risk losing institutional knowledge about their code
and thus the ability to update or document it. That's tantamount to losing control of the
systems altogether.


Outsourcing and commercial products cannot lead to abdicating responsibility.


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