SPOTLIGHT - View from the trenches

What do trenches have to do with people who work in the realm of federal
information systems?


The word trench derives from the Middle English trenche, meaning a track cut through a
wood or in the ground. Many modern locutions using the word issue from the Great War, 1914
to 1918, where muddy trenches were the leading edge of the battle on the Western Front.
Thus, the phrase “in the trenches” connotes being on the front line, at the
heart of the battle, in the muck and mire, down and dirty.


To be in the trenches also means you are at the vanguard, where advances into new
territory begin.


Accordingly, our information technology trenchers are the feds who toil at the very
heart of the information systems that keep government communications moving.


To be sure, they’re out there on the IS front, fighting the small, daily battles
to keep systems up and running smoothly.


But they’re also constantly working to enhance those systems and develop new ones.
They’re looking ahead and leading the charge for innovation.


Our feds in the trenches work in different parts of the government at disparate jobs.


Some, such as Elizabeth Wilkinson, IS integrator for the Office of Information
Technology Integration in the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology
Service, must keep track of widely distributed systems used by federal IT managers and
contracting officers across the country.


Others, such as Joe Griffin and James Franklin, National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration researchers at the National Oceanic and Meteorological Laboratory’s
Hurricane Research Division in Miami, are finely focused. Their world consists of two Unix
workstations and a Gulfstream jet.


But what ties these feds together is creative drive.


One of Wilkinson’s teams last year captured the Government Technology Leadership
award for a paperless, Lotus Notes procurement system that lets managers prepare and
package a request, then track the order through the acquisition process. She is now
working on a new project that will integrate financial, tracking and ordering and
administrative systems for her users at ITI.


In 1997, Griffin and Franklin each won a bronze medal, the highest honor given by the
Commerce Department, for conceiving and developing the Hurricane Analysis and Processing
System, a Unix system designed to save countless lives and dollars by improving the
accuracy of hurricane forecasting.


A ruggedized HAPS workstation is mounted aboard NOAA’s Gulfstream IV research jet,
which flies into storms to gather data.


Griffin, a mathematician, wrote the software for HAPS’ windsondes, remote sensors
that are dropped from the jet to relay meteorological measurements back to HAPS at
half-second intervals.


The windsondes give scientists the most accurate wind-speed readings ever taken from
hurricanes.


Meanwhile, on board the Gulfstream IV, scientists at the HAPS workstation monitor the
data with software that Franklin, a meteorologist, wrote.


“We’re pushing to get more information back to the Hurricane Center in real
time,” he said. He knows about the importance of accurately forecasting the paths of
monster storms: He grew up in Redlands, a community southwest of Miami that was devastated
by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.


At the Marines’ Manpower and Reserve Affairs Information Systems Division in
Arlington, Va., Maj. Darrell Philpot, director of the IT branch, is overseeing the
development of Marine Online, an intranet that will let Marines all over the world get
e-mail, check on the latest Corps news and use chat rooms.


Philpot’s vision for Marine Online includes the paperless processing of
administrative functions. Why not let Marines apply on the Web for leave, he said, and let
the bureaucrats do the paper shuffling?


Paperless procurement processing is on the way at the Navy’s Space and Naval
Warfare System Command headquarters in San Diego, where computer specialist Manny Adriano
is preparing to bring the Defense Department’s standard procurement system online.


Once the system is online, contractors will be able to click on SPAWAR’s Web site,
view contracts up for bid and develop proposals.


In Boston, while trying to keep up with a tumult of network problems, Jim LeVerso,
regional systems chief for the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings
Service for the New England region, keeps an eye on the future.


He said he wants “to identify areas that we could possibly automate by using our
knowledge of the industry to design systems to do what we want them to do.”


When PBS’ Property Management Division decided to decentralize its seven field
offices, LeVerso and his team had to design a workstation that would deliver plenty of
connection speed and functionality to staff members at desktops in remote locations. It
took them just four months to set up 30 workstations running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 that
gave the employees what they needed.


Of course, there are trials as well as triumphs for feds in the trenches.


“I think it’s a common frustration of systems people that no one calls you
when it’s going well,” Wilkinson lamented.


Philpot has little patience for what he calls miscommunication. He said he gets
exasperated when he thinks he has an understanding with someone about a project goal, only
to return later to find the goal unmet. “I walk away expecting them to get to that
goal,” he said.


He realizes, however, that many people simply aren’t used to working as quickly as
he does. “It’s the pace,” he conceded.


There are the long, long hours. During hurricane season, the 17-hour days sometimes get
to NOAA’s Franklin.


Despite the thrill of planning and flying missions, he said he’s often
“really tired and ready to go home.”


Then there are the technological impediments. Adriano said he broods about lack of
bandwidth.


Feds in the trenches manage to find ways to cope with the day-to-day frustrations and
demands of their jobs.


Philpot, for example, makes a point of having breakfast with his wife and kids, the
only peace he’ll get during the day. Wilkinson lifts weights at 5 a.m. before going
to the office. Adriano’s solution is just to stay calm.


At day’s end, however, they all acknowledge they relish what they do. Philpot
could be speaking for all of our trenchers when he said, “It’s a challenge,
it’s fun, and I love it.”

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