INTERVIEW: Lothar Harris, DOD's tech transfer top dog

Automation faces a bumpy road

Lothar Harris

Lothar Harris, who spent 20 years in the Air Force, now is deputy director for policy automation in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Policy.

He manages a $30 million, three-year project called USXPORTS. The goal is to standardize the workflow interfaces of agencies and industries involved in U.S. export license control. Harris heads an interagency team whose members handle export licensing and technology transfer issues: the Commerce, Defense, Energy and State departments and some smaller agencies.

Harris received a bachelor's degree in computer science from California State University at Sacramento and studied software engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology.

GCN associate editor Dipka Bhambhani interviewed Harris at his Arlington, Va., office.

GCN: Do you think the government should have one chief information officer who reports to the president?

HARRIS: I think that would be a good thing. Many agencies are trying to do good things on their own. But with no central guidance, sometimes the interoperability just isn't there.

A strong central CIO could set standards and guidelines across agencies that would eliminate a lot of waste and focus the initiatives better.

GCN: What do you consider the most significant development in automation in your long career?

HARRIS: I think the cheap PC with cheap software is probably the most significant thing because it brought automation tools to everyone. It's becoming like a TV, a radio, a telephone. And that spreads out over the Web and brings everyone a little closer together electronically, too.

GCN: What about the most significant technological advances during the different administrations?

HARRIS: In the Nixon era, it was the great improvement in audio recording quality.

The Carter administration was generally flat in terms of technology improvement. My experience was one of declining Defense Department budgets'constantly being asked to trim and cut'and I didn't see a lot in my area being improved. I was overseas at that time, and the economy wasn't doing too well. I had to maintain older equipment, and spare parts were hard to get. It was not a dynamic era.

Under presidents Reagan and Bush, there was significant electronic advancement: the missile defense initiative, computing power, optics and guidance systems. The large-scale development of advanced technology for the average user at affordable prices began.

Former vice president Gore did a lot to advance the Internet'even though some people disagree that he invented it. He in fact did do a lot to push knowledge of the Internet and electronic commerce.

It's still a little early to judge the new Bush administration, but it looks like it is going in the right direction. They are evaluating all the programs. They see the benefits of automation; they're going to be pushing it.

GCN: You retired after serving 20 years in the Air Force and now work for DOD as a civilian. What are the biggest differences between working in and out of uniform?

HARRIS: As a military worker, you have a much more narrow focus; you're mission-oriented. Normally you are involved in a very defined job role.


  • Family: Wife, Darlana; two children, Timothy and Katherine Tala

  • Hero: Actor John Wayne, who inspired the American public imagination of a hero

  • Motto: 'Lead, follow or get out of the way.'

  • Favorite Web site:

  • Leisure activities: Golfing, swimming and hiking

  • Favorite movie: 'Young Frankenstein'

  • As a civilian worker, I see the opportunity to be the corporate memory. Military officers come and go; civilians are less likely to move. They also form an important training element.

    GCN: What are the longest and shortest projects you've worked on?

    HARRIS: The longest project is the one I recently left, building the network center for the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense Policy. That lasted four years and was very challenging.

    I had three short tours. During a one-year tour to an island off the coast of Okinawa, I provided communications support to a bomb and gunnery range, as well as worldwide weather data intercepts. I learned to snorkel there and visited World War II journalist Ernie Pyle's grave.

    Another one-year tour was to the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. I was site chief for a tropospheric scatter communications complex, which relayed communications between Spain and Italy. I learned all about how cork trees were harvested.

    I had another yearlong tour to Elmadag, Turkey, near the capital of Ankara. There I learned about the culture of Turkey and visited sites such as Ephesus and churches in Cappadocia.

    GCN: What has been the most nerve-racking project you've worked on?

    HARRIS: Installation of the network at the Pentagon. There were renovations going on at the same time that you had operational requirements you had to meet, and the system had to be up while you were expanding it.

    Even though it was nerve-racking, it was also one of the most enjoyable jobs I've ever had. You could actually see the fruits of your labors.

    GCN: Have you noticed a change in the way people at DOD think about technology?

    HARRIS: People are getting more computer-savvy. They know what to ask for now. Before when they talked about systems, they thought of a huge room with magnetic tapes and card punches. People never went there; all they did was get the listings. Now they interface more directly. The younger people are really getting right down into the nuts and bolts.

    GCN: What's your opinion about the progress of public-key infrastructure technologies?

    HARRIS: I've been involved with electronic security for quite some time, but only about a year and a half or two years with PKI. It seems to be moving quite rapidly at DOD, which is charting a course for strong protection mechanisms while other agencies are charting the course for more business-friendly mechanisms.

    The two currently are incompatible and require a federal PKI bridge to interoperate. A strong central CIO might have averted that problem. That's not to say either solution is good or bad. We've reached a point in time where they need to talk to each other, and we find incompatibilities.

    GCN: What was your reaction to passage of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act?

    HARRIS: One of the biggest complaints we've heard throughout the military was too much paperwork. Even today no matter where you go, paperwork and bureaucracy are synonymous. I think GPEA is a good idea; it has the best intentions. It's difficult to implement, however.

    Take document management. The federal archivists are wrestling with the courts and with users on how to archive documents electronically. We have the same problem at DOD. We still have manual file plans that are required for electronic documents. We just don't have good mechanisms in place to use electronic documentation.

    GCN: How do you think government will deal with a paperless society?

    HARRIS: I think government is trying to be on the cutting edge, and in many areas it is. But the global marketplace is now driving business-to-business and individual-to-business technology. Government is downsizing its role in furthering technological advancement.

    For instance, the Postal Service might stop Saturday delivery. It's losing money because people are using e-mail, and USPS has a lot of competition from other places.

    Day-to-day pressure on the job doesn't allow much time for people to sit down and learn or take training. People that do take training mostly succeed. Those that are unwilling to learn, well, they'll be retiring, and the younger generation that grew up with the computer will take their place.

    Technology is a wonderful thing. I buy the newest gadgets, and I just love that stuff. But I grew up in a world of vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes are warm. They have a glow, and I miss that. Solid-state devices don't have the warmth.


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