One CIO's advice: Take baby steps

Education's Stephen Hawald urges agencies to replace only one legacy system at a time.

Henrik G. DeGyor

They had access to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a form to apply for federal and many state programs, but that was it, Hawald said.

"But today, students and parents have an entirely electronic experience for the whole lifecycle of a loan'from becoming aware of the loans, applying for them and paying the aid'all through a portal," he said.

Education assembled its Web offerings piece by piece. The services include:

  • A personal identification number for users to access other Education services can be obtained at

  • The Free Application for Federal Student Aid form can be completed online at

  • Borrowers can set up electronic debit service to have their loan payments deducted from an account automatically. Users can apply online at

To make the modernization successful, Hawald's office used a multipronged approach.
"The biggest key was never to build huge, big and long projects," Hawald. "You cut projects to small chunks and smaller deliverables."

The department undertook what Hawald described as "agile software development," in which applications were developed quickly and released in phases.

"That way you reduce risk and continue to build on your applications and validate them with customers," he said.

Education's software developers focused on users' needs when writing new applications and devised ways to meet them.

"With the help of focus groups, we are trying to figure out what the customer wants, like the private sector," Hawald said. "We then turn around and put the commercial product together."

Hawald's team of 89 employees collaborated with 200 employees from Accenture of Chicago, the prime contractor on Education's modernization program, to match the users' needs with IT requirements. Accenture signed a share-in-savings contract with the department in September 1999.

Talk about a generation

"We realize that we have online customers between 17 and 60 years old," he said. "But the bulk of them have grown up with computers, chat rooms and e-mail, and we have to cater to them."

Hawald said risk management has been critical to the modernization effort.

While working on the National Student Loan Data System, Education's central database for student aid, programmers kept their hands off the eligibility system, which determines students' eligibility for loans.

"You don't want to change the systems at the same time," Hawald said. "Those are probably the largest systems that we have. You never put so much at risk."

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