Frye's IT career advice: Not so fast

'I believe it would be a huge mistake for the Air Force to do away with that [programmer] job classification.'

'Robert Frye

After 33 years of military and civilian federal service, the recently retired Bob Frye knows a thing or two about management, and some of his knowledge flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

Frye believes there is value in sticking with a job and not hopping from post to post. And he thinks federal workers'in his case young airmen and women'should do the detailed technical work that many agencies are throwing over to contractors.

Many observers consider longevity in the same job a bad thing. Organizations and people need constant change, the conventional wisdom says, and the military moves senior officers in and out of posts every two years or so.

But Frye, who held his job as director of the Air Force's Standard Systems Group at Gunter Annex-Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., for more than seven years, sees it a little differently.

'Absolutely' there is an advantage in longevity, Frye says, as long as it isn't taken to extremes. 'Seven years is about the outside of the spectrum as it makes sense,' he said, just days before retiring.

He said his years on the job meant steady emphasis on things that simply take years, for example, moving SSG from an immature software organization to level three on the Capability Maturity Model of the Software Engineering Institute.

'That takes a lot of time and effort to institute. It took us two years to go from level one to level two, and another two years to go to level three. Then it is hard to sustain,' Frye said. 'In the software business, it takes a long time to effect change.'

Change is needed

But Frye believes that the same longevity that provides continuity on long-term efforts can eventually stifle an organization.

'Organizations take on your personality,' he said of leaders, 'and organizations need to change. Things I put in five years ago'maybe they don't make sense anymore. If there's a better way, we need to do it. Sometimes you need to change leadership to effect change.'

Another common wisdom, especially in the armed forces, is that core technical work'in this case writing software code'is best done by contractor workers and not by uniforms. That is what's happening in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. But Frye bristles at the notion.

'Still a large percentage of our programmer work force is military. We absolutely are different from the other armed forces,' Frye said. 'These kids are great programmers. We have our programmers longer than the average in industry, a solid three years' of their four-year enlistment, because it takes a year to train them. By contrast, private-sector programmers typically stay no longer than 18 months.

'And, by the way, we don't pay them a lot of money,' Frye added.

Recently, one of SSG's more talented code jockeys re-upped for another four years. Frye, astonished, asked why.

'His answer was, 'I really like what I'm doing, it's important and you give me a lot more responsibility than I would get in industry.' '

Frye is convinced military programmers aren't motivated by money but rather by the chance to do important things.

He points to the SSG-developed Computer Aided Load Manifesting Program, an application that guides aircraft loadmasters visually through the proper way to arrange a given load to maintain a plane's balance.

'Two young enlisted troops did that entire program. It's used on every Air Force plane, plus a lot of Army and Navy craft,' Frye said.

After last year's Sept. 11 attacks, Frye said, SSG's routines didn't change immediately, nor was there panic. But a couple of months later, as the Air Force mobilized to strike back, SSG's people rose to the occasion, Frye recalled.

SSG sustained a vast increase in help desk calls, updates and general intensity. People worked 12-hour days, he said.


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