The business end of IT drives change
- By Richard W. Walker
- Aug 11, 2003
'The IT folks have to understand how to manage large programs and how to manage a combined team of government people and contractors,' says Renato DiPentima, a veteran of government and industry.
'In the late 1970s, the guys who ran the IT shop had the attitude that they were going to make all the decisions,' former SSA official Kathleen Adams says.
Transformation efforts give rise to government's new managerial class
'If I look at the skills I need most, it's not techie. It's somebody who can bridge the gap between a business requirement and the technical solution.' GSA's G. Martin Wagner says.
Mirroring the drive to transform government, the federal IT work force is undergoing its own transformation.
'In a sense, it's part of a trend from blue collar to white collar'going from doing it yourself to hiring someone else to do it, which means you need a different level of skill,' the General Services Administration's G. Martin Wagner said.
'It's not that you want Java programmers,' said Wagner, GSA's associate administrator for governmentwide policy. 'It's that you want people who know how to manage the contractors who [provide] the Java programmers. It's a different set of skills'and skills that change pretty quickly because today's technology need is likely to be a different one tomorrow, so you need to stay flexible.'
Even the government's IT job classifications are undergoing a radical change. The archaic GS-334 computer specialist series, a job designation created in 1965 that encompassed the bulk of the government's civilian IT work force, is soon to be history.
Replacing it is the GS-2210 IT management series, which includes 10 specific job functions'everything from policy and planning and network services to systems security and customer support.
Agencies have converted more than 70 percent of their 334 series jobs to the 2210 series. The Office of Personnel Management has decreed that agencies must complete their 334 reclassifications by January.
A key word in the new 2210 series is 'management.'
Indeed, a major factor in the transformation of the work force is the rise of government's new IT managerial class.
In its Analytical Perspectives report on the 2004 budget, the Office of Management and Budget describes the function and role of the new IT managerial class:
'The skills required of today's IT workforce have less to do with technology than with developing and justifying business cases, building and leading cross-functional and cross-organizational teams, and planning and monitoring contractor cost, schedule and performance.'
To a large degree, the transformation in government IT management reflects the ongoing boom in e-government and the unremitting push for integrated government.
'Solutions [or enterprise] architects are needed to oversee the integration of people, process and technology elements of a successful program,' OMB says in its Analytical Perspectives. 'Project managers are needed to lead and direct myriad government and contractor personnel while interfacing with program and oversight officials.'
Technology skills aren't enough in the world of transformed government. Managers must have business acumen and management expertise as well.
'If I look at the skills I need most, it's not techie. It's not somebody who can program,' Wagner said. 'It's somebody who can bridge the gap between a business requirement and the technical solution.'
The divide between missions and systems is part of the history of government IT. In the old days, when mainframe computers and data processing ruled the kingdom, computer specialists tended to work in their own orbit, almost isolated from the rest of the agency, say government IT veterans.Communication breakdown
'In the late 1970s, the guys who ran the IT shop had the attitude that they were going to make all the decisions about what they would code and what kind of systems they were going to build,' said Kathleen Adams, who spent more than two decades in IT at the Social Security Administration, rising to become the agency's assistant deputy commissioner for systems before departing for the private sector in 1999.
As a result, the mainframe shops tended to drive agency business and not the other way around, said Adams, now vice president and director of health systems for SRA International Inc. of Arlington, Va.
'One of the big gaps was the inability of the technical people to communicate with the business people,' agreed Fred Thompson, who spent about 20 years in IT at OPM, the IRS and the Treasury Department before leaving government service last year. He now is a director of Unisys Corp.'s e-government operations.
'You would hand over a set of business requirements and they would be converted to a program which may or may not have had much to do with that set of business requirements,' Thompson said.
That kind of disconnect is no longer be tolerated in an era when performance and results are paramount. Agencies must focus on their agency's core mission'and use their systems to accomplish it, OMB officials say.
For agency IT managers, meeting business goals means efficient and effective use of outside contractors, who now form part of the government's IT work force.
Certainly, managing contract personnel has become an intrinsic part of the job.
SSA is a case in point. It hires contractors for their expertise in highly specialized areas, to fill skill gaps, or to provide support when the agency is migrating to new applications, said Dean Mesterharm, the agency's deputy CIO.
At the same time, the agency also trains its in-house managers in those areas. It's crucial to have managers who thoroughly understand the technologies so they can properly manage the contractors, Mesterharm said.
'To completely turn something over to an outside individual and not have the knowledge and background [in house] to manage that area is not a position that we want to be in,' he said.
About 15 percent of SSA's 2,800-plus IT work force is contractor personnel, he said.
This amalgam of agency personnel and contractors makes managing an IT work force ever more complex.
'More and more, the IT folks have to understand how to manage large programs and how to manage a combined team of government people and contractors,' said Renato DiPentima, former deputy commissioner for systems at SSA.
DiPentima, senior vice president of SRA International, said the big questions facing a government manager today are: 'How do I manage an environment in which contractors and in-house people both have an important role? And how do I train my in-house people to do more and more collaboration with and more oversight of contractors, rather than the actual program development themselves?'
With the use of outside contractors on the rise in government, IT work forces are becoming intermingled, Wagner said.Work force merger
Government IT is becoming 'much more porous. There are contract personnel working side-by-side with federal personnel,' he said.
Thompson envisions the federal and commercial IT work forces merging, in effect, into one IT work force, with technical workers moving in and out of the two spheres as government continues to migrate toward commercial business models, and government and commercial practices become more congruent.
'The type of work we're asking people to do and the type of management skills we're asking for is more consistent between the commercial work force and federal work force than it used to be,' he said. 'It's less of a unique skill set [in government work].'
He noted, for example, that managing procurement contracts in government is becoming more like managing contracts in the private sector.
'Where we once had detailed specifications, we're now more focused on performance outcomes, which is more like commercial contracting,' he said.
Ira Hobbs, deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department, cautions that managers shouldn't become overly reliant on contractors. Instead, they should make strategic use of their work forces, both agency and contract personnel.
'It's fairly evident that as the government recognizes that there are some lines of business that we just shouldn't be in, you're going to see some increases in the number of contractors that are working for us,' he said. 'But the key is to make sure you're using all of the tools in your toolkit, not just one'opting to contract out.'
For one thing, managers need to bring in bright new talent, Hobbs said. But they also need to make strategic use of the skilled workers they already have on board, retraining them when appropriate and moving them to new areas of responsibility, Hobbs said.
'You need to be building a work force that allows for succession,' he said. 'One of my cardinal rules is that if your people aren't moving on to bigger and better things, then you probably aren't creating a work force that is well trained, highly mobile and can operate at high levels of efficiency.'
To be sure, members of the government's new managerial class face a host of such work force challenges.
But one thing they have over their commercial counterparts, observers say, is pride in public service.
'The thing that government has that has always been attractive is its mission,' DiPentima said. 'Whether it's Social Security or the National Weather Service or the intelligence community'these are missions that can stimulate the imagination of people, who say to themselves, 'That's important, I really want to do it.''
Wagner said that working in government IT management offers also clout unmatched in the private sector.
'You can come and work for us and at a very junior grade and salary be in charge of massive programs that you'd never get to manage if you're in a private company,' he said.