When programmers ruled, everyone lived by the code
- By Richard W. Walker
- Aug 11, 2003
Turn the clock back 30 years and you encounter a very different work force in government computing.
In the days of massive mainframe computers, magnetic tape was the storage medium and terminals were dumb. Job functions were few.
'There were programmers and systems analysts and there wasn't much more than that,' said Phil Kiviat, a partner in the consulting firm Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik & Associates of Oak Hill, Va.
In 1972, when Kiviat became the first director of the Federal Computer Performance Evaluation and Simulation Center (FEDSIM), then run by the Air Force, computer workers were 20-something males.
Many of them were right out of college, armed with degrees in electrical engineering, or had come from other military organizations with three to five years of experience in the computing field, Kiviat said.
'The kings of the hill were the programmers,' said Frank McDonough, former deputy associate administrator for the Office of Intergovernmental solutions at the General Services Administration. 'They kept everything going. They had knowledge that nobody else had.'
McDonough, who recently joined Guerra, Kiviat & Flyzik after spending 38 years in government service, recalled how bifurcated job functions were in the early days.
'There was always this tension between the guys trying to design and develop the requirements, and the guys who knew the secret handshake'how to do the programming,' he said.
'The way systems were developed was totally different,' said Kathleen Adams, who spent 23 years in the IT sector at the Social Security Administration. 'There were partitions [between job functions]. Systems analysts would do requirements and then throw it over the wall to the programmers.'
At Social Security in the 1970s, it was not unusual for workers with nontechnical backgrounds and liberal arts degrees to learn about computer systems on the job or undergo training to become programmers or analysts, she said.
Adams landed at SSA with an English degree in 1972, working first as a policy analyst. In 1976, after an intensive training program, she became a systems analyst.
She had few women colleagues in the early days. But even well into the '80s, there weren't many women in government computing, especially in management.
'It wasn't unusual to go through a whole day of meetings where I would be the only woman in the room,' she said. 'I think that's changed a lot today, because a lot of women are going into the field.'
There also weren't many contractors in the room; most of the IT work was done in house.
'There was nothing you could think of as a professional services industry,' Kiviat said.
Agency IT employees who began their careers in the '60s or '70s, once on the job, viewed government work as a lifelong career. They tended to stay until retirement.
One reason was that, under the old civil service retirement system, employees lost their pensions if they left government too early. The system put federal workers into what was commonly referred to as 'golden handcuffs,' veterans of federal work said.
That began to change in 1987 when the Federal Employees Retirement System, which migrated most employees to the Social Security system, was implemented. FERS made it easier to depart.
If the demographics and job functions of yesterday's IT work force are vastly different from today's, so is the way the work force is viewed.
Twenty years ago, 'there was really a sense that people on the IT side were second-class citizens, just support people,' said Fred Thompson, who worked in government IT for 20 years.
'That has certainly changed,' he said. 'The work force is now viewed as a strategic part of the enterprise.'