Editor’s Note: The following story is taken from a book-length work authored by a senior Federal IT official currently working in government. This is one part of an extensive, firsthand account of how IT decisions are made, the obstacles standing in the way of real change in government technology management, and what one career Federal IT employee really thinks about the way government does IT.
Because the author is a current government employee and is concerned about the impact this may have on their career, we’ve agreed to publish this series of weekly excerpts under the author’s chosen pseudonym—Demosthenes.
MeriTalk has agreed not to make substantive changes to any of the weekly chapters.
— Dan Verton, Executive Editor
The first thing you should know about me is that I’m lazy. I am so lazy I could literally sit on the couch all day, eat Girl Scout cookies and watch episodes of Game of Thrones. And when I say couch, I mean the one in my bedroom so that I don’t even need to travel that far from bed to the couch. So, I am really, really lazy.
I’m also pissed off. I’m so angry about people making stupid, short-sighted decisions that I would have to say my frustration is a stronger drive than my laziness. As a result, I am working to write down all of the dumb shit we have been doing in Federal IT with the hope that the next administration will read some of this. My hope is that if they are more sensitive to the challenges we face they will be better equipped to make smarter decisions.
About me: I’m a Federal employee in the IT space. I have been for a long enough time to have seen the evolution. I have been all over the place and learned from the best and the worst. I am reluctant to tell you more about myself because some of what I will say will be unpopular with the current administration and leadership. I’m not giving away secrets or dealing with classified information. Rather, there is a bubble around the president when it comes to Federal IT. The people who created that bubble are intent on sustaining it. I intend to pop it, and that would make me a target for reprisal. So I am not going to share more about me, but I will share my experiences and insights with you. My hope is that if I level-set with this knowledge, you will make better, more informed decisions and that benefits all of us.
Earlier in my career, probably too early to be working on a system of this size and impact, I was in charge of a $10 million redesign of a legacy mainframe system. It was a tough environment, a failing contractor and business stakeholders that couldn’t agree on anything. In the end we spent $6 million and had nothing to show for it but a bunch of paper. It was a total failure, a waste of money, and time. Most importantly, the people who were supposed to be helped by having this system better, more efficient, weren’t getting helped. I was actually hailed as a hero because I got us out of the project without spending the full $10 million. But that $6 million waste really burned me up. I was mad as hell and I have made it my mission to return that money back to the taxpayers by doing a better job myself and by sharing my experiences with anyone who will listen.
After that project was canceled I took it upon myself to collect data and write a Lessons Learned document. That document was 35 pages in length. I went to grad school and in my Master’s program I had a team exercise in which we had to write a project retrospective. My team chose to go with my project and we cranked out 72 pages on the subject. It is remarkable, but this failure is the reason I went into my proverbial laboratory to figure out the “right” way to do stuff. I clearly already knew one of the wrong ways to do a development project. But there is an unlimited supply of wrong ways. The world is full of ‘don’t do this’ types of stories. You can go to GAO, Federal News Radio, MeriTalk or any number of outlets to find stories of failed projects and a long list of shit that doesn’t work. But where is the thing that tells you what you ought to do? Where is there someone who is modeling the good behaviors that others could or should emulate? It is one thing to tell a person what he or she does that is wrong, it is something else entirely to say what is right.