Great Scott! Going back in time… to fix federal IT belly flops

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2014_02_Technocrat-2Greetings to all my fellow techies. I think most of us in the Washington, D.C., area are pretty sick of winter at this point. But dreams of cherry blossoms on the Potomac and a balmy spring will have to wait a bit longer as it looks like winter didn’t end with February’s passing. March seems to want to roar in on us like a terrorizing lion instead of a fluffy little lamb.

I had planned to attend the Microsoft Federal Forum going on downtown early this week to hear former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge speak about the state of cybersecurity threats. I also have some interviews lined up with Microsoft executives to chat about recent advances in mobility and device security. Unfortunately, my attendance at those events may come down to how efficient the snowplows are at digging out the region. During the last big storm, I was trapped at home behind a wall of snow for more than 48 hours. Depending on how things go, I’ll let you know what I find out at the forum.

Thankfully Microsoft, who is sponsoring the event, has a pretty robust online component anyone can view and attend. So, anyone who can’t make it might be able to snag a virtual seat right beside me, if we all get trapped again.

But let’s move on to the time machine adventure I promised you all last week. I recently watched the “Safety Not Guaranteed” movie, which was based on a semifamous classified newspaper ad really posted by author John Silveira that read “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.” The ad got thousands of responses, and the P.O. box listed apparently still gets mail every day.

It seems like there are many people interested in time travel, and I happen to be one of them. I really love the concept of trying to right the wrongs of bygone days by going into the past. I was pondering what I would do if I had such power. I pretty much ruled out anything frivolous, like going to the racetrack or buying yesterday’s lottery ticket. Employing that kind of power for personal gain just didn’t seem quite right. I also eliminated anything really world-changing because the “what-ifs” are just too great. So, no killing Adolf Hitler as a baby or anything like that. We’ve all seen enough sci-fi movies to know that those types of plans never work out the way we predict.

Instead, I’m going to use my newly constructed time machine to fix some type of failed government technology rollout. Armed with reams of data from the future, I plan to show the relevant CIOs, contracting officers and companies involved that their plans are going nowhere fast, and hopefully save a few billion dollars here and there.

I could probably write an entire book about why government technology programs fail. But instead, I just want to fix one program. If that works and my meddling doesn’t somehow turn rain into beer or make J. Fred Mugs president during the 1980s instead of Ronald Reagan, I can always go back and fix other programs.

I’m just wondering which one I should choose for my inaugural journey into the past, and why. Of course, the most-publicized rollout hiccup in recent memory was the Affordable Care Act website problems from last year. While it would be a short hop for the time machine, I’m not really sure this one could qualify as a failure given the federal site seems to be fixing most of its problems.

There have been many others that never even saw the light of day. Take the FBI’s Virtual Case File project, started back in September 2000, which had the goal of bringing together in one place the bureau’s many records. Five years and $170 million later, the software didn’t even have the basic functionality or security required by law enforcement, and it was canceled.

A bigger belly flop was made by the Air Force in 2007 with the Enterprise Resource Planning program, which was designed to help all of the technologies used by that service communicate more effectively. But after five years, it was nonfunctional and abandoned — at a cost of more than $1 billion.

Going back a bit farther, does anyone remember the IRS modernization program? The agency we all have a deadline to report to in a couple weeks needed to upgrade its systems in the late ‘90s, but really didn’t know how. So, the agency spent a lot of money, somewhere close to $4 billion of that tax money it collected, and admitted in 1997 it had nothing to show for it. Somehow, everyone had to pay their taxes anyway. Go figure.

And that brings us to the Y2K issue. Depending on whom you believe, the government’s $134 billion spent in efforts to fix the two-date field problem was successful in preventing Armageddon, as evidenced by the fact that nothing went wrong New Year’s Day of 2000. But there are others who claim nothing would have happened anyway, that computers don’t really care about the date field all that much, and other than giving retired COBOL programmers some nice extra income, the money was wasted. From a time traveler’s prospective, it’s hard to fix a problem if we don’t know if one really existed or not.

So, what do you think? Did I miss any programs that should be targeted by our time machine, or should one of these be our first target? The flux capacitor is all warmed up, and I’ve even got an extra seat or two if anyone wants to come along. We just need a destination.

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