Before you continue, read ‘Puter’s post here for context*. And note, I’m going full-Puter with my footnotes.
Done? Ok, ‘Puter’s take on the issue is fine but let’s get to brass tax. The money quote from the NPR piece is this:
it is years behind schedule and millions over budget
Both sides of this transaction are to blame. First, the government has no spine. When a contractor begins to fail – let me repeat that with emphasis: when a contractor BEGINS to fail, the government needs to take action. They cannot let a program get “millions” of dollars over budget and “years” behind schedule. The root of the problem, in GorT’s professional** opinion, is that the government – largely in an effort to minimize efforts around acquisition and contract management, issues massive contracts that are 5+ years in duration and require aging software development methodologies. This combination has led many government agencies to an untenable situation: allocating 75%+ to their IT operations and maintenance budget and some portion of the remaining 25% towards new systems and upgrades. “Oh, but ‘the cloud’ will save Christmas for us”***, they say. Pffft. Again, many government agencies don’t understand what ‘the cloud’ is and there are many large integrator-type companies**** that still don’t know how to properly utilize it in order to realize the savings. But again, the root is that the government wants to make contract acquisition and management (on their side) easy.
This problem is nothing new. GorT’s first job was on a massive federal contract to update the systems that air traffic controllers use from airport towers to the enroute centers (that handle planes in between airports as they cross the country). It should have been issued as a number of smaller contracts to address individual pieces – but instead it was one big contract that eventually got the axe by Congress after years of mediocre progress.
On the other side of the contract, many federal contractors are satisfied in responding to the government’s Requests For Proposals (RFPs) by regurgitating what was asked for and not pushing back telling the government that there’s a better way to do this. And due to the ultra-competitive landscape, large contractors are working to submit the lowest cost bid as the government favors these LPTA (Lowest Price Technically Acceptable) awards. Well, never was there a case more applicable for the phrase: you get what you pay for….ugh, does anyone else think we should reword that to: you get that for which you paid? That preposition at the end bugs me.
We need to change the way things are done. Smaller contract terms, smaller contract amounts. If you’re going to fail, fail fast and fail cheap. It’s better if a $500k contract fails than a $3B contract. The government should consider what the operations & maintenance cost is on their contracts – if that is a growing tail, kill it. If the contract proposes proprietary data formats or data storage schemes, avoid it. Do not get locked in to a single provider.
ScottO said on twitter: “Join me in advocating the elimination of the IRS” and I couldn’t agree more. I still remain convinced that our tax code should be simplified such that at least 90% of Americans should be able to file via a postcard.
Lastly, if someone asked me to use my 25+ years of experience in developing federal-level computer systems, I wouldn’t pick Assembly as my primary language. I get that programming languages hadn’t evolved to the degree we have now when this system was put in place so choices were limited.
* GorT has programmed assembly on mainframes. 6502 Assembly on my Atari 800 was my 3rd programming language.
** 25 years of federal contracting experience developing IT systems with multiple successful deliveries (at/under budget and schedule), MS in EE/CS
*** For those that don’t get the reference, this was a quote for, if I remember correctly, for a Microsoft commercial for doing photo editing in their cloud infrastructure where the wife, worried about getting the Christmas cards out, remarks that, “the cloud will save Christmas” for them
**** GorT has worked for a few of these type of companies and is hoping his current one doesn’t evolve into one. You all know the names: Lockheed, SAIC, CACI, Leidos, Boeing, etc. etc.