On Top Of IT

How you manage your contractors can make or break a technology project.

In 2005, the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa., had a typical software problem. An increasing number of local police agencies, sheriffs' offices and federal investigative units were logging on to the center's Real-Time Analytical Intelligence Database, called RAID, to search for information such as suspects' names, aliases, known addresses and financial assets. So many law enforcement officers were tapping into RAID (thousands of them), that the response times of the 10-year-old system were beginning to drag. Sometimes it crashed altogether, causing investigators to lose critical data.

NDIC's information technology staff members knew they had to upgrade the system to handle the bigger workload, but they also knew they didn't have the resources and knowledge in-house, particularly an expertise in Microsoft .NET technology. Much of the work would have to be contracted out.

Sound like the beginnings of a typical government-bungles-IT-contract story? Not this time. The upgrade, started under a $2.5 million contract awarded to Baltimore-based technology firm e.magination, came in on time and within budget, and improved law officers' ability to close criminal cases. Since the upgrade's launch in July 2006, RAID has supported more than 100 investigations targeting drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism and other illegal activities. In one case, RAID was used to mine documents and computers seized in Brazil, Columbia, Panama and the United States to nab more than 100 suspects in a Columbian drug- trafficking ring and seize more than 47 metric tons of cocaine. "One intel analyst describes the upgraded RAID as 'a magic toolbox that has the wrench or screwdriver that will fit any nut or screw,' " says Dave Bonski, chief of the technical services branch for NDIC. Ask what leads to successful IT projects and inevitably "open communications" will emerge as the buzz phrase. This was the case with RAID. But there's grit in the details when it comes to producing that kind of open dialogue, and it starts with hands-on management of the vendor, Bonski says. For Bonski and his IT team, that meant weekly conference calls, monthly in-person status meetings, and trips from Johnstown to e.magination's Baltimore offices for on-site demonstrations, each of which could last one day or several. Effective communication also meant developing a Web portal that government employees and contractors could log on to to check virtually every detail about the project, including announcements and a discussion board.

Such effort might seem onerous, but it's what project management experts say is an increasingly important factor in what makes IT projects successful or not. Auditors have said lack of proper contractor oversight led to the cost overruns and failures in the Coast Guard's Deepwater program, a $24 billion contract awarded to Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. to modernize and upgrade the service's ships and networks. And the FBI's inability to manage its relationship with contractor SAIC was cited as one cause in the failure of Virtual Case File, an IT project that would enable agents to share information on investigations. The bureau killed the project in 2005 after spending an estimated $100 million on it.

The ability to oversee contractors will become only more critical to the bottom line. The value of federal IT outsourcing is expected to increase from $13.3 billion in fiscal 2006 to $17.7 billion by fiscal 2011, a compound annual growth rate of 5.9 percent, according to the federal technology research firm INPUT, based in Reston, Va.

"The thinking is that someone who does a certain kind of project all the time, like a systems integrator, is going to be able to do it better and less expensively," says Shawn McCarthy, director of government vendor programs for Government Insights, a research company owned by Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. "Often they do provide that skill set, but other factors can endanger that, the first being the assumption that a good systems integrator is a good project manager. That's not always the case." That means developing a functional relationship with your vendor is paramount.

The First Meeting

For Dennis Joyner, director of information management at Fort Belvoir, Va., as soon as a contract is awarded, agency managers sit down with the vendor to add more details to the work requirements, focusing on costs and deadlines. During the meeting, which usually occurs within a week of the contract award, Joyner's team spells out-through documentation and later with e-mails summarizing the points-exactly what the Army expects from the contractor. "The [request for proposals] is just the beginning of that process," he says. "With further discussions, we get a clearer sense of what's supposed to happen."

Joyner says that process helped kick-start the project to centralize commonly used IT services among the bases-such as e-mail, videoconferencing and file printing-so Army employees could communicate better. In Fort Belvoir's case, the Army's Single Directorate of Information Management project involved approaching 56 departments that were using their own IT applications and unifying the systems.

Joyner's team and systems provider TCS Inc. of Chatsworth, Calif., took the lead in approaching each department to convince managers that a consolidation would result in the same level of services at a reduced cost. "We sat down with these departments and took in their feedback," he says. "We had weekly meetings internally. We continuously engaged them. If anyone seemed reluctant to give up control of resources, we demonstrated the number of servers they'd get and BlackBerrys. We showed them how they'd get these resources at a lower cost."

Meeting before the glow of the contract award wore off was key to making sure government IT managers' view of the requirements matched the vendors'. Immediately after NDIC awarded its RAID upgrade contract, the center and e.magination staffs gathered to discuss the technical requirements that weren't spelled out in the request for proposals. Such items included the search and navigation functions that would require advanced technologies the legacy system did not provide.

"In my 25 years of doing these projects, I've never seen one fail for technical reasons. A project will fail for communications reasons," says Mark Allen, president and chief operations officer at e.magination. Most essential to the project was the user interface, and Bonski wanted e.magination to understand that. The original RAID interface was intuitive and easily navigable. NDIC wanted to maintain that. The legacy software operated on a Windows platform, with user-friendly icons and folders. Any investigator, no matter how technically inexperienced, could clearly see the subject areas-such as names, addresses, financial assets and other case details-and find where they wanted to go. "We needed to make changes to improve both functionality and performance," Bonski says, "but we wanted our users to not notice a big difference when it came to navigating within the application."

Talk Early and Often

To keep the government and contractor teams on the same course, NDIC and e.magination set up a Web portal to keep all participants up to date and to provide a place to discuss details of the project. The portal, created with Microsoft SharePoint software, looked like the home page of any IT company's intranet. It emerged as a one-stop shop for information on specific tasks, deadlines, progress, and the occasional bugs and mistakes that inevitably surface throughout the course of a software development contract. On the portal's home page, users could click on announcements, a calendar for meetings, links to reference sites, a discussion board and libraries containing project documents.

Team members routinely took advantage of the portal. "It was one place that everyone could go to both give and get updates on deliverables, schedules, user guides, status reports," Allen says. "We could even provide technical bulletins, in which an engineer would detail his or her approach to solving a problem that came up. This completely resolved any issues about our people being in Baltimore and the NDIC being in Johnstown. Any issue that came up was dealt with in real time."

Bonski says the portal was one of the primary reasons for the project's success.

When to Say When

Good communication doesn't always lead to perfect results. But it can provide the data necessary to determine when a plan should be torn up and you must start over-before millions more dollars are wasted. That was the case at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, where contract employees struggled for years to use computers tied to an ineffective DSL connection running on aging copper wires. "It took us 10 minutes to fill out a timecard online," says Kenn Devine, manager of information systems for Burns and Roe Services Corp. in Virginia Beach, Va., which manages the base. "We were losing lots of productivity."

The company contracted to launch a satellite network for the 300 users who ran everything from utilities to water supplies to housing at Guantanamo Bay. Burns and Roe used products from vendors such as LTI DataComm in Sterling, Va., and Expand Networks, based in Roseland, N.J.

But late in the project, the Navy and Burns and Roe discovered that a connectivity plan for the network was flawed. Routing and firewall errors emerged in the initial deployment. This required Devine and his outsourced IT partners on the project to take a step back before a second shot at launching the project, one that required months of time and considerably more resources than originally planned.

Although unpopular, it was a necessary course of action. One key factor that helped was some budget flexibility. "Before, network performance on site was abysmal," Devine says. "Most of our contracts were awarded on a firm fixed price, meaning there was a scarcity of funds available for implementing changes needed that were not properly factored into our bids. Look, before you begin a project, you'll do as much research and talk to as many people as you possibly can. But there is no manual that will anticipate every bump in the road you can run into out there. There comes a point where you have to admit defeat, lick your wounds, take some steps backwards and move on."

With funding available to pay for unanticipated fixes, Devine organized an effort that resulted in marathon discussions and a flurry of airline flight bookings so members of the project team could meet face to face. LTI DataComm execs flew to Guantanamo Bay and Burns and Roe's offices in Virginia Beach in a series of trips that revealed the extent of the problem.

Devine flew to LTI's offices in Sterling to do the same. It took six months of 20-hour days fueled by pizza, Big Macs and Diet Pepsi, but Devine and the outsourcing partners worked to replace every piece of the network's infrastructure: cables, routers, switches and patch panels.

If they couldn't make the trips, they stayed in contact via conference calls, followed by e-mails detailing project updates. A typical day involved the entire team analyzing and proposing fixes during the day, and then implementing them at night, well into the hours when cleaning crews would be the only other people in the building. "I learned to keep my fridge at the Navy lodge stocked with fruit, juices and microwave entrees," Devine says. "So if I stumbled in around 3 a.m. after work, I'd have something to nosh on."

In the end, the project succeeded, with the base saving nearly $10,000 a month in network costs and gaining significant bandwidth, speed and network capacity.

Tougher Times Ahead

While an increase in outsourcing fuels the need for vendor oversight, the government's changing workforce will make it more difficult to pull off. A high-level federal IT executive, who asked not to be identified, says the government's project development system is "broken" and the ability to oversee relationships with vendors will only get worse. Many of the problems stem from a long-anticipated employment shift: the retirement of baby boomers. With longtime managers leaving government, the executive says, there's an experience gap that isn't being filled.

"The contracting officer and the reputation of tech in government have suffered many setbacks," says the executive. "Very few people now seem to be taking ownership to make it work. We've gone to the notion of getting the best value and partnering with the private sector, but contracting officers aren't being replaced and the workload is horrific, causing even more people to leave. That means there's a lot of bad contracting going on. You'll have some people with 30 years of experience that treat this as a true profession, taking a lot of pride in the work. But that's the exception to the rule. You have a lot of kids doing this now, and many don't maintain the same level of oversight."

Dennis McCafferty is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Hill, Va.

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Managing Your IT Vendor

  • Dig into details. Beyond the request for proposals, discuss your expectations with your contractor and vendor, focusing on the specifics of deadlines. Document the discussions and send them to your outsourcing partners.
  • Get all employees on board. Some units within an agency might resist shifting to a project, preferring to stick with the systems and applications they use. Project managers and contractor executives need to convince employees that the result will equal or exceed current performance at a lower cost.
  • Keep communications open. Stay in frequent contact with the contractor to completely understand the progress of the project, ability to meet deadlines, costs and any obstacles.
  • Establish protocols for communications. A cacophony of unorganized voices can lead to breakdowns and negative exchanges. Make sure your team and the contractor know who's in charge of communicating among groups.
  • Think long term. Technology changes rapidly, but you need to anticipate the shifts in advance to effectively run IT systems and applications. Tap into your contractor's expertise to learn what's on the horizon and plan accordingly.
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