Monday, April 24, 2006

Government Work – Take 1

The Lord's Prayer is 66 words, the Gettysburg Address is 286 words, there are 1,322 words in the Declaration of Independence, but government regulations on the sale of cabbage total 26,911 words. ~National Review

As a government employee, I take a certain amount of umbrage to that remark. Yes, we are a wordy bunch, but I take it that no one at the National Review has ever read a corporate ISO-9000 manual. In fact, ISO-9000 is the brainchild of an independent standards group, which has resulted in more useless verbiage than all the U.S. Government quality standards put together.

I've been working for government agencies at the state and local level since 1994, with an occasional timeout to work in the corporate sphere back when I was a contract employee (also know as “hired gun”, which sounded cool, or “scum-sucking contractor”, which was not as ego-lifting). Prior to 1994, I spent over twenty years in the private sector. And, I am here to tell you that there just ain't that much difference between the two. Let me tell you a little story.

I was working for a large corporation that prided itself on standards, lots and lots of standards. In the area of IT, they were very insistent on Approved Products Lists (APLs) for both software and hardware. Standard hardware, it turned out, was whatever IBM, Compaq, or HP was peddling this week as the latest and greatest. So, when a user had a problem, you had no idea what kind of computer was involved; asking the user was generally useless.

“What model of PC do you have?”
"A beige one."
"Ummm, does it, perchance, have a name on it?"

“I think its a Hewitt Packer.”

Well, that narrowed it down to one of six models of HP, with it's six different network cards, six different video controllers, and six different “standard” software configurations.

But the company really got the software thing right. Oh, yeah. They actually did establish a standard set of programs to be installed on new computers. Unfortunately, to make the “transition to standards” easier, they grandfathered every stinking program that had ever been used. The APL was a 3-inch-thick binder, filled with single-spaced page after page of allowable software. Even when a user got a brand new PC, they could demand that PC-Write be installed as their “word processor”. As a result, supporting users required a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the History of Software in America. And this was before Wikipedia.

As if this wasn't bad enough, new programs were added to the standard list all the time. These seemed to be whatever the CIO thought was cool today and wanted his secretary to use. Then there was the internal download server that kept putting beta versions of software in public download areas. This bit of largesse mean that we couldn't even be sure what version of standard software a user was watching crash.

But I digress. Government bureaucracy gets it deserved criticism, but corporations can compete on an equal footing with the government on this score any day. When I was working at that aforementioned palace of standards, I came across an annoying problem that had been plaguing a group of programmers for months. It didn't stop them from working, but it was slowing down their application development suite a good bit. Without going into the gory details, it turned out I could fix the problem by using a well-known memory management program.

Unfortunately, the standard was another well-known memory manager, which was a good program, but it couldn't solve this particular problem.

Digging through the regulations, I found that, if I got approval from the IT gods at headquarters, the product could get added to the standards list. Since we were going to need to install this on a fair number of machines and didn't want to get gigged in an audit, I decided to call the big guys. (Supposedly these were performed regularly, although no one could remember when the last one occurred; but, you know, IT COULD HAPPEN!)

I explained the situation to a pleasant fellow, who quite agreed that I had come up with a good solution. “So,” I said, “you'll add it to the APL?”

“Oh, no, I can't do that.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Well, we've already got a memory manager, and we wouldn't want to have to have different configurations for each one.”
“Well, it would only have to be on machines running this one application suite. How else are we going to solve this problem?”
“Oh, well, what you need to do is have the department director send in a written request to use the software, with a detailed justification for using it.”
“Ok, if that's what I have to do, I prepare something for him.”
“And, he'll need to submit one for each PC that has the software on it.”
“Well, I guess we can get him the information.”
“Great. Just get us that and we'll give you authorization as soon as we've tested the software here in our lab.”
“What for? We've already tested ... Oh, never mind. How long will that take?”
“Gee, we've got a little backlog right now. We should be able to get to it in, say, six months or so. Now, don't go installing it without permission, because you never know when we might do an audit.”

Upon relating this to the director, I was told that the programmers could get along just fine as things were. Besides, he had heard that the CIO was planning to change application development suites, anyway. Of course, the current one would be grandfathered.

Don't tell me about bureaucratic red tape.

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