Effective Solutions Through Partnership

Modernizing Federal IT Part 1 – Catching Up and Jumping Ahead

Information Technology, IT Modernization, Rob Klopp, Technology

By Rob Klopp

This series on IT Modernization was written during my time as CIO at the Social Security Administration. This first post outlines an argument for why modernization is not just a nice-to-have, but is an imperative. Further, I argue that technology is advancing and now is the time to start.

Today, I would add to the argument that the gap between your legacy systems and modern systems is too large to overcome incrementally. Technology is advancing away from your legacy faster than you could ever catch up in conservative increments. Sooner or later you will need to take a bold stance and jump onto modern technologies.

I hope these posts help you to argue for a bold move. If you are on the business side, I hope you can argue against conservative technologists who argue for the status quo. If you are an IT professional, I hope that this series helps you to convince your leadership that the jump is inevitable, that it is not going to get easier, and that the advantages of modernization support the bold move.


This article is reposted from CIO.gov; the original post can be found here.

To start, let us consider the modernization problem from a high level. Figure 1 is designed to outline the problem. The blue curve represents the ability of a hypothetical Federal agency to adopt technology. The green curve represents the ability of a hypothetical Fortune 500 firm to adopt technology. The technology gap between these curves represent the problem confronting a Federal CIO; we believe that we must catch up to the Fortune 500.

Note on the curves that in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Federal space, and especially the SSA, was on a par or even a little ahead of the Fortune 500. In that timeframe, the SSA was aggressive in developing systems and databases to store information. These systems pushed the state of the art. They represented Big Data in the 1980’s.

Unfortunately, the systems of the 1980’s, once developed and stable, became stagnant. Today they represent a significant technical debt. SSA’s core systems are today run on 60 million lines of COBOL and on another 1 million lines of Assembler language. Much of this code was developed long ago, before programmers carefully structured code to reduce the cost of maintenance. The mainframe languages, development, and operating environment are no longer widely taught in our university systems. The Federal staff who developed and maintained these systems are retiring. As a result, the interest payments on this 30-year-old technical debt are compounding and in the next five years we could face a crisis keeping the systems that execute the SSA mission running.

Closing the gap between Government IT and Commercial IT is critically important. However, closing that gap could be the wrong target.

Consider the orange curve… representing not technology adoption curve but technology advancement. You can see there the gap that haunts the CIOs of the Fortune 500. Technology is advancing faster than even the Fortune 500 can adopt it. It is this gap that start-up companies exploit to put the Fortune 500 out of business by jumping straight onto the technology curve.

Start-ups can make this jump because they are not encumbered by technical debt or by a requirement to sustain an existing customer base. They do not attempt to catch-up… they jump. If their jump succeeds, they make companies on an incremental growth path completely irrelevant.

Now consider the red dashed curve. This depicts the ambition of most Federal CIOs: matching the IT prowess of the Fortune 500. Consider the steepness of this dashed line. It is truly ambitious. But if a most-amazing Federal CIO managed to bridge this gap she-or-he would find that their agency has actually lost ground to technology.

Federal agencies are unlikely to go out of business. But the technology gaps represented here could make Federal agencies irrelevant. The most amazing applications today… pick your favorite: Uber or Siri or Facebook… will be outdated in five years. What will the public think of Federal agencies that are still rolling out web services with electronic forms in 2020? Not much, I suspect.

This is the topic I’ll consider in the blog posts to follow… how might the Federal government catch up in IT. I’ll discuss in detail how the SSA is addressing the problem. I’ll also be discussing buy versus build options, techniques to modernize old code, initiatives to develop a modern infrastructure, and jumping onto the technology curve.

I hope you enjoy the series and look forward to your comments.

About the Author: Rob Klopp is a CIO with a deep technical background. As the CIO at the Social Security Administration, Rob started and led an IT modernization program that influenced the entire Federal IT space. Before moving East, Rob held technical leadership positions at SAP, EMC, and Teradata; he consulted to several technology companies along the way. Currently, Rob is consulting to the State of California and is again helping to start initiatives to modernize legacy IT systems.

1 Comment

  1. Greg Fairnak

    April 11, 2018 12:16 pm

    I am looking forward to Part 2! Thanks Rob

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