Ask any chief information officer about his latest cloud computing project. More often than not you’ll hear technology wasn’t the biggest problem, although technical glitches can occur.
Most CIOs would agree the human dimension is the most challenging, whether it’s meeting employee expectations or training the information technology workforce to handle complex cloud projects. There’s also a learning curve for many CIOs and IT procurement staff who are more used to buying products as opposed to cloud-based services.
“Technology is not the problem in this equation,” said Shawn Kingsberry, CIO for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. “Technology is ones and [zeros].” The challenge is moving and leading people and decreasing their fears of change.
Migrating servers, applications and other IT operations off site to a cloud environment also has implications for the federal IT workforce. What used to be done internally is now provided over the Internet as a managed service. Manual processes, such as preparing computer servers for use, are now automated and can be done within minutes over a Web portal.
“It takes less developers, [and] it takes less labor because it’s simpler and easier,” said Steven Kennedy, a program manager in the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service. Those employees are freed up to do other things, said Kennedy, who is part of the team developing a financial application to collect billions of dollars in delinquent debts.
The team is using cloud computing and agile, or incremental, software development to rewrite code for its new debt collection system, Kennedy said at an Amazon Web Services conference in Washington this month. The current 15-year-old system was written using a combination of COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) programs and Java. The system often reaches capacity for processing payments, such as child support and state income tax debts, during peak periods.
Alyssa Riedl, director of Treasury’s Debt Collection Program Management Directorate, under which the program falls, said when they started the modernization project two-and-a-half years ago, they looked for people willing to try new things.
If employees joined the program team and felt uncomfortable with their new assignments, they could return to their traditional work, Riedl said. With frozen salaries and no awards, it has been a challenge, but the majority of workers have been a part of the mission for a least a decade.
“We vetted people to make sure they wanted to do this,” Riedl said.
Are federal IT jobs at risk?
The concern for some, however, is that cloud will not only reduce the need for manual labor but also put federal IT jobs at risk of being replaced by contractors adept at cloud computing. But Microsoft’s Susie Adams said that’s not true.
“What we find is people aren’t losing jobs when [agencies] move to cloud,” said Adams, chief technology officer for Microsoft’s federal government business. Their responsibilities change, and they are focused on helping customers, not operating core infrastructure.
However, TechAmerica’s 2013 CIO Survey noted the sentiments of one respondent, who suggested that reliance on contractors will and must increase in a managed services model. When agencies talk about moving to the cloud and saving money by reducing physical labor, they often say IT employees are reassigned or retrained to acquire new skills but are not laid off.
“You ended up getting more energy [and] more thought process put into thinking about [IT] architecture, versus doing manual work,” said Kingsberry. There is less physical work and more of an architectural mindset on the blueprint for how IT systems are designed and work together.
Only second to budget concerns, CIOs want skilled IT workers who have strong problem-solving and technical skills and are innovative. When transitioning to the cloud, all of the above are critical. Not only must IT shops understand agency needs and spell them out in cloud services contracts, they must ensure employees aren’t circumventing their office and downloading online tools that may be less secure but user friendly.
In 2010, at least eight Veterans Affairs Department facilities were found to be violating the department’s prohibition against using online tools like Google Docs to share private health information among facilities.
“The government, by itself, cannot keep up with Yahoo, Google, Apple and others that are creating great applications for medical usage,” said VA’s CIO at the time, Roger Baker. VA is “spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to go from saying no to saying yes for these kinds of apps.”
The challenge of buying a service
The same is true when communicating agencies’ needs to the contracting office and ultimately the cloud service provider.
Understanding how to purchase cloud solutions effectively is challenging, said Sanjay Sardar, CIO for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Service-level agreements with contractors are different and, unlike IT products, if something doesn’t work you can’t simply return it. Contract requirements must be clearly defined, he said.
Shifting to cloud services such as email required training, retraining and hiring new staff, he said. FERC needed systems administrators who could manage cloud-based user accounts, and what Sardar calls solutions brokers — people who know what cloud solutions are available and how they fit into an agency’s business model.
Moving to the cloud also requires a change in mindset.
“If you don’t do anything that’s outside the norm of what you’ve been doing, you have less risk of impacting delivery of services,” Kingsberry said. CIOs want to know “if I’m going to do this, can my organization help guide us through change, and who are the industry partners that will enable us to get there?”