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What Is the Air Conditioner We're Not Willing to Move?

March 2011
By Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), SIGNAL Magazine

 
For the past 15 years, my family has been in an ongoing love-hate relationship with our 110-year-old historic New Orleans home, and we recently decided it finally was time to do “the big one” and renovate it. Do we move out or do we live with the mess? Can we still operate with some sanity and functionality in the house while we’re making the changes? What about our budget, managing the architecture and requirements of historic preservation?

Modernizing with functionality and renovating while operating sounds very similar to keeping government information systems running while upgrading them to modern standards. Our systems are outdated, old and in dire need of “renovation.” However, we can’t just shut them down; we have to “live in them” while we make the changes—a difficult task in any circumstance.

At our home, we planned for years and hired a general contractor experienced in managing large renovation projects. However, he never could know everything about the house, nor could he anticipate the legacy changes and problems left over from multiple owners, previous renovations and earlier decisions. He may have been good, but he could not possibly foresee all of the idiosyncrasies that exist in a historic structure or the issues that we would face. Every opened wall would be an adventure. How do you budget for unknown factors of these types?

Once again, I was amazed at how very similar this process was to our maintenance and upgrading of government information technology systems. The government issues requests for proposals (RFPs) and hires experienced contractors. What security risks are embedded? Who wrote and owns the original code? Do our upgrades affect new requirements and policies? What happens if we shut down this system; what and who is affected? Do we have the budget? Do the defense contractors “know all of the idiosyncrasies that exist in a legacy system?” How could they possibly understand years of business rules, modifications and home-grown upgrades?

Are we talking information technology system upgrades or home renovation?

A first step in our home renovation was to replace an aging air conditioning system and move it upstairs from the basement. To save money and time, and without much thought, we relocated it to where an old air return had been—in a closet that was being cannibalized to make room for an improved master bathroom. In the process of gutting the master bath, we found a French Quarter fireplace hidden behind plaster, which suddenly changed our entire plan. We spent weeks trying to make the bathroom and closet work based on the newly discovered fireplace. We had placed that old air conditioner right in the middle of the bathroom renovation without realizing the effect of our decision on the bathroom and closet plan. Its placement now would interfere with our passage through the house.

My sister visited and immediately saw our dilemma, but because she was not committed to any of our previous decisions, she brought a new set of eyes to the situation. Having her fresh perspective on our renovation was quite similar to an organization’s bringing in a new expert to evaluate an information technology project or a new leader to change the current drift. She recommended that we move the newly relocated air conditioner to make our plan work, even though we already had paid more than $5,000 to move it to its existing location. Ultimately, I realized that she had the right answer: write off the mistake and pay to have it moved. Suddenly, everything worked. My revelation was that I was unwilling to move the air conditioner because I had made a previous decision to put it there at a reasonably high expense. However, if I acknowledged the mistake and moved it, then everything worked better.

What is the proverbial air conditioner in our government and business systems that we are not willing to move, even though it would make everything work? Did we invest in a technology a few years ago that now doesn’t scale, but we are not willing to move from our previous decision and continue to throw good money at a wrong decision? For the Military Health System, perhaps it is TRICARE On-Line. For the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, maybe it is VISTA. For the Navy, perhaps it is the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) or the Integrated Shipboard Network System (ISNS). Maybe they all work well, but just need to be updated and “moved” to make things work.

Remember, there was nothing wrong with our air conditioner. I just made bad decisions about its location. Did we choose to cling to a standard that has since been discarded by industry and all others just because it’s “our” standard and what we picked? Is it Windows NT, an operating system that we just can’t seem to let go? Is it the Electronic Heath Record, the Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application (AHLTA) or the Defense Department Information Assurance Certification and Accreditation Process (DIACAP)? Is it our use of Common Access Cards (CAC) for authentication or our emphatic prohibition of wireless? Independent of what it actually may be, what is the “air conditioner” we are unwilling to move that would make it all work? I wonder.

Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), is the president and chief executive officer of Grace and Associates LLC and a former chief information officer for Navy Medicine. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.