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Need a Use Case for Cloud? Look to FCC

Melpomene/Shutterstock.com

Cloud computing is expected to change how government does business, but at a time when most federal agencies are hesitantly trying out the concept, the Federal Communications Commission has shoved its poker chips to the center of the table and yelled, “all in.”

By the end of 2017, the agency plans its IT to be nearly 100 percent cloud based, which includes a dual-pronged ongoing effort to physically move servers out of FCC’s current headquarters while modernizing current and future applications for cloud use.

In terms of cloud vision, few agencies outside the Central Intelligence Agency can match FCC’s for radical IT innovation. What’s surprising, though, is how far behind the technological curve FCC was only a few years ago.

Speaking Tuesday at an event hosted by Nextgov, FCC Chief Information Officer David Bray outlined the myriad challenges facing FCC when he took the CIO helm almost two years ago. The agency, which employs 1,750 people, had 207 different systems, or one system for every nine people, with more than half of those systems over 10 years old. More than 80 percent of FCC’s IT spending went toward maintaining legacy IT systems, Bray added.

There were personnel issues as well.

The entrenched tech team employed some 50 federal employees and 375 contractors. The average tenure of the existing federal employees was nine years; for contractors, it was 15 years. About the only job changing was the one Bray took: FCC had employed nine CIOs in eight years when Bray began in August 2013.

“They had gotten used to doing things on site,” Bray said.

People, Then Technology

Bray’s approach was first to focus on the deep-seated personnel problems.

In the late 2000s, FCC experimented with a “new media” team of Silicon Valley tech talent – think of it as a sort of precursor to the General Services Administration’s 18F team. That effort ultimately didn’t work out. The team, while not lacking ideas, didn’t integrate with FCC’s existing staff and the resulting friction “left people scarred,” Bray said.

That experience, combined with Bray’s cloud-heavy vision for FCC, made it an unsettling time for established contractors. They felt threatened by FCC’s strides away from the decades-old and very lucrative “waterfall” development approach, to a more agile, cheaper way of doing business.

“Going to cloud was actually eating into the profit model of legacy contractors,” Bray said. “And some of those legacy contractors we use to do things on site also knew they would be out of a job once we got this done.”

If funded by Congress to fully complete its IT modernization, FCC will eliminate approximately 60-80 contracted O&M positions, Bray told Nextgov. That's because FCC won’t need contracted staff to maintain legacy systems, a task that will be done by commercial cloud providers.

Instead, FCC’s focus will be on a modular, data-centric approach “that remixes existing [software-as-a-service] and [platform-as-a-service platforms] that’s much faster, more resilient and easier to maintain than anything they could do on-premise themselves,” Bray said.

Bray integrated the remaining members of the defunct new media team with the rest of the agency and made additional new hires. They included established feds like Deputy CIO John Skudlarek and Deputy CIO of Resiliency Christine Calvosa, and a mixture of talented techies from both inside the Beltway and the West Coast.

“The good news is that people come here and stay for a long time,” Skudlarek told Nextgov, before providing the punch line: “The bad news is they come and stay for a long time. We had to bring in some new people with new ideas and integrate them with the existing team. It worked.”

Calvosa said FCC’s tech team created the necessary conditions for people to “come in and try things,” with “top and political cover” provided by Bray, the self-proclaimed “human flak jacket.” When Congress, other feds or contractors dish out the verbal 21 questions to FCC, it is Bray or his top advisers who take the heat.

“There’s a real trust factor here,” Calvosa said. “We make decisions, then inform.”

Managing egos and a battered workforce is one side of the challenge. Implementing technological innovation in an agency replete with several hundred risk-averse lawyers is another.

Speaking Tuesday, FCC senior strategic adviser, Tony Summerlin, explained the main challenges as inventorying assets, rewriting existing applications for the cloud environment and getting legacy suppliers out of the way. Interestingly, Summerlin said the inventory itself led to the elimination of approximately 15 percent of internal servers that did little more than guzzle energy and take up space.

Summerlin said the business case buy-in was more about speed and agility improvement than it was about saving money. In “Top Gun” speak, FCC feels the need for speed.

“Cloud may save you money, it may save you time, but the main thing is, it’s fast,” Summerlin said.

Early Results

FCC granted IBM an authority to operate its Softlayer Federal Cloud last month, meaning IBM will be one of several vendors the agency uses as it transitions all its IT services to cloud over the coming two years.

Already though, FCC has experienced a resounding “win” in cloud computing by replacing its aging Consumer Help Center.

Designed to facilitate communications between FCC and the public with consumer complaints, Bray said Tuesday building it internally would have cost $3.2 million over 18-24 months, according to estimates FCC obtained.

“We didn’t have the time or the money to wait,” Bray said.

Instead, one of Bray’s newly hired senior technical advisers, Silicon Valley startup founder Dustin Laun, pulled together a SaaS solution in six months at a cost of $450,000, according to Bray.

In other words, FCC got its SaaS solution at one-sixth the price of an internal system, in perhaps half the time. Under the internal model, O&M would have cost FCC $600,000 a year to maintain, Bray explained. Using the cloud solution, O&M costs are $100,000 a year.

Still, it wasn't an easy lift.

“Along the way, the change agents I had, Dustin Laun and [Sarah Millican], they were experiencing severe flak from both government and contractors,” Bray said. “It was my role as CIO to say, ‘Hey, talk to me, not them, they’re just getting stuff done.’”

Since launching in January, it’s worked well, too.

In replacing 18 outdated complaint forms with one easy-to-use Web portal and increased complaint-handling speed, the Consumer Help Center has performed well enough to earn awards and even help save some Americans money.   

“Other organizations can do this, too,” Skudlarek said. “It is translatable. But other organizations are going to have to do the hard work. It’s not easy, but it’s been worth it.”

(Image via Melpomene/ Shutterstock.com)

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