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October 23, 2013

The Sargasso Sea of Federal IT projects

So the ObamaCare IT wildfire is still out of control.

Any enterprise IT project is hard. Government IT projects are an order of magnitude more difficult.*

A lot of federal agencies (Immigration, IRS, etc.) have a huge amount of legacy data sitting in mainframe databases. And these mainframe systems are, in many cases, a decade or more behind the technology curve. It's not just a matter of "implementing an interface" to the data -- it requires an enormous amount of heavy-lift to just extract the data and make it visible to the outside world in a usable form. And that's before you start worrying about things like security, normalization, or data-transformation.

A lot of the kids doing the programming of these systems have never worked with legacy stuff written in COBOL and stored on mainframes. In fact, the agencies themselves often have no idea how to modify the mainframe stuff -- all the programmers who wrote that stuff retired years ago. It might as well be written in Sumerian cuneiform for all they know. And if you, as an external entity, want a data feed from these systems and request a SOAP or REST web-service interface to the data, you're certain to get a blank stare or a "Huzzat?" response. Or you might get some atrocious botch written by a contract programmer brought in two days before that barely works even when all the conditions are perfect, and breaks immediately when approaching any kind of boundary condition.

Worse yet: there is no institutional memory. You'll spend weeks solving some problem or other only to discover quite by accident that some other programmer went through the same hassle the year before, but no one thought to write down how he did it or what the solution was. I've been on government IT projects where no one can even find the source code to the systems we were asked to maintain. You have to deal with civil-service lifers who are "in charge" of the project, but have absolutely no computer or IT management background. You run into inter-service turf battles, procurement headaches, long delays in communicating with project principals...Christ, the list is endless.

Federal government IT contracts are the Sargasso Sea of computer programming.

*Andy sends a link that explains in detail why this sort of thing is so complicated.

[UPDATE] For those of a technical bent, Jazz has a more detailed explanation of the issues that crop up when handling data in large IT projects.

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posted by Monty at 02:00 PM

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