6 tech trends government IT managers should be wary of

Columnist Mike Daconta shares why some of the latest fads aren't right for government

There are many good information technology innovations, but not all the current fads are good for government IT. Some trends are bad in general, and some are very bad for government IT managers in particular. Others are good for some uses but not others. Let’s examine a few of the IT industry fads that make bad matches for government IT, and why they are bad.

1. Cloud computing is a red herring. Chasing this fad now, before standards are in place and security concerns are dealt with, is a complete waste of time. Also, it still needs to be sorted out whether cloud computing is primarily a utility-based hosting solution, a new application-development model, or both. Although Web 2.0 start-ups can afford the risk associated with these desired IT cost savings, the government should take a wait-and-see attitude.

2. Web 2.0 is not pixie dust. Anyone who has witnessed a crazed mob of sports fans on an alcohol-induced rampage would agree that crowds are not always wise. In the same way, Web 2.0 technologies are not a panacea nor should they be the No. 1 priority for government IT. Web 2.0 should be relegated to areas that tap its strength, which is primarily nonattributed commentary and workgroup collaboration.

3. Agile development is a programmer’s fantasy and a manager’s nightmare. In my more than 20 years of software development experience, I have never met a government program manager who is available on a daily or even weekly basis to help design an application on the fly. Extreme iteration and pair programming are almost exclusively programmer perks and not in the best interests of government IT. Please don’t build the next space shuttle that way.

4. Data standards cannot be market-driven. Although the government sponsors many emerging marketplaces, such as green energy, a standards marketplace should not be one of them. I have said this many times before, and I will now say it again: Data standards are not amenable to competition. Instead, government data standardization should be seen as one of those “inherently governmental” activities. Stay away from any standards development organization with a business plan.

5. Service-oriented architecture has not yet convincingly addressed older applications. SOA is absolutely the right approach for new application development, but its Achilles’ heel is its failure to come up with a workable transition strategy for existing applications. Thus, SOA pilots get pigeonholed into a “nice dream” limbo or a “maybe someday” wistfulness. Finally, the coarse-grained “just wrap it” approach rings hollow when the devil delivers the details.

6. Web application development is still a kludge. Although the Google Chrome operating system steals headlines and Twitter changes the face of Iran, Web applications are still an uncomfortable amalgam of at least a half-dozen technologies cobbled together into an ugly patchwork. Fortunately, this is the underbelly of the Web that the users don’t see. They just taste the sizzling sausage that comes out of the ugly sausage factory, which conceals the cross-browser nightmare of HTML, JavaScript, Cascading Style Sheets, Extensible Application Markup Language, Extensible Markup Language User Interface Language, Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, and numerous server-side options. And that does not even include Rich Internet Application technologies such as Silverlight, Flex and JavaFX. The messy reality here is that, although your next enterprise application should be Web-based, government IT managers must be careful to keep their critical path to well-trodden ground and limit their Web application design to the minimal number of technology hand offs.

The key to understanding these six warnings is to understand that government IT operates as a mission multiplier and not as a cost center. Just as there are inherently governmental business functions, there are inherently governmental IT practices. Government can no longer dictate the IT landscape — as evidenced by the failure of Ada — but government IT managers must still be keenly aware of the unique requirements for government IT systems. The latest IT fad might be well-suited for businesses but ill-suited for the government.

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Reader comments

Sun, Nov 29, 2009

I found myself wondering if this author actually believed these were technologies to be wary of or if maybe I was just being punked. Then I read his bio. Former "program manager for the Homeland Security Department" and his latest book was "How to Deliver the Right Information to the Right Person at the Right Time". So that explains why the current threat level is "pea green with a hint of lime". Way to go Mike, I can see by this article that you are still using you precision insight to keep government decision-makers well informed.

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 DB

I agree with the bulk of the comments. The reason there are "newfangled" technologies is that computer science and app technologies are continuously evolving to provide tranparency, efficiencies, and analytics to government. The cloud, Web 2.0, et al., were designed as solutions toward this goal, and since businesses use them, have to be 'cost-effective' solutions otherwise businesses would discard them fast. Aside from that, policy decisions are evolving to 'evidence based' decisions -- what a concept! With dinosaur systems advocated by this article, policy decisions would be made 'the old fashioned way': reams of yellowing paper output, paper, pencil, and a calculating machine! Oh yeah, this is just what government needs! It needs to move even slower with decisions based upon error-prone 'selection-biased' evidence and back room deals! A giant step backwards!

Mon, Aug 24, 2009

Thanks for the article, Mike. I always figured that newfangled Internet stuff was just a passing fad. Nothing like a good old-fashioned green-screen mainframe app to make you feel like you're really working hard. And while we're at it, what do we need those new-age programming languages and IDEs for? Let's just go back to writing FORTRAN programs on punch cards. That will get the job done, right?

Fri, Aug 21, 2009 Steve Atlanta

This is one of the more poorly written articles I have encountered. Obviously, the author thought, "If I say something completely off the wall and nutty I might get published." To his credit the strategy worked. But what will his next eagerly-awaited article be? "The dangers of smoking? Don't believe it!"

Mon, Aug 17, 2009 Observer Louisiana

Interesting. The comment about Web 2.0 is totally opposite of what the government's CIO is promoting.

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