DOD exec keeps his eyes on prize

Norman Brown director of the Defense Department's Software Program Managers Network has every reason to be pessimistic about the potential for helping the department get control of the cost and quality of large software projects. But amazingly he is not.

Certainly the statistics offered by recent market studies give little reason for hope. Analysts say the nation's supply of software talent will come nowhere close to meeting its demand for the foreseeable future. And much of that small pool of talent is being snatched up by potentially lucrative software start-ups and "boutique services firms " not by government agencies or their contractors Brown said.

And Brown who has been involved in Navy software proj-ects for 30 years recognizes that federal agencies sabotaged by their own poor management practices have a long history of major software programs running over-budget and behind-schedule.

"Software often seems to get an awfully short shrift given the money the government spends on it " he said.

In addition the sheer magnitude of the DOD software effort makes matters only appear worse. Brown estimated that the aggregate value of DOD software programs - covering everything from information systems to command and control and embedded systems - is $42 billion.

However despite all evidence to the contrary Brown said he has reason to be hopeful. His organization is positioned to help DOD program managers weather the hard times by providing a channel through which they can get access to the best practices and best ideas of their counterparts in the private sector.

"Just like you don't turn around an aircraft carrier very quickly you don't turn around $42 billion in programs very quickly " he said. "We are encouraged by the changes in the programs we are helping we are encouraged by the pace of requests for our support."

The network is involved in about 68 programs and "the number seems to grow weekly " he said.

Brown's experience in major software programs dates back to 1967 when he was the software program manager for a sonar submarine system. He also has served as acquisition adviser for the Navy on major information resources management acquisitions adviser to the Ada Joint Program Office and adviser to the Defense Science Board for embedded computer resources.

The network started five years ago when one of Brown's former bosses was setting up the newly formed Navy Information Systems Management Center (NISMC) and drafted Brown to head up an office to assess major Navy information technology programs.

At that point Brown had already been involved with DOD programs for two decades and recognized the pattern of poor management that dogged the services. At his insistence the NISMC branch became known as Assessment and Support and Brown is still its director.

His work in that position - in conjunction with the General Accounting Office early on - drove home the need for a DOD-wide support network. Congress recognized the value of the organization and provided the funding needed to bring in experts from industry and to distribute information to DOD program managers through direct satellite broadcasts newsletters videos and assorted handbooks.

Today the network has 6 000 members including a veritable Who's Who list of experts.

Brown does not attack a problem by starting at the top of the DOD hierarchy and inspiring directives but by working closely with program managers. He said the network's approach has been "bringing change to the world's largest bureaucracy [by] working at the grass-roots level."

Anyone who attempts to change a bureaucracy eventually will raise the hackles of some bureaucrats. And Brown is known for being fearless in getting his message across to DOD brass.

But he also said he does not seek out such conflict. "I don't thrive on creating contentious situations " he said. "Most of my career has been built on forming effective teaming across disparate organizations."

In fact he said one of the most satisfying aspects of his job has been his success in forming such teams and in the amount of interest he has seen from the public and private sectors.

That kind of involvement by both parties has made a difference in DOD programs. On the whole patterns of mismanagement continue but Brown has seen enough instances of progress in individual programs to believe that true success ultimately is possible.

"Some people would say this is a Don Quixote operation " Brown said. "But we are on the ground and we are seeing the kind of change that is happening."


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