Labor exec makes most of resources

When Shirley Malia took over as director of the Labor Department's Information Technology Center (ITC) at the beginning of the year, she found that even small departments such as Labor can pose challenging IT problems.

Malia's primary challenge at Labor is to make the most of the limited resources at her disposal. This means helping the department's employees to work as efficiently as possible by getting a PC on every desk and training users to be proficient in the applications they use regularly.

It also means eschewing complicated contract negotiations, using the General Services Administration schedule to buy PCs and farming out mainframe maintenance.

"It makes sense," Malia said. "With the federal government downsizing, the amount of money for equipment is at an all-time low."

The Labor workforce numbers 17,000, making it one of the smallest Cabinet-level departments. This means smaller budgets for IT. Furthermore, the department does not keep much of its budget for its own use.

"Most of the dollars to Labor are passed through to the states," Malia said.

Half of the PCs in the department run on the Intel Corp. 386 processor, introduced in 1985. When Malia ordered an audit to find out what she had to work with, she was "very surprised" to find that half of the 12,000 PCs in the department run on the Intel Corp. 386 processor, introduced in 1985.

The rest are evenly divided between 486 and Pentium systems.

By upgrading the 386s, the agency has been able to run the Windows versions of its Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect software programs. This makes the 386s more attractive as hand-me-downs to other users in the department as Labor continues in its attempt to put a PC on every desk.

"The goal is a 1-to-1 ratio, but smaller units [in the department] haven't had the money [to buy PCs]," she said. "Now that new Pentiums are freeing up some of those 386s, we are asking people, `Would you like to use a 386?' "

Labor bought most of its PCs through departmentwide contracts with 8(a) vendors, but now it will skip the time and expense of dealing with contracts and simply buy PCs using the GSA schedule. With the limits on the size of purchases lifted, the GSA schedule provides an irresistible way to buy PCs, she said.

Malia came to her current position after nearly 30 years with the department. She joined Labor as a programmer trainee in 1967 and worked her way through a series of jobs in systems analysis and automated systems until she became director of information resources management policy for the department.

Then a tour of duty overseeing procurement policy positioned Malia as the ideal replacement when ITC director John Dinneen announced his retirement at the end of 1995.

Another challenge for Malia is to update Labor's Employee Computer Network (ECN). Based on an outdated 3Com Corp. system, the department is moving to the Microsoft Corp. Windows NT network operating system.

"Microsoft Windows NT is an emerging environment compared to Novell," Malia said. "We were comfortable that Microsoft would be here in five years," Malia added.

The 3Com network became a burden and had to be replaced. "It was obsolete," Malia said. "You didn't have direct vendor support, and inventory was getting harder to find." The department was cannibalizing parts from some systems to keep others running.

Labor has started to expand its Windows NT network rapidly. When the conversion started just more than a year ago, the ECN had 1,200 network nodes. ECN has already doubled in size and will soon have more than 2,600 PCs connected to it, Malia said.

Those users are all working efficiently, thanks to a training program to ensure proficiency in using applications, Malia said. "The goal is that you should at least be an intermediate user for applications you use daily, and you should try to become an expert user," she said.

Training workers to do their jobs better, improving communications by connecting more people to a new network and wringing maximum life from aged PCs might not have the glamour of some massive federal IT projects, but, as Malia knows, it is the way a small department makes the most of what it has.

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