Visionary marries tech with AF mission
- By John Monroe
- Jul 21, 1996
William C. James, director of architecture and technology for the Air Force and the designated technology visionary for his service, still identifies with Dilbert, the popular comic strip character generally seen as the epitome of nerdish software engineers.
This stems from James' deep roots in the engineering world, going back more than 20 years when, before he began climbing the ranks of the civil service, he worked as a computer programmer and mathematician.
Now a member of the Senior Executive Service, James has moved far beyond the intricacies of programming and is charged with ensuring that the Air Force has the architecture in place to take advantage of the latest and greatest in information technology, from the Internet to Java or whatever else comes along.
But the enthusiasm he brings to the job only recalls the excitement he first felt so many years ago. "I still remember programming through the night and having people slide Twinkies under the door," he said.
James, who reports to the deputy chief of staff for communications and information at Air Force headquarters, describes his primary function as a technology adviser. Rather than working with the technology itself, he focuses on developing the necessary policy and technical architecture to marry information technology with the Air Force mission.
"The technologies are complex, critical and powerful in a lot of ways," James said. "We need to be able to understand what those technologies are and how they relate to operational requirements."
For example, James is excited about the what he calls EON, or Everything On the Net. The World Wide Web, Java or Java-like languages, objected-oriented programming and other technologies seem close to converging and to creating a fully distributed computing environment - what he describes as "a decentralized execution of [processing] power and communications power through centralized policy.
"I believe this is inevitable," James said. "The question is, How well will we be prepared to deal with that? What do we have to do right now to deal with that reality? If everything has to communicate with everything else, what provisions do we have to make in [our] architecture?"
EON might be 20 years down the road, he added, but "I want my weapons, I want my computers, I want my comm gear to be positioned for that inevitability." The concepts are not difficult to grasp, James said, it is just a matter of "evangelizing," which he very much enjoys.
Earlier this year, at the Software Technology Conference in Salt Lake City, James kept an audience enthralled with his vision. It was an after-hours, "birds of a feather" meeting on software reuse. His short, extemporaneous preface to the meeting evolved into a 30-minute give-and-take with the audience. He intended nothing more than to provide a context for discussing software reuse, particularly in terms of the Global Command and Control System and the Common Operating Environment.
In the course of the discussion, he turned these potentially dry topics into a framework for future Defense Department operations.
For example, DOD might develop even smarter "smart bombs" that stay in communication with the launch point and can be redirected or called back while in flight, James said.
"The difficulty is not so much getting people to understand but just expressing that vision, being able to publicize it so people will see it," he said.
James comes by his vision of DOD honestly. Before joining the Air Force last year, he worked with the Defense Communications Agency (now the Defense Information Systems Agency), the Defense Mapping Agency and the U.S. Transportation Command as well as having a stint with a commercial firm.
"I clearly have purple blood in my veins," he said. "I always bring the need to support the warfighter to the table."
All the same, James has not forgotten his roots. He half-jokingly refers to himself as the "top civilian geek" in the Air Force - using the pejorative term to capture both his role as a high-ranking technology adviser for the Air Force and his many years spent in various technical jobs.
Although no one slides him Twinkies under the door of his Pentagon office, James knows in some ways he will never change.
Reading the newest Dilbert book - a Father's Day present from one of his children - James realized there is still a lot of engineer inside him.
"I recognize myself in a lot of those situations. I remember back in the days when I was just like that," he said.