Training in progress
- By Jennifer Jones
- Nov 22, 1998
Brian Dunbar, Internet services manager with NASA, has run NASA World Wide Web sites for three years, but when he took the job, there were no courses to teach him how to do it.
Dunbar, like other federal Webmasters, is trying to fill the gaps of his knowledge by taking courses now offered by Leads Corp. at the General Services Administration.
But it's not just government Webmasters who are scrambling for new skills. While embracing the Internet as their platform for doing business, agencies have created many new positions and reinvented others in the more than 99,000-member federal information technology work force.
Five years ago, few agencies dreamed of linking their databases together, let alone publishing them online. Today the omnipresence of such applications as proc-essing forms or conducting financial transactions online creates a demand for workers who know more about networks, databases and computer security.
Executives and the rank and file who use computers daily also must worry about keeping their skills current. Laws such as the Clinger-Cohen Act -- with its mandate to manage systems as strategic assets -- and the Government Performance and Results Act -- which demands agencies prove that their programs work -- are forcing the IT work force and nontechnical managers to learn more about how technology supports business operations.
"If you have a vision of government as an electronic government, you need different kinds of skills inside [agencies]," said Greg Woods, deputy director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR). "That has to do with basic desktop computer skills as well as maintaining networks and designing new systems and maintaining the right products and making the right investments."
Officials are responding by collaborating for the first time on setting technology training priorities for the entire government.
Through groups such as the CIO Council and the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board and through established training programs, federal IT executives are defining competencies for themselves and their staffs and devising ways to teach technology-related skills.
For example, the CIO Council is developing a program to train systems administrators in computer security, and the Information Resources Management College offers courses designed for technical and nontechnical managers.
"Basically we started out as a program managers school for people who had automated information systems responsibilities," said Robert Childs, dean of faculty and academic programs at the IRM College. "With the downsizing of government and reinvention of government, many senior people have responsibility for information resources. Consequently, what we did was we moved from more of a hands-on school to one that had to understand the strategic implications of an organization and how IT fits into that."
Figuring out which skills employees need is one of the biggest challenges facing managers, said Fred Thompson, program manager for IT work force improvement with the Treasury Department. Agencies do not always approach the task systematically, and "a lot of money in training gets spent on things that are interesting to people but may not build around the set of skills they need," he said.
No comprehensive assessment has been made of skills that are lacking throughout the government, but the Clinger-Cohen Act requires agencies to review their IT training needs. To establish a benchmark for developing new curricula, the CIO Council conducted a survey during the past year asking agencies to report on what their current training programs cover. The results are due in December.
A separate survey completed in May by the GITS Board uncovered "severe" shortages of staff trained in Internet-related technologies, including Unix and Microsoft Corp. Windows NT server administration and network access control. Among 19 agencies that answered the survey, 68 percent said they needed staff with computer security expertise this year, and 85 percent wanted employees who know how to write applications that link online forms with databases.
Anne Reed, the CIO of the Agriculture Department, said her staff is profiling the agency's IT work force and plans to develop training programs to fill gaps in knowledge. But Reed said she knows "conceptually" what her department requires.
"Before too long, people are going to look around and say, 'We created the Clinger-Cohen Act, we've hired all these CIOs, we've gone through this process of capital investment and architecture and security. How come we're [still] seeing all these project failures?' " she said. "We really need serious attention to [project] management skills...[and] how you put all the pieces together."
CIOs across government have found their IT employees need the most training in four key areas: network operations, database administration, computer security and, especially for managers, IT policy issues.
The Web, of course, is generating a lot of demand for training in regard to technology and policy.
"Before, you were managing networks, but now you've got the Web," said Joan Steyaert, deputy associate administrator with GSA's Office of Information Technology. "Users are going to come to you and say, 'We don't have interoperability' [when they cannot exchange files]. And we have federal records requirements, legislation [and] issues such as privacy. The individual network engineers, although they are trying just to run their networks, have to be knowledgeable about these cross-cutting issues."
The Naval Oceanographic Office sent two Webmasters to the Webmaster training class at GSA in September to learn more about policy issues such as whether to post pictures and phone numbers of agency employees on agency Web pages. One of the Web site managers, Cynthia Bricker, said knowing about policy is important now because her agency wants to make more of its information public.
Federal IT employees who already have been trained must keep their skills up to date with the changes occurring in the technology industry and with how agencies use technology.
In his 14-year IT career, Marc Tolson, a programmer/analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been a database administrator and application developer and has worked with many major operating systems.
Tolson takes vendor-sponsored training classes to learn how to use new software. Just keeping up with product upgrades is a challenge, he said, especially when it comes to managing, rather than developing, quickly evolving systems.
At present, he is converting an Oracle Corp.-based client/server application used by the agency's Freedom of Information Act Office into Java applets that will run on NOAA's intranet. Eventually, with modification for security, the application also will be offered to the public over the Web, Tolson said.
"Security is a big concern," he said. "Typical systems administration training does not include information of that nature," and having database applications accessible from employee desktops as well as the Web leaves agency networks vulnerable to hacker attacks.
Configuration management also is high on Tolson's agenda. "Right now we have a machine running 13 separate databases all vying for the same resources," Tolson said. Making sure all these applications share memory equally "takes understanding of how the database works and how the system is being used," he said.
These factors ultimately shape how agencies approach training.
"As the industry matures, the kind of thing you train your people on matures," said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA Federal Systems and a former federal IT executive. A decade ago, mainframe programmers trained in Cobol "could work off that training for several years," DiPentima said, but today, "with all of these new application programs and operating systems and development languages, training is an enormously important component."
Glenn Sutton, deputy CIO with the Office of Personnel Management, said the CIO Council wants to help agencies set training goals by providing them with a "road map" of skills that employees need to perform particular types of jobs. These guidelines would be similar to the "core competencies" list that the CIO Council published last year describing what IT executives should know, said Sutton, who is co-chairman of the council's education and training subcommittee.
How agencies get their training is starting to matter as much as what they learn. Anecdotal information suggests the government devotes less of its IT budget to employee education than do private companies. In addition, noted Leslie Barden, who heads the computer training unit within the National Institutes of Health's Center for Information Technology, federal employees do not have the time to spend days or weeks in class.
These factors are leading agencies to devise short and self-paced programs using computer-based training tools. For example, Barden said, NIH employees can complete their mandatory computer security training with Web-based self-study. For other subjects, such as an introduction to the latest Internet programming language, an overview of network hardware or new computer modeling techniques for scientists, students can sign up for one- or two-day classes taught largely by volunteers from the agency staff.
Employees also want training that is interdisciplinary, unlike traditional computer science programs that are math- and science-based, or public administration, which emphasizes management.
That approach reflects changes occurring on college campuses, where the new IT work force is being educated. Clayton College and State University in Atlanta recently revamped its IT curriculum after consulting with industry, according to school president Richard Skinner. Students work in teams on short-term proj-ects, learn how to communicate with each other and study graphic design to help them use and develop graphically based software. "We wanted this degree to be competency-based," Skinner said.
The bottom line, said Alan Lorish, CIO of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, is that "we have to get more creative about training." Lorish, the GITS Board's "champion" for training, is working on a set of computer-based tools for federal employees who want to improve their computer literacy. "It's really a challenge to get attention to it on a governmentwide basis [because] everybody is doing their own thing. One size doesn't fit all."
Meanwhile, Lorish said, CIOs and IT managers "have to get the attention of these senior executive program managers" by assessing their IT training requirements and pushing for more training money to fill the void. In a frequently cited analysis published in January, Gartner Group reported that "best-in-class" organizations spend 7 to 10 percent of their technology budgets on training, although spending 5 percent "can ensure a well-trained staff." According to Lorish, the Bureau of Economic Analysis spends about 3 to 4 percent. "I think that's rather high compared to others [in government]," Lorish said.
DiPentima said agencies' training priorities can be guided by their IT investment decisions. "An agency commits to a certain type of technology, and they have to make decisions about their software architecture, their database architecture [and] network architecture, including operating systems," he said. "Once they've made those decisions, then they have very specific ideas of what their folks need to train on. There will still be this dynamic component, [but with] some of the real basic stuff, you can get a good feel about that as long as you know what your life cycle is."