Bridging the people gap

Fred Thompson didn't really plan his career. As program manager for information technology work force improvement at the Treasury Department, he spends his time thinking about how to make government careers attractive to up-and-coming technologists and managers.

He straddles two professions - IT and human resources - that, as "Dilbert" cartoons darkly chronicle, often are at odds. He has had to bring them together, getting IT workers to talk about the training, compensation and benefits that they want and getting HR managers to find ways to deliver those needs. At stake is Treasury's ability to operate the systems that pay federal benefits, collect taxes and solve financial crimes.

"There's a lot of stereotyping on both sides," Thompson said. "The HR people honestly do want to help, but they frequently don't know how to do that, and they don't talk the same language [as the IT employees]."

When he began his federal career 27 years ago, Thompson would not have predicted that he would be tackling one of the most challenging problems that face IT managers today. Growing up in Richmond, Va., he knew he wanted a professional job, but he did not know which field he wanted to enter. "My universe was not real broad," he said.

At the University of Virginia, he majored in business because "it seemed practical." But when he was ready to graduate in 1972 - assuming he was going to be drafted into the Army- he didn't look for a job. Then the Army rejected him because he was allergic to bee stings.

He then decided "on a lark" to take the federal employment entrance exam with a friend who had been studying for it, Thompson said. He landed a job as a management intern and was assigned to the Office of Personnel Management's internal audit division.

It wasn't the first time that helping out a friend sent him in an unexpected direction, and it wouldn't be the last. In high school, he overcame boyhood shyness when he tagged along with a friend trying out for a play, ending up with a part in the play and a lifelong interest in the theater.

And he switched his career focus from auditing to IT when a colleague became head of OPM's IT shop and brought him along. He then earned a master's degree in information systems management from George Washington University.

About three years ago, after several years in different jobs at the Internal Revenue Service, he followed another colleague to the agency's School of Information Technology, where he worked on computer-based training programs. A year later, that experience led to his current job.

Changing positions every two or three years taught him to see many points of view - an asset in a position where building camaraderie is critical. "You have to get back to the broader goals: Why are we doing this? Why do we need to cooperate? That's where I start," he said.

Thompson recently wrote a report that outlined the steps the Treasury and OPM need to take to recruit and retain IT workers and managers. He followed that up with a plan, expected to be released soon, to carry out the report's recommendations. Some steps in the plan will cost money, but Thompson said the department is so "hungry for something to be done" that he has received a lot of support.

"I think we've been able to blend a good partnership here," he said. "It's been to my benefit that I haven't had to fight a lot of vested interests."

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