Practical knowledge

Information technology is profoundly changing the way the Air Force functions, from communicating to purchasing supplies and equipment. Robert Frye, executive director of the Air Force's Standard Systems Group, is there to put those changes into perspective.

Frye has come a long way from his hometown of Windsor, Mo., (population 2,700) to become the chief executive of a $450 million enterprise that buys, develops and integrates the best and most cost-effective information technologies for the Air Force and many other Defense Department components.

Frye, based at the Gunter Annex of Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala., has relied on his many years as an Air Force officer and an SSG customer to help guide his decision-making. "I think my background as a long-term customer of SSG has been a big help, as I have a good idea of how outsiders see our organization and what needs to be done to improve our customer relations," Frye said. "I think the over 1,000 active-duty military [personnel] that work at SSG like knowing that I understand their school, career and promotion systems."

Frye took the helm of the 2,500-employee SSG in June 1995. Since then, SSG has been challenged by the fast-paced changes in the IT industry and the government IT community, particularly in the way agencies and the military purchase goods and services. Fry views his role as giving ballast to an organization that operates on the cutting-edge of high-tech electronic commerce.

"We are really stretching our people to the level we can't sustain for any length of time," said Frye, referring to the increasing demands being placed on Air Force personnel. "I think my job as a leader in this changing environment is to try and minimize the turbulence of the changes on our work force and to try and stay the course on changes already made to give those changes a chance to work and mature."

The biggest change Frye has witnessed is the move away from long-term contracts such as Desktop V toward flexible and robust blanket purchase agreements, he said. "The acquisition streamlining that allowed us to do this has saved the government hundreds of millions of dollars," Frye said.

SSG is known as an Air Force Working Capital Fund organization, which means that it must make money to stay in business. However, Frye's customer focus should help him tackle the challenging aspects of keeping the bottom line healthy.

Frye earned two master's degrees: one in computer and information systems from UCLA and the other in Engineering Management from Western New England College.

Although he heads a military organization, much of Frye's time is spent keeping an eye on the World Wide Web sites of companies he considers threats to his business. "I keep checking our BPA vendor Web sites to make sure we are still getting the best deals in the government," Frye said. "Personally, I do quite a bit of shopping online and regularly check sites like eBay.com, Onsale.com, Computer Discount Warehouse, and CompUSA to compare prices."

Frye's career has been diverse. He spent nine years on active duty in the Air Force from 1969 to 1978 and held a myriad of IT-related positions, including computer systems analyst at the Cheyenne Mountain complex at the North American Aerospace Defense Command and software development manager for the Automated Technical Control Program at Hanscom Air Force Base.

He is a graduate of the Air Force's Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College, Air War College and the Harvard University Senior Officials in National Security Executive Course. Frye also holds a Level 3 acquisition certification in communications/computer systems and program management. He recently retired as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves.

Frye's experience should help him handle the increasing complexity of his current job. "I think the work we are doing now in the software development and maintenance environment is much like it has always been - new hardware, new operating systems and new requirements," Frye said. "What is very different is the complexity of the job. These systems have more interface and integration requirements and the environment in which they operate is less controlled."

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