One step at a time

As a child, Charles Armstrong liked to play with Legos and Lincoln Logs, figuring out the best way to put them together and then take them apart. And that may have been a good exercise for what he is doing these days.

Now head of the modernization program for the Customs Service, Armstrong is in charge of retiring an antiquated computer system piece by piece and replacing it with a $1.3 billion system. That is no easy task even for a tech-savvy manager like Armstrong. Within four years, Customs will have a new system for handling imports at the borders that will "revolutionize the way trade does business," Armstrong said.

And it couldn't be better timing. More than $1 trillion in imports crosses U.S. borders each year, bringing in $24 billion in revenue. The new Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) is designed to track that cargo, but could also play a crucial role in homeland security by providing information on the movement of materials that could be used in terrorist attacks.

"It's going to help in the whole security anti-terrorism effort in terms of being able to have insight into potentially dangerous cargo," Armstrong said.

Modernization has been on the drawing board for more than six years, and problems plaguing the current system underscored its urgency even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The Automated Commercial System (ACS), which was designed in 1984, crashes frequently, delaying imports at the borders for hours or even days.

However, work on the new system is progressing. Last year, Customs awarded a $1.3 billion contract to a team led by IBM Corp. to build ACE, a Web-based system to process import data. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Customs decided to complete the project in four years instead of five.

"We are on time and on target," Armstrong said. "We're going to have a centralized model for cargo information, and it will provide us with a lot more information than they can get today."

But that doesn't mean that Armstrong can rest easy. He admits that he's a round-the-clock kind of guy. "I start very early in the morning and often don't leave until 9 to 10 at night," he said.

During his time with the agency, Armstrong has seen steps toward progress. When he joined Customs in 1988, the agency was very dependent on paper. Tariffs, amounting to $22 billion a year, were collected by paper and check.

"An inspector learned how to go through a manifest on paper, redlining things he wanted to look at," Armstrong said. "We've come a long way. Now we've got a workforce that is very much technology literate, and they are ready to move to the next generation, which is modernization."

Armstrong gets high marks from colleagues. "You can get lost in the sauce easily in a program this big, and you have to understand what the priorities are," said Luke McCormack, director of systems engineering for infrastructure services at Customs. "Charlie has great attributes for a leader. He's got good business sense. He is able to sort through the noise and focus on the things that are important."

Armstrong has always been enticed by a challenge. Before taking a job at Customs, he played a major role in developing systems for the Navy to support logistics, payroll, command and control.

ACE, for example, will enable Customs inspectors to get lists of cargoes before they arrive at the border, allowing inspectors to spot irregularities and imports that should be unpacked and rechecked before being admitted into the United States. It won't be a moment too soon, according to Armstrong.

"You can't walk into a store, your office, your house and not touch things that have been impacted in some way by across-the-border trade," he said.

***

The Charles Armstrong file

Age: 43

Job: Executive director of the Customs Modernization Office, part of the Customs Service's Office of Information and Technology.

Experience: Former acting director of the Software Development Division for the Office of Information and Technology. He also worked for the Navy to develop systems for finance, logistics, payroll, command and control.

Education: Bachelor's degree in information systems, Old Dominion University. Armstrong has been developing and operating IT systems since 1981.

Personal: Divorced; two children, ages 9 and 12.

Quote: "I very much like art and old architecture. In my maturity, I've gotten more appreciation for buildings and architecture, [and] the way things are put together."

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