Help is on the way

Imagine being the lone Agriculture Department employee in a remote area of Montana when your computer goes on the blink. There is no technical manual available that can explain how to fix it and no replacement part in the next room.

Not to worry, according to the USDA. Help is on the way.

That help is coming in the form of USDA help-desk staff members who will be taught how to troubleshoot problems on Microsoft Corp. Windows 2000, a key component of the Common Computing Environment (CCE), the Web-based program that is expected to bring the latest technology to farmers and USDA workers in the field.

The USDA has awarded a $1.4 million contract to SI International, a McLean, Va.-based company, to support its transition to CCE, which will provide standard computer systems nationwide for one of the largest federal agencies.

SI International and its Microsoft- certified teachers will begin training 540 help-desk workers and local-area network administrators on Sept. 9. The goal is to deliver instructor-led classes to every state in the care and maintenance of Windows 2000 Server, Active Directory, Exchange 2000 Server and Enterprise Management environment.

The training will give USDA staff members the skills to support the department's service centers. Once in operation, the service centers will make it easier to share information and deliver services more efficiently.

"There is a big difference between the audience for this class and the audiences using desktop software," said Cathie McMahon, executive vice president for SI learning. "These are the technical folks solving technical problems. They are the people who will manage the infrastructure [and] who will require that security operate properly."

Nevertheless, the modernization task is no small undertaking. USDA officials have been working hard to create CCE, a move that will provide a single face to consumers for their agriculture needs.

"It's a big place," said Anne Reed, former chief information officer at the USDA. "There are a lot of offices in just about every county in the United States. On the one hand, it's a single face for the client. On the other hand, you want to eliminate duplicate entries. When you capture information once, you don't want three, four or five [USDA] agencies to recapture the same information."

Bill Gardner, the USDA's senior policy adviser for service center implementation, said that CCE would be 90 percent complete by the end of September. The network services have been installed in field offices, and various features, such as management tools and e-mail, are being turned on.

"As we turn those features on, people will be trained on how to manage and use them," Gardner said.

The USDA also has started a major telecommunications upgrade to support Web applications and e-government initiatives. In the next year, the department's field offices will have 24 times the telecom capacity that they have today. Other technologies still to come include Global Positioning System capabilities, personal digital assistants and other management tools.

SI International has been thriving in the federal marketplace. In 2001, its revenues were $146 million, mostly from federal contracts. And its imprint can be seen on a host of other government contracts, including training staff at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 60 days and training more than 20,000 employees at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We've been very successful in delivering customized training that meets the needs of specific customers," said Ben Kirson, SI International's manager of technical training.

Kirson said it is imperative to standardize all of the USDA's hardware and software throughout the country quickly to "correspond to the rollout" of the new system.

"Our customers want students and staff after training to go back to their offices and perform their day-to-day duties," Kirson said. "You can't do that without planning a couple of months ahead of time and designing the courseware accordingly."

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Seeds of change

The Common Computing Environment encompasses approximately 35,000 workstations, 8,000 printers and 2,700 network servers across 3,500 Agriculture Department offices. The $1.4 million contract the USDA awarded to SI International is the latest move in the plan to modernize the agency's computer systems.

"I think the most exciting thing is to continue to see the USDA and their Web-based applications," said Warren Clark, an agribusiness consultant in Chicago. "This $1.4 million commitment to training underscores the fact that the very producers they are serving are using computers and the Internet in ever increasing numbers."

Among the 200,000 farmers earning the top revenues in the United States, 85 percent own computers and 65 percent are connected to the Internet, according to Clark.

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