Fong: He doesn’t know ‘quit’

When Col. Timothy Fong started running Army Knowledge Online (AKO) in 2002, the service's information technology officials ordered him to improve the Web portal's activity and stability. Fong, a West Point graduate and career signals officer, followed those orders.

In three years, he helped increase AKO's subscriber base by 800,000 and file downloads by 29 million. He also built a vital backup site.

However, the Army's technology director downplays those stats. Instead, he speaks proudly about soldiers in Afghanistan using the portal to discuss enemy tactics and about how 70 percent of the soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq used it last July for work and personal matters.

"Whatever we can do to help soldiers make better decisions and prepare for their missions, that's what we're here for," Fong said.

Army IT officials think so highly of Fong that they asked him twice to postpone retirement to oversee portal upgrades.

"Col. Fong is an outstanding technologist who has been instrumental in taking AKO to the next level of maturity from its earlier developmental stages," said Lt. Gen. Steve Boutelle, the Army's chief information officer.

Almost 1.8 million Army military and civilian employees and veterans, their families, and employees of companies who work for the service subscribe to AKO. About 250,000 of them log on to it daily, which totals 550,000 sessions a day for a variety of functions including warfighting collaboration and chatting with loved ones.

As of January, subscribers had performed 29.9 million file downloads from AKO's Knowledge Collaboration Center, up dramatically from 10,000 in 2002. The center contains 1.5 million files, compared with 1,200 in 2002. In January, subscribers also sent 14.7 million instant messages via the portal.

Usage and content also increased on AKO's classified portion, which has 96,000 subscribers, compared with 1,200 in 2000. They downloaded 194,000 files from the classified version of the Knowledge Collaboration Center, up from 8,700 in 2003. The center now houses 63,100 files, up from 5,200 two years ago.

Army and industry officials give kudos to Fong and his eight-person staff for the portal's tremendous expansion during wartime.

"AKO has one of the largest user bases in the business, and almost every user has a good idea on how to improve," said Vernon Bettencourt Jr., the Army's deputy CIO. "Col. Fong understands the difference between a good idea and necessary improvement to support the warfighter."

"With a lot of growth comes a lot of confusion," said Tom Ferrando, president and chief operating officer of CherryRoad Technologies, the company that helps operate AKO. "Col. Fong is very steady and focused. He brought stability to an environment that was sometimes chaotic."

In spring 2002, Fong worked at the Defense Information Systems Agency as program manager for the Defense Information Systems Network. He planned to retire that summer. But things changed when Boutelle and Peter Cuviello, then the Army's CIO, paid him a visit.

Boutelle and Cuviello asked Fong to postpone retiring to become the Army's director of the Chief Technology Office and oversee AKO. Then they gave him a tall order: Improve the portal's activity and stability.

Fong liked the fact that the generals did not tell him how to accomplish that. "They supported me," he said. "They gave me some ownership. They let me be as innovative as I wanted."

At that time, almost 1 million people subscribed to AKO, but the number of files posted and downloaded demonstrated they did not use it much. To carry out his orders, Fong realized he needed to improve the performance, reliability and security of the portal — while continuing to operate it.

He put his communication systems engineering background to work studying AKO's architecture and identifying the best commercial hardware and software to update the portal. He then selected a classified home for the backup site that would allow for continuous operations in case of computer attacks and national emergencies.

A year into the project, Fong put off retirement again to finish the work he had started. "The more I got into the job, the more I realized I could make a difference," he said.

In May 2004, Army officials turned on AKO's disaster recovery site and achieved a security certification from the National Security Agency. Three months later, they went live with AKO Version 3, which included enhancements that make it easier for users to navigate, chat, send instant messages, manage documents, update information, and create and administer mini-portals.

Michael Beckley, vice president and co-founder of Appian, worked with Fong to improve AKO's performance. He said Fong established clear, high goals. "Two words describe him: clarity and demanding," Beckley said. "I've never had any ambiguity with him."

When problems arose, Fong kept his cool, asking what caused them and how to fix them. "He doesn't micromanage," said Beckley, adding that he and his employees spent many nights working on the problems in the backroom of the one-story, black brick building behind cyclone fencing at Fort Belvoir, Va., on the Potomac River. "He trusts the vendor to deliver. He set high goals, such as for the responsiveness for the site."

The next step for AKO involves making the portal easily available to warfighters on the front lines. "We want to support the soldier at the edge," Fong said.

The AKO Forward project requires building infrastructure sites overseas to increase performance and decrease bandwidth. It also involves incorporating new administration of the portal and the Army's knowledge management strategy.

This summer, Army officials will award the seven-year, $600 million AKO Enterprise Services contract. The contract's length and dollar amount shows service leaders' commitment to the portal, Fong said.

A 50-year-old married father of two and an avid golfer, Fong feels good enough about the portal's current shape that he will finally retire from the government in August and look for a commercial IT job in the Washington, D.C., area.

"I think I've left AKO in a good operational state," he said.

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