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May 14, 2015

IT Solutions Challenge 2015 Problem Description - Christopher Paris

By Christopher Paris


By the end of the first IT Solutions Challenge (ITSC) workshop on April 9th, six teams set out on a journey to try and fix some of the government’s largest IT problems. I tethered myself to the group dedicated to impacting the ways the government hires, motivates, and retains skilled IT personnel. At first glance, it may not seem like an “IT problem,” or one that has a clear technological solution. However, if you delve deeper, it’s clear that personnel management – in particular, IT personnel management – is a huge “IT problem” right now. It’s no secret that the Federal Government has a shortage of skilled IT and cybersecurity professionals. My group – Team 3 – believes that many of the factors contributing to that shortage revolve around the way the Federal Government hires personnel and struggles to cultivate a challenging environment filled with clear growth opportunities. At the end of that first day, our goal was to “create or Improve a uniform career development program to improve recruitment and retention of federal IT professionals.”

And what a massive goal that was. It was during our interview stage – the time between our first and second organized ITSC meetings – that we quickly realized just how many opportunities exist for improving the way we bring new people in and engage them. Our inboxes and conversations were filled with great ways the government could better cater to the needs of its workforce. Whether the suggestion was offering salaries that aligned more closely with private sector careers, introducing within-position promotions, greater opportunities to network, or increased rotational details, everyone we spoke with was brimming with great ideas for motivating federal employees to perform at their full potential and providing non-federal employees more ways to get their foot in the door.

At the beginning of our second official working day on April 29th, our task seemed gargantuan. Each one of us had at least a half dozen great interview takeaways that we brought to the table. You can see where this is headed – proposing 36 ideas for improving the way the government recruits and retains its IT workforce is unreasonable given our short timeframe. Throughout the day we had great presentations on open data and agile development, but the real thrust of the day was helping the teams come away with a problem statement, pulled from the original mission statements, that could be feasibly tackled in the upcoming months. My team began by breaking away from the larger group, locating a quieter workspace, and really hunkering down. We grouped our possible solutions into separate categories, threw them up on the wall, and took a step back to visually grasp the scale of the day’s challenge. With so many vital ways we could try and shake up the status quo, eliminating possible projects was slow going at first. After a few hours we came to the realization that we were arriving at problem statements that were too broad because, subconsciously, we wanted to include as many solutions as possible in our end product.

It wasn’t until what felt like the 11th hour did we arrive at a problem we felt was narrow enough to be feasible, yet broad enough to tackle multiple problems we had identified. Much credit has to be given to the ITSC staff and mentors. They acted as great sounding boards throughout the day, helping us hone our ideas into intelligible problems addressable by specific solutions. At the end of a very intense, at times frustrating, yet ultimately worthwhile and fruitful day, our group arrived at the following problem statement:

The Federal Government struggles to keep IT personnel engaged with meaningful work that fosters career development.

The team’s initial focus at the first ITSC workshop was to focus heavily on IT personnel retention. However, we realized that retention is merely a byproduct of individuals who are truly satisfied in their careers; at least it should be. With that being said, our new focus is on introducing solutions that cultivate a challenging work environment filled with cross-component, cross-agency opportunities to share knowledge, gain experience, and develop an employee’s skillsets; solutions that will also help the Federal Government accomplish more with the human capital it currently has. To that end, we’ll be working on developing a government wide portal that will allow agencies to post projects in need of additional talent. Qualified employees, with management approval, would be able to devote a portion of their workload to assisting their agency or another agency in accomplishing their goals. The purpose of such a program and portal would be to provide federal personnel opportunities to lend their skills to projects that will expand their institutional knowledge, develop their networks, and round out their skillsets; ideally resulting in a more satisfied, trained employee and the completion of a project that would otherwise be dead in the water or at the mercy of increased resources and funding. Despite the challenges we faced during the second workshop, or the inevitable challenges ahead, my decision to be a part of this group’s mission was affirmed in the enthusiasm, persistence, and collaboration demonstrated by my fellow team members.

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