For the past year or so I’ve been thinking that I have nothing more to add to the story of my life than the web topics I’ve already completed. But then I realized that I’ve been neglecting the elephant in the room. For about fifteen years at the beginning of the current century, I worked as a government contractor in the greater Washington, DC region. I had a couple great jobs and made the best of a couple others. Doing what? Ah, therein lies the tale.
When I began with computers in the early 1980s, a typical user had little choice but to get much closer to the computer innards than is likely today. My first computer was a single-board computer, but the chassis on which it was built—S-100—had been that used by the earliest personal computer creators, and was able to accept all kinds of special service boards. Nothing was automatic. A lot of otherwise free software had to be customized to any particular computer, and even such commercial software as the ubiquitous WordStar word processing program could be customized to reflect certain aspects of your hardware. I found a free database program written in BASIC that I used to keep track of terminology in the freelance translation work I was doing for a government agency (see My Time with the CIA). When I decided to change to yet another database program, I had to figure out how to convert the data I had already gathered. Assembly language was the only programming environment I had yet experienced (a copy of TurboPascal remained forever untried), so I set to work creating an application. It took weeks. Finally, I was ready. I fed the source data into one end and checked the result at the other. Perfect. It took approximately 17 seconds to run and of course was never used again. I was hooked.
When I started working as a technical writer , I concentrated on the programming side of the work. In my second job—working with Windows, I used the BASIC built into Microsoft Word to pick out any new feature added to our product by the developers, and provide a hook to the wonderful system of Help that was available within Windows. And I kept in touch with what the developers were learning. I especially recall the work that Ramesh, an Asymetrix developer, did to match our Java application—Supercede—to the Microsoft data processing API within Windows. This would prove essential once I started working.
When I moved to the East Coast in 1997, I decided to use the break as a means of changing career. Instead of looking for work as a technical writer, I would seek work as some kind of programmer. What kind? Well, the most likely choice would be Visual Basic, which was probably the most common language chosen by non-Computer-Science graduates working in the computer field. But I didn’t need any competition. Although I had access to Visual Basic, I’d never used it—WordBasic and VB had different working environments and shared only a fundamental syntax. Meanwhile, the media was full of news that the world would end when the calendar clicked into 2000, because most business applications had been written in COBOL and typically stored their year data in two digits, where the full year was understood to be 19__ (see joke). “No one” knew COBOL any more, according to the media, so no one knew how to fix the many applications that by now ran our lives. OK, that will be me, I decided.
I bought a college textbook on COBOL (surprised that the subject was still taught anywhere) and set to work. Having no teacher, I had to rely on the sample code in the book, and I soon had problems. If I understood the lesson correctly, then such-and-such a sample wasn’t correct. This was 1998, and the author—a professor at a school I had never heard of—had included her email address (in those pre-spam days). I wrote with my problem. With some irritation, she admitted the error and provided the corrected code. After few weeks, the irritation had disappeared, and effusive thanks appeared. She was in the process of re-doing the book for its next edition, and appreciated the discovery of mistakes. She asked how I managed to find the errors, and I explained that the sample code was the equivalent of a teacher for me. Perhaps unlike a lot of students, I was actually compiling the code. In addition, I mentioned that I was using a Fujitsu COBOL development environment for Windows. She wasn’t interested, as her world was entirely composed of mainframe computers, but I was delighted to see in later editions of her text that the excellent Fujitsu product was duly noted and incorporated.
It would take yet another story to relate my experiences looking for a job in DC as a COBOL programmer, but one day I got a call from a certain Roberta to whom I had submitted a resume. “Do you really want to be a COBOL programmer?” Well, no. I just wanted to get into programming. Her contracting company had been given a contract to provide a dozen programmers for an on-going project, and she was getting desperate finding any.
What was the job? She didn’t actually know. It required a security clearance, and had to do with Windows. My resume showed much contact with Windows, and that seemed about as close as she was going to get. OK, I said. She noted that I would have to alter my resume a bit. For example, where I had written “One day, I was walking down a hall and heard someone say ’dBase2’,” she suggested that I should change it to “I created dBase2 and was hard at work creating dBase3.” Little things like that. Of course, I am exaggerating, but years later I would read the official job description from the government regarding the job I was then occupying, and saw that the tone ran something like “Must not only be able to walk on water, but also must create the water before the stroll.” I happened to know well the man who had composed the job description I was reading, and knew well that he had no idea what the words meant. He had copied most of it from another job description. So, I began to feel better about the degree to which we had exaggerated my own accomplishments.
I'd gotten my first job as a contractor, and joined a group of about a half-dozen folks who had been found to fit the twenty or so positions authorized by the contract. Two of us were “programmers,” although only one of us had ever done any. But really, the government wasn’t looking for programmers. Those were just words used to find folks with some knowledge of how Windows applications work. Specifically, the official specifying the terms had picked out three Windows applications among those offered by vendors at conferences, and wanted our contractors to choose the best to perform some work that the official wanted done.
As I recall, it was my experience with ASP technology and the API work that Ramesh had shared with me that allowed us to see our first success with any of the applications. My co-worker Ed and the others then evaluated the three apps and chose one, while I began to experiment with pure ASP technology apart from the Windows applications. This proved useful, because the applications we were evaluating were of the sort called “code generators.” The code they generated was fed into a Windows server to generate web pages.
Most of the group went to the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) across the Potomac from DC, while a couple of us stayed in an office on K Street, near the White House, awaiting our security clearances (which would end up taking about eight months). I was given a make-work task of creating a scheduling application for meeting rooms. I was in heaven.
One day, Ed called from the SCIF to say that the report he’d been instructed to create was happily reviewed by the government manager. He said it was “absolutely perfect, everything I wanted" and "why couldn’t the primary contractor have done that.” But he wanted some small details changed that we couldn't do with the code generator. So we ended up changing the actual generated code. That worked…for a while. “Wonderful! Now make all the reports like that.” The fixed code would no longer work within the code generator, so we had no choice: we would code manually from that point on. I taught Ed enough about coding over the phone so that he could make the changes himself, and everything was hunky-dory—for a while.
Over those eight months, prospective candidates for the remaining dozen or so vacancies came and went, which reminds me of an incident. When I first arrived at the K St office, I was introduced around. I particularly remember Sarah, not only because she was both beautiful and charming, but also because Roberta, something of a feminist, proudly noted that Sarah had achieved the Microsoft certificate for competency in something I no longer recall. Girls just didn’t do things like that in those days, and Roberta was so proud that this young beauty worked for her. One of the programmer candidates was a Computer Science graduate of Virginia Tech, so for a while we had some serious female talent in that office.
When Sarah took another job, I went over to say goodbye and that it had been nice working with her. I recalled how impressed I was that she had the Microsoft credential, and she flushed a bit. “Well,” she said, “I really, really wanted to do that certificate, and I bought a book to study for it. But, gosh, there’s just so much to do that I never got around to it.” I had witnessed the “much to do” that beautiful Sarah did while working at our office. Her job was to go to client sites and help them with some aspect of their Microsoft software. Invariably, she would return to the office, then spend a couple days dealing with phone calls from the guys who fell in love with her when at the client site. Then would come the next job at the next client site, and the whole cycle would begin again. It was truly great fun to watch, as Sarah could not help being charming as she dealt with each follow-up call after the site visit. Each guy thought he was the luckiest man on earth in talking with this creature, while I could witness that said lucky guy was part of a crowd he couldn’t have imagined.
When the last of our programmer candidates left, she told me that the Virginia Tech graduate had confessed to her before she left (just before the one telling me this story) that she’d not actually graduated from VTU. She wanted to, but...
At some point—I think when I left that contracting company a few years later, I wrote to Roberta that she really needed to check candidate resumes more closely, as two of her prize female employees had not proven to be what they claimed. I never heard from her, but felt obligated to pass on the news.
Just before my own time on K St came to an end (when the clearance came through), I did some work on the database for our project. I had heard from the folks at the SCIF that everyday performance of the reporting system was miserable. You could request a report, then go off to the “kitchen” for a cup of coffee, and the report might be coming on screen as you returned. I learned that a trial copy of the database software was available, and I requested a copy, hoping that I could score a Windows driver for the DBMS. That’s what happened. With that driver and access to the system, I could access the existing data system and—what? I wasn’t sure, but an idea began to form.
I started at the SCIF after the clearance came through. Security was more lax in the SCIF than it would later become. (During my time as a government contractor, security on networked systems gradually and greatly improved, not always a bonus for a guy doing the kinds of things you’ll read in this story.) With my Windows driver (sneaked in and installed by myself—we had administrative access to our Windows machines), I analyzed the structure of the data system designed and implemented by the primary contractor. Access to the data was via a Windows application that was something like Microsoft Excel, and reports were being displayed as a spreadsheet. This certainly accounted for at least some of the reporting lethargy. I then sneaked in a copy of Microsoft SQL Server, and duplicated the data environment on our local server. Reports were done as web pages on the secure intranet within the SCIF, as they had been intended. When we saw that results were now instantly available, we arranged for a demonstration for the government manager.
Ed began by showing the manager the existing report. Or, rather, he tried to—it crashed. We were upset because we wanted to show timings of that system and the one we proposed. “Never mind,” he said. “It crashes all time. What do you have to show me?” We switched to our illegal SQL Server system, and had him request a report. The result was instantaneous. Unbelievingly, he tried a couple more. All equally successful. I can still remember the smile on his face as he left our office. The primary contractor had just presented him with the annual $100,000 maintenance fee that applied to the existing data system, which he had been paying for ten years at this point. “You just saved me $100,000,” he said, and told us that from then on, our company would be handling the data processing for the project. Over the next many years, I doubt that any success Ed and I had subsequently would provide such pleasure as did this first one.
In truth, only the primary contractor could know just what we had cost them. We knew that it made enemies for us among the personnel of that contractor, but we were so new to the idea of government contracting that we had no real idea of this change.
More than once over the next three years, the manager would plop down in one of our office guest chairs and sigh. “You guys have no idea how wonderful it is to have you here. In the past I would request a new database for some purpose, and the prime contractor would tell me that such a request was not in the contract, and a week later they would present me with a proposal that always had a price tag of at least $50,000 and a need for new personnel. I would tear it up, and then we went along as before until my next request. With you guys, I just yell down the hall, ’Hey, I want a database of crucial witnesses’, and you guys have it running a couple hours later.”
Ed and I have remained very proud of this accomplishment. It was possible because we had not been trained as government contractors. We were brought in “off the street” to do, as we saw it, whatever the government wanted, and that’s how we worked. Before I left that job, one of the prime contractor employees came into my office. “You don’t know anything about government contracting, do you?” I certainly couldn’t deny this. “This is how it works,” he explained. “Whenever the government asks for something, you tell them it’s not in the contract, and then you figure out what it should cost, and tell them.” It was too late to affect my behavior—our contract was ending, and I was off to another job. But I can say with confidence that neither Ed nor would ever behave as true contractors. From our point of view, we worked for the government, and the contractor simply provided our checks.
One requirement that contractors have is to report what their employees have done during that reporting period, usually a week. Seldom can the reporting contract officer—working from the company office—know what the on-site employee had done. Each employee would send a note to Roberta on that week’s activities. She would abbreviate to one sentence for each employee, so if you just sent one sentence, she was happy. But I saw this as a chance to reflect on what we were doing and why, and often sent her several pages. She hated this—who could blame her, but even today I have those reports, and they help me remember what we were up to then.
We were working on a lawsuit that was more valuable (in intent) than any other in US history. The government was being sued for billions. We created a suite of applications and utilities that were never requested by the lawyers on the case but rather by the government manager, whose responsibility was litigation support. “Find me support for my position,” and off would go the paralegals into the stored data to find something useful. The government had lost the case before we came onto the scene, and the proceedings were into the appeals phase. The government would not lose again. Because of us? Don’t be silly. But let me say that it certainly feels good to be on the winning side. I had reason to attend the actual trial at one point, and was much impressed by the presence of the opposing council. They had filled one of the two “peanut gallery” sections with their junior employees, all of whom almost certainly were billing their time watching the proceedings. Our peanut gallery section might have had a half-dozen folks every now and again—taking a break from their trial duties, and when it did all colors would be represented. The plaintiff's group was pretty much pure white, with perhaps an Asian face or two.
After our contract ended, an attempt was made to interest the government in our suite of software to be adapted for other cases, but that didn’t go very far. It is important to understand that creating such things all over again is far more remunerative than adapting someone else’s.
My next job was with the same contractor but in the general support section. We would be tasked with something for a short time, billing by the hour to whatever project was involved.
During the period of general support, I worked on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which has prompted two of my earlier web sites: Houston and CAIB. And an in-house project was an added bonus. The office supervisor, perhaps aware that I was struggling to find something to do, called me in for a special request. She explained that our company presented the government with its weekly (monthly?) bill, and that she was unhappy with its current format. She was an older person and had been a schoolteacher. She wanted the invoice to be presented in typewriter monospace font. In other words, the whole thing was to look as if someone had typed it all up on a manual typewriter. Oh, but otherwise it was to be created from a wealth of documents normally only available to the various people involved with billing. It was truly great fun to do this, and more than a shock to discover after I had finished that our company had already spent hundreds of thousands having exactly the same thing done on a company-wide basis (ie, not just for our single government client). When I regained my power of speech, I asked why she’d had me do the same thing. “Because they insist on having proportional type.” Go figure...
Before I discuss salary, let’s figure out what contracting is. I really only saw one kind—what I did—so my comments have to be limited to that. Although I suppose that contracting is intended to be temporary, what I saw was more the need to introduce modern technical skills to a workforce that seldom had such skills. If, for example, you have a degree in computer science, government service is probably not high upon your list of goals. But increasingly, such skills are needed in the modern work environment. A system has developed whereby some of those computer science folks—if they don’t get absorbed into the private sector—can work temporarily at high salaries for various government agencies. They are employed by a company that provides such services to the government on contract. The government has a system of job titles and descriptions, and pays the contracting company a set rate for such titles. The contracting company then hires someone to fill that job description while paying him a percentage of what the government pays the company. A goal I heard reported once was 50%. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, because the company then has to provide the typical benefits expected in the modern office workplace.
Whom do they hire? Anyone they can who they can then pass off to the government. The illusion fostered especially in the litigation support world in which I started was that the contracting company had a constant force of talent that would be brought in when needed by the government. If that were true, who then would be paying the high salary required for specialized talent? So in fact people were hired as needed by any particular contract. Occasionally a person or two was held in store by the contracting company (I myself occupied such a position for some months), but the billing of such persons would not withstand much scrutiny. The wisest of the government managers seemed to understand this, and did not look too closely where no need to do so showed itself. But this reminds me of one of my favorite stories.
The government agency for which I first contracted dealt with support to government lawyers on their various cases. The head of this agency let a contract to our company for development of an accounting system by which she would manage the several cases that came before her. She allowed—for a short time—the participation of a couple of us higher-paid minions, but most of the work was done by one of my colleagues, a wonderful Chinese woman who sat next to me. The government supervisor was Iranian.
The system devised was designed by the highest-paid employee in our office, one of the folks kept around even when there was no contract on which to work. It was in his opinion perfect. Any expenditure was taken from the main source and credited to the proper case. But the supervisor complained. “I need a slush fund to take care of emergencies, etc.” The designer exploded (probably only in our office, not in front of the government official): “No way! This system is perfect and completely balanced at any moment!” Our wise and experienced office manager quietly removed the designer from the project, especially as my Chinese friend explained that she understood what the supervisor wanted, and that she would take care of it. And she did.
In that first job, there were two hardware/network support folks, one senior, one junior. Only the junior employee had the necessary skills. When the government manager transferred data processing support from the prime contractor to our company, these two gentlemen rose in importance. Unfortunately, our extremely distributed working environment hid the fact that the senior employee did not spend all the hours of his employment at our SCIF. That meant that the junior guy did most of the work.
Now, because we had made a couple serious enemies within the prime contractor, one especially vindictive employee there orchestrated a couple serious incidents in the data processing support that required fixing by the guy who was seldom present. Attention was brought to the government manager, and the network support responsibility was returned to the prime contractor, who in the meantime had offered our junior employee the senior status and pay enjoyed by his now former workmate. Fortunately, Ed and I were great friends with this young man, and I can say that our working conditions actually improved with this loss by our contracting company.
Now, back to salary. Looking for a programming job (without much experience) was a complete career change, and I was prepared to accept a lower salary than I’d had in Seattle. But with that first job, my contracting company added a couple thousand to my last salary in Seattle, and off I went. My activity and successes of that first year indicated that I could expect a salary much closer to that of my office-mate than was currently true (he made about twice my salary). After we took over the data processing responsibilities, I made my demand. I was offered about $5,000 more. I declined and stuck to my demand for a significantly greater salary. It took three months of fighting but I eventually got about a 50% increase, this only after the government agreed to put me into a “senior” job category, thus paying my company what they were already paying my officemate. In retrospect, it was a win-win situation. I got a very good increase and the portion they kept of my fee from the government was greater than they had been getting. The importance to me has almost been immeasurable, because what you get with each subsequent job tends to be based upon your previous salary. That serious kick in my salary led to my ability to retire as I have. It affected both the amount of Social Security I get and also what was in my 401(k) when I retired.
But the contracting system has a serious downside. Apparently, much of this is due to Congress, which has stipulated that multiple contractors be used whenever possible. Also, I came to understand that government managers are not permitted to manage individual contractors. They can only manage the single contractor that each contract puts into the workplace to manage its contract. This was most evident at my second job, where I sat in a room with probably 50 contractors belonging to five or six contracting companies. The government manager would speak only to the group of five or six contract managers, who would then pass on the orders to their respective employees. At a subsequent job interview with a company sharing such an arrangement at a CIA facility, the interviewer said that the arrangement pretty much brought work to a standstill, and I certainly saw evidence of this at the State Department location I shared with the fifty other contractors.
Fortunately, the project I was involved with concerned just a handful of folks. The vast majority of the rest worked on a huge software development project that would ultimately fail, as had the one before it.
That first State Department job was the most satisfying job I would have as a government contractor. It was also the most frustrating and by far the shortest. What made it a bit more satisfying than the litigation support job was that what our little team did was specifically requested by the government. After the first month or so on site at the litigation support job, the government had no more requests for us to satisfy. If we wanted to stay sane, we had to come up with things to do, all by ourselves. We had the great fortune of cooperation with a couple of employees from the prime contractor, and took great pride in meetings among the four of us as we sought to create things that would aid the progress of our case. We had to do this clandestinely, because to involve managers of any kind would have brought the effort to a halt, feeling as they would have the need to report and get permission from higher authorities. Good luck with that.
At State, we had a young fresh face from State who saw what we could do, and asked for things to be done. While I worked on this man’s requests, Ed—acting manager of our little group—saw to it that the rest of our division of State knew what we were capable of, which generated even more work. For our time there (and probably even today), the Secretary of State would get a report each morning that had been compiled automatically from security reports all over the world, all stimulated by Ed letting the right people know that we could do it.
The young State employee had not only heard of computers (unlike most State employees of the time) but had even used them. He handed us an Access application he had created to handle one of his duties, and wanted us to put it on the global State Department intranet. The reason for this application is a wonderful illustration of American naivete. Years ago, when the US wanted a new embassy in Moscow, they contracted with a Russian “company” to build it. The Russians developed a tiny microphone the size of a piece of gravel, and put them into every wall of the embassy. Eventually, we discovered this.
To counteract this sort of trickery, the US had developed a security system whereby all materials bound for an embassy or consulate would be sealed in a container, which was then photographed and secured by US officials. The container was shipped to its destination where it could only be opened by a security official who had the documentation that had been created when the trailer was sealed. Before the work of our little contracting group, State would send a courier with the required documentation. Incredibly, this did not always work. Couriers did not always reach their destinations promptly. So, thought our fresh-faced friend, why not put this documentation on the global secure intranet, and do away with couriers altogether? And that’s what we did.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing. I started this job as State was beginning a huge consolidation of its software development resources. We’ll call the federal employee who was in charge of this entire effort the Evil Eye. It was stipulated that no work could be done by a formerly independent group (as ours had been) after such-and-such a date. Although our shipping application had been approved within this time limit, the project itself wasn’t finished. Moreover, the fresh-faced youngster had even more ideas, now that he had seen what we could do. We added his equipment tracking project to our workload by midnight of the deadline limiting independent work. As I was finishing the shipping application, I warned the young State employee that the Evil Eye of the software group was upon us, and the status of our projects was in question. “I’ll take care of that,” he promised. A couple days later he came over to our office and presented to me and to the head of our development section a document signed by many officials (almost certainly without knowing what exactly it meant) commending me for my extraordinary effort toward world peace, etc, etc. It worked—for that original shipping project, and I was allowed to finish it. When I continued to work on the tracking application, the Evil Eye caused a review committee to judge the merit in continuing that project. Of course, the committee was not objective, and the result was as expected. But while that interview was underway, the Big Cheese asked me how much longer it would take me to finish. “At least another month.” He then turned to the committee and asked what if after a month the much bigger all-encompassing program that was to include the functionality I was developing wasn’t even determined? Not a chance, replied the committee. He thereupon cancelled my project, and I went back to the general development pool. And according to my sources, fifteen years later, that effort to develop overall requirements for equipment tracking has yet to hold its first meeting.
There are many lessons to be learned from my experiences in government contracting, but overall the interest and enthusiasm that often accompanies project creation can die completely when the project goes to committee and the work into other hands. I continue to maintain that a small-scale application can better serve to guide a larger-scale effort than can a requirements gathering effort. This seems to be true mostly because of the kind of people involved in the respective efforts. Within the world of software development, this might be advocating agile over waterfall development.
Anyway, the consolidation of the various software groups into one organization was done with the requirement that all web development be done within an environment called ColdFusion. Ed and I were even forced to take a class in this. We both resigned a couple months later. I remember screaming at the instructor that this was the most pathetic programming language I’d ever seen, and he calmly retorted that it is not a programming language at all; it is a mark-up system, where standard HTML code is enhanced to provide the necessary effects. Whatever. I couldn’t stand it and would suffer it no longer.
Ed and I ended up finding other jobs and quitting about the same time, and I’ve often thought about our check-out meeting at corporate headquarters. The man who was handling our exit procedure was the man in charge of the contract the company held with State. We represented his two most highly paid employees, a portion of whose government-provided income was walking out the door. We couldn’t wait to get out of there, but the fact was that this man had treated us very well, and although we weren’t at all aware of the hit we had created against his income, I think about it every now and again and am sorry.
I ended up at an Army organization. Due to a job interview a couple years before where the interviewer claimed that the organization was interested in Microsoft SharePoint, I had bought a book on SharePoint and put it on my resume. A cold-caller desperately seeking SharePoint skills had called to offer a job just as I was seething from the changes occurring with the State job. “Yes!” I exclaimed without paying attention to what I was supposed to do there. I pulled out the book on SharePoint and probably fell asleep before finishing the first chapter. Oh well, at least it wasn’t ColdFusion.
I was with Army longer than at any other job. The working environment was good (a leased space in Alexandria), to which I commuted via a bus shuttle from the Metro station near my apartment. Few people exerted less effort than I in getting to work. I would live nearly fifteen years in Northern Virginia without a car, and this was just one more indication of how easy that was to do.
My workmates ranged from great through acceptable to unfortunate, just like any other job. We had several uniformed Army personnel on staff, and most of the remainder of civilian personnel (federal) were retired Army. As usual, contractors comprised 95% of the IT staff. My job was mostly an administrative one. SharePoint, used by the government within a secure intranet system, automatically created web sites, so although I certainly tried to think of other things to do with it over the years, I mostly just granted and revoked access permissions. SharePoint was adopted throughout government, so virtually all development needs were removed.
I had one interesting development effort for which I still hold a great fondness. Our Army organization had branches throughout the country, although I think that little contact was normally made among the separate units. Our general reigned over all the branches, at least on paper.
Around 2005, the federal government made a big effort to tighten its belt. One measure adopted in the nearby Pentagon was to restrict hiring. That policy was effected by requiring that our general personally sign off on any request to fill or create a position anywhere in our organization. In fact, the order to do this was received in our office at least a week after the policy was deemed to be in effect. What could the poor chief of personnel do very quickly to implement this policy throughout our Army organization? Use SharePoint! In theory, all branches had access to our instance of SharePoint. Access was often troublesome, mostly due to the security measures imposed on all network operations (Only our Alexandria office was in our network; everyone else had to be granted individual permission.) Whatever.
The idea was that any branch of our Army organization wanting to hire someone would enter such a request in a SharePoint application, and this would be passed along through (at one point) a seven-step approval process. After all, the general couldn’t know whether a position in California actually needed to be filled, so various officials would have to sign off before the general saw the request. I remember that I colored each No red, so that the general would see the color scheme as he was choosing whether to approve. In one dramatic case, every official had voted No but the general approved anyway. Undoubtedly, the result of a phone call from the Pentagon.
Chief put me into contact with two of his senior employees to whom he delegated authority to create a means of complying with this Pentagon requirement. It took me about three hours to develop a scheme on SharePoint that would serve the purpose. The delegated committee reviewed this and their judgment was unanimous: way too ugly to put our names on. It’s SharePoint, I argued. There is a place for all the data you need, but Cute is not in the palette. Unacceptable, they maintained.
We tried another approach, using some of the lesser known components of Microsoft Office. Fine! they said of the result. We extended the trial to all the branches, but Texas reported that it didn’t work for them. That turned out to be because although Army maintained such software as Office through licensing and central funding, Texas had diverted the upgrade funds to another purpose, and their older version of Office did not support our application. Our chief was apoplectic, and everyone was depressed. There seemed no way out.
Now, it had been my policy to maintain a server network at home that mirrored server technologies being used at whatever job I was at. At one point, I had six servers in my apartment, each serving some dedicated purpose. Additionally, I had taken up the study of C# and its web technology back when that was created (around 2000). I had done one unauthorized but useful application in my first job, and a few private projects since but outside of whatever job I had. The first weekend after our latest failure, I dedicated myself to creating the necessary personnel hiring system on a dedicated web page running on my personal web server. On Monday, the committee saw it, exclaimed its magnificence, showed the chief, and then all branches tested their access. Perfection.
It took some effort to port this to the web server at work, due to conflicts with the SharePoint system, but eventually it was all worked out, and went into service. About a year later the Pentagon removed the requirement for personal approval of all jobs by our general and therefore the need for this application.
But about that time a strange thing happened. One branch had the vast majority of hiring activity, and they had been the most reluctant and troublesome users of the system. Their position was that what the hell did our general know about the jobs they needed to fill?! But I got a call from the very strong head of that branch’s personnel office one day, and she said, “Listen. No one has hated this system more than I, but in fact we’ve never had any means of tracking our hiring practice before, and this system has provided that. If you’ll make a change or two, we’d like to continue using the system, not for the general’s signature but for bookkeeping purposes.” I was glad to oblige. The whole system was, in effect, unauthorized anyway, so I felt I could do anything I wanted.
I continued to maintain the system until the day I left the Army job, and even went up to meet with the folks I’d spoken with so many times. The reports they would occasionally request proved invaluable for them sometimes, and I can’t help but see that pirate project as my primary contribution to the government during my seven years at Army. I’m still proud of it.
Recalling earlier experience, I was told just before I left that the functionality I provided was to be part of a super software development project Army was doing to run all their activities. The same thing had been said at State, where the second attempt at that super software package was failing, n billion dollars later. I just sighed. I sincerely hope that all that worked out but I would certainly be surprised to hear it has.
About this time, Army (and all of government?) was doing a physical consolidation, moving from leased facilities onto government bases. Our office was to move to Aberdeen, MD, and I declined to go. But I needed to stay with my contracting company (for reasons of health insurance). I found a job just four miles from my apartment, easily reachable via train. This would be my second stint with the State Department, although with an entirely different department.
After I took my position in a two-man office, the existing SharePoint operator declined to assign me any work. “When the government discovers that this job needs only one guy, I’m staying and you’re going.” This didn’t bother me much, except to create great boredom. And he was certainly correct about there not being enough work. After a few months, he couldn’t take it either, and he convinced the friends he still had from a previous posting in Europe to get him a job there. After about six months on the job I was the only employee, and the boredom hadn’t eased much. By the way, I heard that the project employs three people now.
A responsible taxpayer (potentially, any citizen other than our current president) will have grave doubts about government contracting after reading my account, so let’s look again at what contracting both should be and also is.
Certainly, it has always begun as a way for government to obtain skills it needs only temporarily, whether skills outside those to which it has access within its employee base or simply to provide additional manpower. But in the modern world, employment is not a simple matter. Employment typically involves benefits and government obligations (taxes, payments for insurance, etc). Government has enough trouble with its own employees, and doesn’t want to get involved managing the finances of people who will often be present for an undetermined time.
Thus the contemporary system of contracting companies has come into being. A contracting company obtains a contract with the government to provide n number of people having skills specified in the contract and paid at a rate determined by the government for any particular job title. The contracting company gets that lump sum at agreed-upon intervals upon proof of service by the person fulfilling the contracted position. From that sum, the contracting company pays the employee (therefore, its employee, not an employee of the government) whatever is agreed upon by the employee and contracting company. The company is also obligated to handle whatever taxes and other obligations are available to the employee from that company as one of its employees.
The limitations should be clear. Realistically, a contracting company can only employ someone when the government is paying for the services of that person. Otherwise, the employee is simply dead weight. The employee has no function within the contracting company except to serve a client’s needs. We contracting employees all understood this, and were aware of when our contracts reached completion, at which time we would begin searching for the next job, usually with a different contracting company.
Unbeknownst to most of us, our contracting company was constantly searching for its own next contract. The government regularly issues Requests for Proposal (RFPs). I heard as I left my first contracting company that our office had not been successful in winning an RFP the whole 4+ years I was with them, my contract having been obtained before I joined. Then, after my notice of moving on had been issued, word came that our proposal had been accepted. I read the proposal and was interested to see my name listed among the resources employed by the company: “[me], PhD.” Yes, accurate, but not for any field that would have interested the government. But this reminds me of a fun experience.
One day, Roberta came rushing to my desk. “Just got a call from the White House, and have to go. But I have two interviews today, and I want you to handle them.” Stunned—who even knew we had a new contract with which to employ anyone. “What do I do? What do I say?” “Don’t worry about it. The guys you’re interviewing will take care of everything.” And she was right.
I had “my secretary” send in the first applicant. I had his resume in front of me but had him restate everything to get him talking. His questions determined most of our conversation. “When does the job start?” I started to respond with “What job?” but cleverly answered “It will be a while yet.” Both applicants had experience in remarkably specific fields. As I don’t recall what this was (and didn’t understand it at the time), let’s make something up. The RFP required an engineer who could determine the level of magnesium oxide in the detritus of underground nuclear burial operations. Both applicants had this experience, and there were precious few opportunities to exercise this skill. They thought highly of themselves, and were certain that this rare experience would be in great and remunerative demand. They were right—within an incredibly tiny window.
When Roberta got back, I asked what contract this was for. “Doesn’t matter.” After I left the company, I realized that there was no job. She was collecting resumes with specific skill sets, so that when she wrote the proposal (ie, the company’s request to be considered for the RFP contract) she could represent those folks as being among the resources our company had to offer in response to the requirements of the RFP. My name had gone in as one of those resources for the contract the company successfully obtained as I was leaving. The fact that I no longer worked for them as the contract work started was immaterial—no one can keep an employee against their will.
How much effort will companies make to obtain a contract for two engineers who can measure degrees of magnesium oxide in detritus, etc? Not much. Remember, the company’s income is determined by a portion of the fee the government pays for the services of that contractor. So, based upon my own experience, I’ll say that the government can pad an RFP with requests for larger numbers of relatively unskilled employees. Therefore, the value of the contract is greatly increased. Here’s a real life example.
When Ed and I were successful at our first contracting job, our greatest fan was the government manager for whom—in our minds only—we worked. He, unlike us, had been involved in contracting activities before. All of a sudden, our contracting company received a subcontract for twelve additional “document processing personnel.” I was very well aware of them for two reasons: one, there was no physical room for them so they occupied a kind of hallway outside the office of Ed and me; two, there was nothing for them to do. Having twelve people hanging around with nothing to do definitely gets your attention. Some pressure was relieved when at least a couple of them turned out to appear only when “work” started and ended for the day. The rest found various social activities, for example visiting Ed and me.
At the time, we could only react with outraged amazement. Eventually, we would understand that this was a gift to our company from “the government,” and it all happened without any of this being said. The government issued the subcontract without stating that it was in consideration of effort by the on-site contractors, and in fact our contracting company never knew this because they could not know what happened on-site.
Reflecting on this contracting situation in later years, I could imagine how a contract was typically handled. First, each contract has a company-supplied manager whose salary is paid by the government. He has no function except to administer the provisions of the contract. The government manager gives him orders, and he relays same to his on-the-job contractors. Based upon what I saw over the years, I can imagine that the project managers are given certain orders by their company executives. First, convert any temporary position to “permanent” (a relative word in the contracting world). My own position at my last place of employment was such a position. It had been created as temporary by the drafters of the project specified in the RFP. The project manager then successfully got the government to change this to permanent “in view of the tremendous and on-going requirement for work” this project entailed. Remember, this was the job where I was told that no work would be assigned to me because when the government discovered how little there was to do, I would surely be let go. I was told this by my officemate not by the project manager.
The second order to a project manager surely was to “add as many people to the contract as you can.” We saw reference to this phenomenon at my first job, where the prime contractor would point out to the government manager that whatever he was asking them to do was not covered by the existing contract, and that more personnel would be required. By the way, success regarding these two orders directly affects the project manager’s compensation.
So, how can a project manager—representing the contracting company—be successful in these two requests by his superior? In my observation, this was done via the personal relationship between the project manager and whatever government official held the power to grant the additional personnel. In my first job, the project manager had no more experience as a government contractor than Ed and I, and so the successes I’ve noted were pure gifts from the government official. In my last job, the project manager was very close to the government official, and served in a role like a government employee regarding the running of the office.
So. Does this system work as each of its components imagines it to? No. There simply has to be some waste within the system to allow it to work at all. Should there even be a contracting system? Ah, that brings up a final story.
At some point during the Obama administration, the cost of contracting served to frighten folks within that administration. Too much temporary help was proving to be permanent, so why not convert these folks to government employees? I had no problem believing the cost, because a government official once told me that his organization was paying $200,000 for me. He told me this under the presumption that I was getting most of this money (not even half, even with benefits considered).
My organization set about identifying contract personnel to be converted, but they had a very specific condition: if you agreed to become a government employee, you also had to agree to move to Aberdeen, MD, to where the organization was moving. Everyone wanted to become government employees, but no one wanted to move to Aberdeen. Whatever—a choice had to be made, and everyone signed the agreement, which brought a great sense of depression to the whole office—taking the conversion meant moving your home and the depression was contagious. After the conversion, one of the new employees realized that you can’t force a government employee to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go, so everyone immediately sought out other government jobs within the DC environment (an easy task). Last I heard, none of the converted contractors stayed with the organization as it moved to Maryland, so all the experience the organization had hoped to retain was lost. The conversion plan was in effect for less than a year, by my observation, and I don’t think it was considered a success. Contracting bills are probably at least at the level they always were, and the new federal employees have to be supported with pensions until death, something contracting companies don’t do.
Written by Michael Broschat, with gratitude and some great memories, January 2017