There are seismic changes across the federal IT landscape, with new technologies, such as AI and machine learning, dominating the conversation. But day-to-day IT operations often focus on keeping the systems and applications running so the flow of data doesn’t stop.
Mav Turner, Vice President of Product Strategy for SolarWinds, framed the issues as being related to the daily challenges faced by IT professionals. “There are only so many hours in the day, and the most important things for the network are uptime and throughput. Everything else might end up taking a back seat to those priorities,” he said. Budgets, agency and presidential mandates, and the legitimate everyday needs of internal and external users all influence how IT organizations accomplish their tasks, he explained.
Turner broke down the challenges into two key areas. “First off, it’s the training gap. IT organizations are often held back by a lack of updated skills among their hard-working staff,” he explained. Improved, advanced skills are essential as the government grows more and more dependent on the rapidly expanding influx of data. The personnel charged with managing and securing that data need everything from application specific expertise to analytical capabilities.
The Office of Personnel Management, in 2018, specifically noted the skills gap in cybersecurity, and training deficits exist throughout agency IT organizations. A recent survey showed that only 11% of IT workers surveyed believe that their requirements and the training available are “very aligned,” and only 12% believe their organization’s “IT training strategy is effective” in the first place.
“While the government is definitely embracing the data-driven approach, the training to understand and make use of those changes has to be there, too,” Turner said, adding, “Learning the latest functions and ‘how-tos’ of tool or application—even a familiar one—can help make the entire operation work more efficiently.” On top of that, he said, updated and new certifications can also help IT personnel grow their careers within the organization and keep them engaged.
Turner sees another ongoing concern: shelfware. “It’s great when an agency makes the investment in key platforms or applications. But simply buying technology isn’t enough. It has to be implemented, customized, and tuned to each unique environment. And that takes time and resources,” he said. Part of the issue is making sure you’re only buying what you need and can use. But, Turner explained, the problem can tie back to the issues of training and time. “If you don’t have the skilled personnel with the knowledge to implement and manage these systems—or even if you do, if they don’t have the cycles available to get things up and running—you’ll never get the benefits of these improved technologies,” he said.
But while these issues have vexed IT leadership for many years, Turner believes there is optimism among federal IT professionals. “Automation is something that a lot of IT leaders are excited about,” he said. “As opposed to full-on AI/ML technologies, which will take a lot of heavy lifting, much of the technology being implemented now has a lot of automation capability built-in.”
Turner said that automation is key to implementing DevOps and SecDevOps practices, and also can help with the training and manpower issues he mentioned. “A well-automated network monitoring and management system, for example, can allow junior personnel , even an 19-year-old recruit at a forward operating base, to be responsible for the basic operations of that system,” he described. “It can be a real game changer for resource-strapped organizations.”
As for how to address the increasing demands for data along with the rapid-fire pace of technological change, Turner suggested that agencies could turn to a known resource. “Industry partners are making a huge difference,” he explained. Vendors and their partners can also offload the burden of customizing or fine-tuning the system, providing more capability for the investment that’s already been made in hardware and software.
Also, he said, many technology vendors provide free or low-cost training on their tools and platforms, along with certification programs that can give IT professionals the expertise they need to help the agency meet its goal. As examples, Turner mentioned implementing a hybrid cloud solution, automating the auditing process for greater cybersecurity, and ensuring reporting runs in real-time, to identify issues before they get out of hand.
“The reality is, most of IT’s day, by necessity, is focused on doing the basics of making sure users can do what they need—the system should be invisible,” Turner said. “When glitches occur, and they will, getting things back up quickly and correctly takes precedence over everything else. But, within the limits of time, budget and personnel, there are practical solutions to all of these issues.”