Farr the reformer talks Defence

A year from taking on perhaps the toughest IT job in the country, Defence chief information officer Greg Farr is staring down the barrel of a massive ICT reform agenda for 2009 that will reveal whether Defence got the "expert CIO" they needed.

More than a year into taking on perhaps the toughest IT job in the country, Defence chief information officer Greg Farr is staring down the barrel of a massive ICT reform agenda for 2009 that will reveal whether Defence got the "expert CIO" they needed.

greg-farr.jpg

Defence CIO: Greg Farr
(Credit: Australian Defence)

Farr finds it easy to recall the day he took up his Defence post: 19 November 2007. "I always remember that day. It's my daughter's birthday," he tells ZDNet.com.au four days before Christmas.

"I can't believe it's been 12 months. I'm not sure where it all went, but it's been fascinating," he says of his first year as Defence's technology chief.

When accepting the Defence role, Farr left a long-standing position as the Australian Taxation Office's second commissioner, where he had overseen the now $724 million Change Agenda (previously the Change Program), which in 2005 — due to its scale and complexity — became his sole focus. Farr had also led the overhaul of the agency's $1.8 billion in outsourcing contracts tied up under a 10-year agency-wide deal with Texan giant EDS.

The gig was one of the most prestigious in the country. And while the move to Defence was perhaps a natural progression in Farr's career, given his commitment to public service, it has not surprisingly proven a wildly different beast to wrangle. Besides overseeing the needs of 110,000 users within Defence — as opposed to 26,000 at the ATO — and Defence's history of troubled technology projects, Farr says there was a more basic hurdle to overcome: language.

"I have started to learn the Defence acronyms, which means I can at least have a sensible conversation and understand what people say to me," he says of his greatest achievements since joining.

His other great achievement though, gets to the heart of why he was hired. "I think, when I came into the job, there was recognition for the need for reform. In the past 12 months we have been able to plot out a viable way forward," he says.

At the outset, Farr knew what he wanted to fix: Defence's HR system, IT project management and procurement processes, and the lack of an overall IT architecture strategy. The question remained how would Defence go about it.

Much of Farr's work had in fact been laid out months prior to his appointment when the then Defence Minister Brendan Nielson released the Defence Management Review in mid-2007. It roundly thumped Defence's handling of IT over the past years.

The review was the catalyst that led to Farr's eventual appointment. By the time it came out, Farr's predecessor, two-star ranked Air Vice Marshal John Monaghan, had resigned, with acting CIO Peter Lambert temporarily filling his shoes.

The review recommended Defence urgently hire an "expert CIO" and that the candidate be given a three-star rank, putting them one notch below chief of the Defence Force and on par with the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

In the past 12 months we have been able to plot out a viable way forward

Defence CIO Greg Farr

Despite the prestige of the role, however, the international search which spanned the public and private sectors proved difficult, especially within the latter sphere. Not only did Defence want someone who had successfully steered mammoth and risky IT projects, but someone willing to forgo private sector salaries.

And it's not hard to see why, when Farr's few-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year salary is compared to the multi-million dollar packages offered to technology chiefs in the banking and retail sectors. CommBank's CIO, Michael Harte, for example, was remunerated $2.7 million last year.

But fortunately for Defence, Farr, a veteran of the public sector who had been with the ATO for 23 years, didn't see the pay as an obstacle.

"Look, you make your choices as a public servant", says Farr pragmatically. "Clearly I would like to be paid five times the amount, but I am not going to get that here. I'm really happy with what there is and what we can achieve here, so I'm very satisfied."

While his wage is far from paltry, if you saw the CIO in a shop reaching for a bottle of wine, which along with motorbikes is one of his top pleasures in life, it probably wouldn't be Grange.

"I'm rather partial to red wine, and we've been drinking a bit of the Wolf Blass Grey Label (around $40 per bottle) recently... Because it's been on special," he jokes.

Farr also brushes aside any argument that taking on Defence was crazy. To the contrary, he says he would have been "crazy not to".

"Truly, from an IT perspective, I can't think of a more interesting, challenging but rewarding job. You're genuinely working for the public interest in an area that is very complex and that is very reliant on IT," he says. "I reckon it is as good as it gets."

2008: A year of self-examination
If Farr loves the taste of complexity then this year is set to be sumptuous for the technology chief, thanks to a series of reviews over the past year that will set the agenda for major ICT reform within Defence.

"We have had a lot of reviews," says Farr of 2008.

Four major reviews were thrust upon Defence's CIO Group last year. Besides the Mortimer Review of the Defence Material Organisation (DMO), which interrogated Defence's use of technology in a military context, there was also the Gershon review of federal agencies' $6 billion spend on ICT.

Farr says he had a number of discussions with Sir Peter Gershon and reckons his recommendations seem "perfectly sensible". Defence has also been critical to the early stages of Gershon's strategy: positioning Defence as the lead agency to negotiate pricing for Microsoft licences across the public sector produced an early win that, on the surface, suggested a new paradigm had been ushered in by Gershon.

Truly, from an IT perspective, I can't think of a more interesting, challenging but rewarding job

Defence CIO Greg Farr

Questions remain, however, about how Defence would be able to participate in interoperability efforts recommended by Gershon. There are limits, according to Farr. Any question over Defence's involvement needs to be weighed against demands for interoperability between other international defence agencies.

"While interoperability amongst government agencies is important to us, interoperability with our allies is perhaps even more important," he says.

"Interoperability is clearly high on the agenda. We are seldom in the theatre of war when we don't have allies of some description in the same theatre with us. Our ability to operate with them is very important."

Other reviews still on Defence's menu for 2009 are the Pappas Defence budget audit, and by April 2009 the Rudd Government is expected to deliver its first Defence Whitepaper outlining its strategic imperatives until 2030. It will be a landmark whitepaper for CIO Group, says Farr: for the first time it will cover support systems and information technology.

"All those things have come together in the last year. And they will come together into what I think will be a fairly major reform agenda for Defence ICT next year," he says.

Next page: 2009 — the year ahead.

2009: the year of reform
Fortunately for Farr, the winds of change appear to be blowing his way. "There is an appetite within Defence for reform," he says. "With that will and desire [for reform] I think we're halfway there. What we have to do now is get a tight, disciplined process to pull it off."

In broad terms, Farr says he wants to simplify how Defence handles technology, but acknowledges that the scope for simplification may be limited in the department. "The things we can make simple — the stuff we can treat as commodity IT — we should treat as commodity. But for some of it we're not able to," he says.

Troops in Afghanistan
(Credit: Captain Al Green, Dept of Defence)

"We have people deployed in 28 countries," he explains, "with big operations and particular needs for those deployed people, and the connectivity with satellite and landline back to Australia. I mean, some of it is just inherently complex, but we simplify where we can."

Farr spent considerable time within Defence last year drumming up support for, and outlining how it should go about, ICT reform. His vision entails Defence segregating technology support into four functions: intelligence, war fighter, corporate and infrastructure.

In terms of outsourcing, he has marked out Defence's terrain similarly to that bestowed upon the ATO when it restructured its $1.8 billion in contracts: distributed computing, centralised computing and terrestrial communication.

The ultimate goal, however, is to achieve the holy grail of Defence IT: the Single Defence Information Environment (DIE), which aims to unify Defence's technology and information systems under a single and coherent domain — something that proved to be beyond the reach of his predecessors.

Nonetheless, there are early signs that Defence could be turning over a new leaf with Farr at the helm. For the first time, it has employed a chief technology officer whose sole purpose is to design an architecture and business process to support a unified technology front.

Late last year Defence nabbed its new chief technology officer (CTO), Matt Yannopoulos from the ATO — also Farr's right-hand man while he headed up the ATO's $724 million Change Agenda.

Yannopoulos, a man who, according to Farr, also thrives on the challenge of simplifying Defence's complex systems, will design Defence's enterprise architecture, as well as its information and communications technology standards, strategy and investments.

But while high-level reform appears to be Defence's greatest priority, the agency's day-to-day operational requirements remain a challenge, in part because, as Farr admits, the state of Defence's technology is "mixed".

"There is certainly some fragility, but in the day-to-day stuff, obviously we put lots of effort into supporting our deployed forces and that correctly gets our highest priority.

"But when we get around some of the infrastructure, some of the networks around Australia, there is some work we have to do to consolidate it, to standardise it and to refresh it so that it's giving all people in Defence the ICT support they need," he says.

And then there is Defence's sluggish procurement habits. It was an annoyance Farr wanted to fix at the outset, but one that may prove difficult to change given the fear of failure deeply rooted within Defence culture.

"We've been able to make some significant improvements, but [technology procurement] is still not quick enough. We need to be able to field ICT solutions in much quicker time than we're currently doing at the moment," he says, echoing his own comments a year ago.

Failure and the dark side of success
Few people enjoy failure and the risk of public embarrassment. But is failure something that needs to be feared as it has in the past in Defence, or, as Farr believes, can it be a useful tool to recognise when it's time to abandon a sinking ship?

"I think there is a level of risk aversion [in Defence] which is why we go through these long processes — to avoid risk — whereas the best way to avoid risk in many cases is to get it fielded quickly and cheaply," he says.

"If it's wrong, admit it early and move on, rather than trying to justify it."

In fact, failure and the ability to admit it can be a good thing, according to Farr. "That's how you get innovation in IT. You do things. Try it. If it doesn't work, abandon it. Someone once said to me: 'If you're gonna fail, fail early and fail cheap'."

Someone once said to me: 'If you're gonna fail, fail early and fail cheap'.

Defence CIO Greg Farr

However, at a project's outset, when a team sits down to discuss what it is they really want from it, Farr's focus is not failure but getting people to imagine greatness. The approach is meant to get people to think about the outcome, rather than getting bogged down in technical details that may or may not address the purpose of a project.

"The question I ask internally is: 'OK, we've delivered this project. If this is the best in the universe, what does that look like?' That's so we start with that end point," he says.

The "back to front" approach was applied when the ATO restructured its outsourcing contracts. "Instead of spending years specifying things down to a high degree, you want to be able to field it very quickly and then say, 'Is it something you really want, is it something we can evolve or are we on the wrong track?'" Farr says.

These questions will be asked several times over the next year as Defence begins to execute its ICT reform agenda, whatever that turns out to be. The first concrete project though to test Farr's competence and approach is likely to be the release of what could be the largest government tenders of the year — the $400 million overhaul of Defence's PeopleSoft-based HR system, PMKeyS, which Farr has previously labelled "less than perfect".

What you won't hear CIO Group saying under Farr's leadership is "you can't do this or that", he says. Rather, he wants the business group to first understand what it is they want at a design level before IT gets involved.

"I don't think the IT will be the hard part of this," says Farr.

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