IT just like Alice in Wonderland: Defence

IT just like Alice in Wonderland: Defence

Summary: Department of Defence CIO Greg Farr is sick of IT projects taking years to provide outdated technology to users, saying that this needs to change, or else IT risks becoming irrelevant.


Department of Defence CIO Greg Farr is sick of IT projects taking years to provide outdated technology to users, saying that this needs to change, or else IT risks becoming irrelevant.

Greg Farr
(Credit: Ben Grubb/ZDNet Australia)

Farr presented today as a keynote speaker at an Australian Computer Society event in Canberra, starting his speech with an excerpt from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

"Now! Now!" cried the Queen. "Faster! Faster!" And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, "You may rest a little now."

Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!"

"Of course it is," said the Queen, "what would you have it?"

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

"That's pretty much where the ICT industry is at the moment," Farr said, after finishing the passage. "We are struggling to keep up, and struggling to keep relevant."

We have come into a time where employees can get the technology items they need without going anywhere near the company's IT shop, Farr said, providing an example of an iPhone app available on the iTunes store, which helps soldiers to adjust their rifle sights. He asked why anyone would bother going to the department when it is so easy and cheap to download the publicly available app.

He said that IT departments are running a "very serious risk" of not meeting user expectations by continuing their traditional processes, which are detailed and precise, with lots of documentation defining business requirements.

The problem is that such processes take years, and, when they are done, end up delivering obsolete technology.

"We are just wasting our time if we go through these processes," he said.

Government especially has the process mindset, but Farr wants that to change to "get out and shake that tree".

In order to do that, IT processes need to be user focused, mobile and rapid. This requires a team that understands the business and possesses soft skills, and not just deep, technical thinking ability.

Yet, he admitted that no one in the industry can have all of the skills that they need. "We're no longer in the business of employing all the IT specialists the business needs," he said.

This makes partnering with industry necessary.

Unfortunately, even industry partnerships are bogged down in old models, which leads to inefficiency and slow processes.

Providers have become used to taking a long time to think about a problem, providing information or requirements to IT departments, which would then work on what they were given and provide something back. Farr questioned why the providers and IT departments can't just collaborate on the problem.

He also noted that the industry isn't used to delivering on outcome-based contracts, expressing surprise that industry expects more money to complete projects that aren't delivering what Farr wants.

"I'm still a little bit surprised when people in industry say, 'but we'll have to do a lot more, and we'll run at a loss'," he said.

He doesn't want them to run at a loss, but he wants them to take responsibility for what they are providing.

In the same way, he expects performance to match what he is paying for. "If I wanted a lesser level of performance, I would have contracted for a lesser level of performance."

He said that the problem that is causing all of the tears is both sides making assumptions. This needs to stop, he said, with IT departments and providers becoming more of a team.

"I don't want to have the position where people are pointing fingers at each other," he said. "I'm looking for cradle to grave industry involvement."

(Carousel image credit: Down the rabbit hole image by Samantha Marx, CC 2.0)

Topics: CXO, Government, Government AU, Legal, IT Employment

Suzanne Tindal

About Suzanne Tindal

Suzanne Tindal cut her teeth at as the site's telecommunications reporter, a role that saw her break some of the biggest stories associated with the National Broadband Network process. She then turned her attention to all matters in government and corporate ICT circles. Now she's taking on the whole gamut as news editor for the site.

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  • "IT processes need to be user focused...."
    How many times have I heard that in my career? Despite all the rhetoric, it has never happened anywhere I have worked. Instead, I have had to put up with IT propeller-heads with a superiority complex and who treat users with complete disdain.
  • IT processes are now a days having so much stubborn and stress. This should be avoided.
  • I work for a large outsourcer. Last month we got our PC refresh where we [finally] moved from XP to Windows7, the new laptop is as portable as my desktop, with a low resolution 14inch display with a 2inch bevel and 4gb RAM on 32bit OS. As a Security Analyst requiring large data set analysis its a joke. Oh, and we cant even delete the "CutePDF printer" shortcut from our desktop, and need a freaking "admin" to install a printer for us.

    Larger organisations trust me with their entire network, mine wont let me install Chrome.

    IMO, IT is my organisation is hinderance rather then a help.
    • Who said they were there to help you? You are the type of user that, if you were a local admin on your machine, would cause so many problems, and so many calls to the IT dept that we would never get anything done. Like moving from XP to 7, which apparently is the easiest thing in the world according to you. And no, you can't install chrome. Because you can't apply group policies to chrome, and it can't even use a .pac script for the proxy. But I'm sure these perfectly legitimate reasons are somehow part of a grand scheme to hinder your oh so important work.
      • So... I'm not in IT, so I'm probably missing some subtleties here, but a quick google search showed that you can download a 'Chrome for Business' .msi that allows 'group policy and advanced administrative features'. Also did a search on .pac scripts and results seeeeeem to indicate they've been working, more or less (some bug fixes involved in polling for content changes), for a year or so now.
    • User with Admin rights = chaos, hence why your IT department locks things down. Trust me on this. You might be IT literate, but believe me, some people have got absolutely no idea what the implications are for clicking on, deleting, modifying or adding things on their own desktop or laptop. However, if a user can't add a printer especially on a laptop (user travels to others sites requiring access to printers at those sites) then that's a bit too locked down. I work in IT, and I don't want to do mundane tasks like adding printers, I want to be working on my IT project with my industry team ensuring that I'm getting the job done quickly for my mate Greg Farr. :-P
    • Admin password needed to protect the systems. If admin provided you his password, who gurantees that you won't install a malicious code?
      David Maxi
  • What exactly is he asking for again? The only example he listed (at least that was mentioned in this article) was for adoption of an iphone app to align gun sights. Maybe an iphone app can do it well, maybe not, but you can't just change your mind every bloody day about what you want your IT staff to do, then impose a set of policies they need to adhere to and then complain when they do their job. IT staff have policies and procedures for deployment of tech for good reason, just like any other industry. Just because you can use an iphone or know how to format a drive on a PC does not mean you have any expertiese in IT. Anyone that starts a speech with two paragraph quote from alice in wonderland ( A childrens novel), as some vague, metaphor? example? is a complete moron.. In response to Yoda: If it sounds like the "propeller heads" are talking down to you, they probably are because you have no clue about what you are asking for. People complain about IT, but who's the first person you call? Without even trying to figure it out yourself, you call IT, then once it's fixed you come up with any excuse you can think of the explain how whatever it was you stuffed up somehow wasn't your fault.
  • I feel like the Messiah has arrived !
    Finally someone pointing the real issue out.
    Poor users, have to become IT techs by themself to fix something.
    • You don't have to be IT tech, but you should have some basic level of problem solving skills surely? How do you even get through daily life? Oh no! The milk is empty! What do??
  • It does sound suspiciously like so many clients who don't want to take the time for or pay the cost of documentation and/or testing phases, and then want to offload all responsibility for risk. I have a strange feeling the deadlines would be too short, the scope too amorphous, the budget too small, and the measures of success disproportionate to all the rest. Or then there's always the 'we have more budget than can possibly be spent in the 2 days of time you have to complete the project' approach. But then I'm often too pessimistic.
  • With great leadership like that at the helm it's easy to see why IT works so well in Defence! Oh wait....

    This is like saying, with so many building regulations these days, it's impossible to build infrastructure fast enough! Who cares if you have a giant pile of rubble at the end, or the building falls down and kills a whole bunch of people, we need to build faster so we can keep up with demand!

    How about not blaming the use of some structure in an industry that previously lacked structure and was worse off for it. Instead try focusing on being less reactive to new technology.

    In 10 years this guy will finally decide to implement IPv6 in Defence, and then he will say, "Oh this is too slow, we need IPv6 right now because all of the vendors have left us behind!"
  • I think every body has missed the point, IT can Only do what Upper Management wants and if they ( Management ) are looking for cost saving's, downsizing etc, guess where they start first. IT does not set the Direction, Agenda, Budgets etc for the organisation and can only work within those restraints.
  • Locking down business environments is a necessary evil. People who complain about it will never understand why it's necessary.

    Software development is different. The reason the iPhone app was successful was because it has one very specific task to perform and a very small dev team to build it with very little 'business' involvement.

    After 25+ years of software development, the most successful business software projects I've worked on use Agile practices - which is what it sounds like this guy is talking about.

    Unfortunately the way that government procures its IT systems, Agile is extremely hard to follow due to the penalties imposed for failure to deliver. And it's very hard to work with the business to deliver software if the business pays lip service to its responsibilities as part of that delivery. It's very hard to find government people who are prepared to admit any kind of responsibility for failure.

    This is why large outsourcing companies get paid horrendous amounts of money by government departments to fail to deliver software and government departments are quite happy for that to happen because they don't have to carry any responsibility.
    • "...This is why large outsourcing companies get paid horrendous amounts of money by government departments to fail to deliver software and government departments are quite happy for that to happen because they don't have to carry any responsibility..."
      I would like to quote one example of this in my organisation it's called the LMBR -
      Our organisation has had to suffer a recruitment freeze i.e. no new positions for the last 4 years (as per of Barry's 5000 sacked public servants) - but hey let's splurge a cool $176M on SAP BEFORE we wake up and sack the industry partner and start the project all over again.
  • Well Mr Farr, it was you who championed "strategic relationships" with major overseas integrators, first at Tax, and now at Defence. As a result you shut out the smaller and more agile providers who actually understood what the business required.

    How's your strategy playing out then?
  • At a recent conference on Governance was amazed at the number of Commonwealth Departments that said they were completely by-passing their IT areas as they made it expensive and took too long to give them the outcome they required. One area of a major Department spoke about how they used open source software, employed staff with the specific IT skills they required and got the software they wanted for a mere $50,000. There was another eg at a Risk Conference this week where a Department ended up paying $26,000 for the software it wanted rather than $180,000 to $200,000. I think that's whats called innovation! Good on them and certainly is time to move with the times!
    Linda Matija
  • The problem isn't IT. The problem is the business bureaucracy and the professional road blockers who fight change, need to be 'consulted' on everything, who need reams of documentation and endless meetings/workshops to make even the simplest decision before signing off.

    By the time you can actually do the project, you're already burnt out ! I'm just amazed anything gets accomplished at all.
    Ken Oath
  • Quote:
    "The problem is that such processes take years, and, when they are done, end up delivering obsolete technology."
    "This requires a team that understands the business and possesses soft skills, and not just deep, technical thinking ability."
    These two statements are contradictory. Employees possessing business and soft skills are the very same people who revel in process and drawn out requirements gathering...that's all they are capable of after all.
    An iPhone app for our soldiers - you've been wondering around Wonderland a bit too long Mr Farr. Was there rigour in the testing of the app? how long did the app take to build before it became instantaneously available? What else is the app doing that our defence force doesn't know about?
    What you are asking for is the equivalent of providing the IT Department with a picture of Mr Magoo's car and then asking them to build a Ferrari from your 'specs'.
    • I would love to know how long it took the guys to develop the gun sighting app on the iPhone. Then ask Mr Farr if he would be happy to wait that long for the final delivery of the version that's currently available.