Notes and Reflections by feoMike


for the past couple of weeks i have been reflecting on the last four years at the fcc. i feel, foremost, that we have had the great opportunity to be remarkably successful implementing information technology in federal government (albeit in a niche market of federal it). we have accomplished this in a time when it seems that it is crazy hard to implement successful information technology projects in government. what and how we accomplished this is the subject of several forthcoming posts, but i wanted to take the opportunity to introduce the people who worked behind (and some in front) of the scenes at the fcc. we predominantly worked on the national broadband map, but we also brought to the commission a unique ability to work fast to prepare visualizations which told a story of a very abstract landscape (one usually defined by rules sounding remarkably like some line from a monty python movie. regardless, this group of people, working mostly under the radar are the people to watch. they are the outliers. the radar o’reilly’s. the scotty’s. the ones who are thirsting for some new way of doing things who can turn 5 minutes of code into a virtual cornucopia of fruitful delights. i mention them here by name, because our success has little to do with the commission, has little to do with the company they work for (if not the commission), and has everything to do with the simple fact that the most important factor in success in federal information technology is the ability of the people to be innovative. in no particular order;

santosh is a java/spring framework/scala developer (ok, i really don’t know exactly what he does, i just know its magic). we can go to santosh with a loosely defined set of requirements and a table and say how long to get us a restful get api? he says 1 - 2 days. he is the primary reason the fcc has apis; that is any apis. if you look at the timing of when the fcc released its first set of apis and the flood of culture shift in federal government for digital strategy, data first, apis and open data, you might realize that the fcc was 18 months a head of the curve, and that is because of santosh.

paul is our data scientish. he has a phd in logistics and math from an outstanding technical school in upstate new york. more importantly paul knows the table format the data needs to be in before you finish the sentence. he is doing calculus most of the time i am speaking with him. paul recognizes the best way to architect something for analysis is flat making crazy fast queries for returning the most obscure of our potentially 42 trillion combinations of bits you can retrieve out of the national broadband map. btw, i want paul on me team all the time, and i can’t write his job function because he does so many things well.

ivan is our lead web/front end developer. ivan painstakingly walked us through the process of writing the national broadband map in wordpress (thats right its a wordpress site). he came up with the primary design elements, and established a code base which maximizes seo so well, that nbm content now comes up higher that many company content searches. a wiz at php, what impresses me most of all, is that in all of our dealings over the past year, ivan was the one who went through the most personal change. i will leave out the details, but the personal growth was impressive to watch.

shelley is one of our gis analysts. let me take a second to rail on any of you hipster-20-something-think-you-know-it-all-pbrdrinking-neogeographer types out who think you know what a federal gis analyst looks like when i shelley is one. you people have no idea what you are talking about. shelley came to us with the traditional approaches to geospatial analis, and more than anyone on the team is singularly the one i will turn to with any new problem. why? because she will hear any loose ambiguous understanding of project requirements we send here and say ‘i’ll try’ her trying is coming up with a solution w/ no overhead time and time again. she has stretched her skills to include all the funky approaches we really appreciate (fwiw there is no panacea). i will take her any second of the day over anyone in the second sentence.

don, the other gis analyst (see 2nd sentence for shelley) is talented and dedicated. i mean dedicated. once we stayed up all weekend tweaking a congressionally mandated database that sent some big companies into a tizzy. we were dealing with relic technology, far far below his skill level and he jumped in with a smile and fixed it. he was calm, in the face of unprecedented (i can’t stress this enough) pressure and nailed the solution. more over his talent has clearly extended to doing side research on how to automate things and make them more streamlined. suffice it to say, his work will save weeks/months perhaps even more of wasteful approaches to analysis.

sundar another php guy brought in late in the game. imagine coming into a project well after launch and realizing that the code framework hatched from one guy you have to learn, and well can’t change, and have to dive into and fix when an issue comes up. his up time was negligible. i personally don’t think this is a testament to the code documentation, i think it is a testament to his skill as a developer. professional/top notch.

nathaniel the best font end/css guy we know. quiet, sat next to someone super annoying for ever and never complained, but i digress. can’t say enough about nathaniel. again we would walk into the lab and give him these half baked requirements, and out would come simple visual beauty. have no idea how he does it. we could just say, ‘oh i sketched some skeleton code in this repo over there, can you fix it? i want to show the top floor tomorrow’ and we would get back a url with the answer. no other changes needed.

xiaoming talks a way smaller game than he can code. he is off the charts. in trying to describe the duties xiaoming pulls off, sure you could list the code he writes, but that is not enough. he can see the spatial problems coming your way before you know you have a polygon to deal with. he then wraps them softly with code to spin them around like silk on the thimble; tight, elegant, not a line wasted, 1000% functional. i’ll stop he is that good.

venkat walked into the must clustered messed up server meltdown i have ever witnessed (actually was a part of) with a smile and fixed it. he approached every problem we sent him that way. we would ask can we do this? his answer was always, with out fail ‘sure’. i don’t want to be a cliche, but he made it so. all of the infrastructure all of the technology interfaces, they just work. without venkat, i am sure they would.

juan left far before i did, but singularly the best geo person i have had the pleasure of working with. he is on to bigger things, and you all know who he is. i think more than his technical skill, which really is unsurpassed, he is one of the best people i have had the pleasure of knowing. still one to watch. btw, we know we topped 300 million api calls because of juan (thats right i said 300 million - likely closer to 400).

eric and i have known and worked together for over 20 years. we were even housemates at one point, and while i won’t tell the pricilla story here, i can just say that we work together like peas and carrots. eric has all of the geo skills i do, but has an attention to detail and government work that i lack. we could have taken everyone one else away, and still pulled off something, but if we removed eric, i would have walked away. eric started in a fire storm, literally, and stayed through the worst, bringing out the best in everyone.

cindi helped me through year one. there isn’t enough space to write the accolades for cindi. nuff said.

chris leads the dba team (too many people to mention). these guys are top notch, i mean the best. we want to throw a new open source db at them (and we threw two at them) they said no problem. we can learn that. they are up now (days later), try them now. better than that though, i went to them constantly with the simplest and stupidest of sql problems (one of which had me confusing the debug button w/ the run button) and the always treated me like i was the smartest guy in the room. i want dba’s like these guys forever. i will measure all future dba’s by these guys.

greg was the guy i shared a wall with. there wasn’t a day that went by when i didn’t walk into his office and say, i am f@cking this up on so many levels, and have him walk me back to earth. his technical skills are a myriad of developer, infrastructure, and communication protocols which can only be described as phenomenal.

steve was one of the first person i interacted with, can honestly be described as the person who gave me the courage to stay in the job, and with whom i had the best weekly meetings. this guy kept me in the game, offered me the chance to blow up, gave me an ear to listen to and provided me with endless (i mean endless) opportunity to strengthen analytic skills because his questions are so engaging. oh, he is also a phd physicists and kind of runs the biggest modeling effort the commission has ever seen (he is a smarty smarty pants in the best possible way).

for those out there peddling how to fix federal information technology, and nearly everyone i have read misses the mark entirely, this is why information technology in government can be killer.