Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, prepares for Cobol, cloud, mainframes

A new White House takes up the old (and never-ending) quest to modernize federal IT

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Magdalena Petrova/IDG

A new administration takes office and announces plans to modernize IT across the federal government. Sound familiar? It should. Every administration sets this goal -- and now it's President Donald Trump's turn.

The White House on Monday announced an "Office of American Innovation," which will be tasked with "modernizing the technology of every federal department," said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, at his daily briefing Monday. The goal will be "identifying transformational" projects, he said.

That effort will be led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose background is in real estate and publishing.

In his new job, Kushner will work to improve federal IT operations that cost $80 billion annually to operate. The systems and projects range from very new, such as the CIA's decision to contract with Amazon to build an internal cloud to the very old, including the Defense Department's continued use of 8-in. floppy disks -- a decades-old technology still in operation at least until last year.

The White House effort will likely include seeking advice from tech vendors, but that could turn into a minefield of conflicts. Technology directions and choices -- such as the IBM versus Amazon fight over the CIA's cloud deployment -- represent big stakes and expenses.

Trump has not said how much he is willing to spend on this. The U.S. House of Representatives approved bipartisan legislation last year, the "Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2016," that would have cost the government $9 billion over a four-year period -- if the bill had made it into law. It was not taken up in the Senate.

The House approved that funding after the Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year held a Cobol-bashing hearing.

The committee, in building support for modernizing federal IT, pointed out that there were at least 3,500 federal IT employees at work to maintain "legacy" languages, including 1,100 employees dedicated to Cobol. The committee made Cobol sound like a bad thing, which really upset Chris O'Malley, the president and CEO of Compuware.

"Cobol is this code word for throwing disdain toward the mainframe platform," said O'Malley.

In response, O'Malley did something he hadn't done before: He started contacting lawmakers and telling them about the virtues of Cobol in transaction processing. And they listened.

Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who heads the powerful House oversight committee, took O'Malley up on a invitation to visit Compuware's office in Detroit. He was shown how the company's Cobol mainframe environments function as modern platforms that support multifactor authentication and encryption, and were developed in an Agile environment using DevOps tools.

O'Malley showed Chaffetz the developers at work. "They see a working environment that looks exactly like Amazon (Web Services) and we're doing it in the mainframe," he said. "If you have code that works and works well, that is like gold -- you do not want to throw that away."

Shawn McCarthy, an analyst at IDC, said that some of the government's legacy systems "were built really well and continue to function really well. That's not a reason to get rid of it."

But the challenge with older Cobol system systems is that many were not designed to be extensible and everything that needs to be done has to be rely on custom code, said McCarthy.

Kushner's appointment is an interesting choice. He has no obvious technology background, but as a close confidant of the president he may be critical in bringing support and funding for change.

President Barack Obama's administration pushed for shared services, cloud adoption and data center consolidation. It also appointed people with deep private-sector experience. Tony Scott, the administration's last CIO before Trump took office, had worked as a CIO of VMware and Microsoft.

Ray Bjorklund, president of government IT market research firm Birchgrove Consulting, said that what the Trump administration has sketched out so far "sounds a bit like business process re-engineering" embraced by President Bill Clinton's administration.

The Clinton administration "effort did lead to some refreshing thinking and measurable improvements," said Bjorklund.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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