FDA Cites Need for Hybrid Pros

The Food and Drug Administration is among the growing ranks of IT employers who struggle to find workers.

Seeking business efficiencies by merging the knowledge of technologists and industry professionals has been an ever-evolving process.

But chief technology officers, such as Jeff Cooper, director of IT shared services at the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, Md., know the problem firsthand.

He had a hard time finding project managers who understand the business requirements of the FDA and have the large-scale technical savvy to successfully lead projects.

"I dont think that problem is unique to the FDA," Cooper said. "One of the things Ive seen in my career is that finding folks who have good experience in managing large IT projects is tough to come by."

There are eight divisions that constitute the FDA. Prior to his arrival, Cooper said, all eight would independently try to implement application changes. Cooper, who has since left to join Disney, was responsible for ushering in a cultural change and consolidation of management, said Cam Boyce, communications director at the office of the CIO.

"He was responsible for taking all of the disparate stovepipe organizations and making them one. One of the things hes working on is reducing multiplicity and making sure theres a commonness across the organization," Boyce said.

To reach that commonness, Cooper asked himself, "Are there things that each of these centers is doing that will allow us to develop applications that will enable us to be more efficient and effective?"

One such commonality was spam. Collectively, the eight divisions were getting slammed with 40,000 spam messages per day. Cooper instituted a solution from IronPort Systems, an e-mail security provider in San Bruno, Calif., and was able to destroy 11 million spam messages last year, resulting in a major productivity boom, he said.

This trend will continue, Cooper said, as hes mobilizing his staff to shift into major consolidation mode. The FDA will be moving to White Oak, Md., and hes trying to consolidate his infrastructure, such as servers, storage and all mail systems, under the Department of Health and Human Services before the move.

"What it will do is allow us to just be able to keep up," Cooper said. "Business has always had a lot more needs and requirements than were able to meet for them. Its going to be important for IT people to have a broader view of the world and understand the whole portfolio of applications instead of an individual application."

Alignment has to do with whether business drivers are in sync with IT. Ted Friedman, an analyst with Gartner, of Stamford, Conn., has been tracking technology and usage trends in the sphere of data management and integration.

From his research, Friedman has seen two major business drivers funding IT. The first, compliance and regulation, has allowed information management to be viewed more as a business issue. Business managers can now see a direct impact.

"Compliance really squarely hit the business leadership between the eyes," Friedman said. "You will go to jail if the quality of your financial statements is not where it needs to be."

The second-biggest business driver for IT, according to Friedman, is mastering data management, which involves getting consistent high-quality master data across the enterprise to provide all data on a customer in one view.

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The people taking on these responsibilities are enterprise and information architects. Its an integrated role that lies on the IT side of the house but requires an intimate knowledge of the business, Friedman said.

"Their job is to take costs out and get more value out of the data that the organization holds," Friedman said. "In order to do that, they need to understand very deeply business process and how data is consumed in business process." He compared the job with that of a librarian.

"The skill set, I think, is going to evolve away from the traditional DBAs [database administrators] managing individual databases and towards a world where the skills have to be around things like management of services," Friedman said.

"[Its about] understanding the semantics of information, not just the physical location and structure but the actual meaning.

"This is a good symbiotic thing here," Friedman said. "The drivers have changed, which has gotten the business engaged. And because the business is getting engaged, IT now has some direction and funding and involvement. Were finally getting past this barrier where the business didnt understand why information management was key and so IT was having to do lots of selling and convincing and never really got too far, and now were getting past that and its really good."

David Spark is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Contact him at david@davidspark.com.

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