Once upon a time, I had this really fantastic boss who talked a lot about “furry little animals.”
His idea was that “furry little animals” are those minor annoyances that we deal with every day in the office, ones that are too minor to catch the attention of anyone in a leadership role but at the same time they siphon off resources, whether it be manpower, time, energy, supplies, or even relationships. They’re a drain that just doesn’t seem important enough or sexy enough to receive the attention of The Powers That Be. This is the opinion in the trenches, at least.
I think the genesis of his idea of furry little animals came from the tribbles of STAR TREK (The Original Series) fame. One or two grow quickly into an all-consuming mob of furry little animals eating away at your resources and claiming your limited space. Just for fun–and for emphasis–read this article and then take a peek at the Youtube link and apply it to your work life.
I took my boss’ advice and kept taking it since I first heard it. I made sure that the contract close-outs in my office were as up-to-date as possible, usually by way of hazing new people in my unit–giving that job to interns or anyone new to the office within the first 30 days while they settled in and waited for computer access. Furry little animals were almost always a housekeeping effort for me as opposed to any showstoppers in Acquisition. Sometimes these were a weekly dozen taskers/SOCCERs/suspenses that had to be done for two to three different requestors and in slightly different and equally time-consuming ways. Sometimes it was data that needed to be tracked down or multiple signings of 2875 forms or intern reports that no one really looked at (or someone would’ve complained to me at least once) or files that needed to be organized properly.
How did I know these were furry little animals? They absorbed gobs of my time and weren’t anything I’d ever put on a briefing chart for the PEO. I would’ve been laughed at for briefing administrivia.
As a Contracting Chief, I understood very quickly how I could lose a sizable chunk of resources to minutia and yet at the same time, I couldn’t really complain about it. Those furry little animals were teensy weensy minor stuff that we bosses were expected to handle with a snap of our fingers or, worse case, just suck it up, and we’d be judged as weaklings if we let it get ahead of us. There was no way I would tell a General that I was past due on a contracting milestone because I kept having to redo SF 2875s just so my minions could get into the proper databases to do their work and our computers had been down all day and I couldn’t even print the stupid things to hand-carry through the signature trail. Anyone feel my pain?
At the point I left Federal service only a couple of months ago, the biggest furry little animals of 2018 were large enough to knock the breath out of us and render us unable to move–or at least, unable to move some contracts. These were furry little animals that I heard everyone complain about, but here we are months later and they just keep growing, from what I hear everywhere I go.
The furry little animals?
Our IT systems.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll stick to only the IT systems that the average Air Force Contracting minion depends on daily to get the job done–email, Internet, contract writing systems, various databases, etc. You know, the really minor stuff that seems too unimportant to gripe about to The Powers That Be when there are so many more serious issues to consider…or are there?
Being down every blue moon? Not a big deal. Not being able to do your job? That’s a big deal.
Are any of us not willing to admit in 2018 that IT systems are absolutely necessary to get the job done?
Have any of us not had at least one time when a power outage shut down the office for the rest of the day? That you are at your desk working away on that hundred million dollar J&A and suddenly your screen goes the bloop in front of you, lights go out around you, and you hear the agonizing shrieks of your coworkers who, like you, just lost what they were working on? As someone used to tell me long ago, “Save and save often.” Your current tech may automatically save your documents, depending on what you’re working on, so they may be recoverable but usually not recoverable for several hours. Your contract writing systems may lose the entire mod you’ve spent the day writing and you have to start over.
You wait for the electricity to come back on. You wait for your system to come back up. You make the best of it and try not to stress too much over the delay in getting your work off your desk.
If word came down…usually somebody walking through the halls…that the power would be back on in the two hours (always a magic number, for some reason), then I might walk across the street to visit with a customer, or hold a staff meeting sitting on the floor in the hallway so that we could at least get that out the way, or if it was an emergency, move the meeting to a different buying office’s conference room or try to borrow some other office’s computers if anyone was out that day and a seat was vacant. Assuming they had power.
There also were the times that we waited two hours for power to come back on, only to be told we might as well go home for the day on admin leave or, for the occasional more progressive office, to telework from home–either that or sit in the dark. We joked often, though we knew it really wasn’t a joke, that all it took to shut us down as a functioning office was not being able to use our computers. If it didn’t shut us down, then it certainly slowed us down. But eventually, it wasn’t electrical outages I noticed but system outages.
Sometimes we could work around problems with the IT systems–and sometimes we couldn’t.
I remember one incident back around the year 2000 when my office shut down for the day due to a literal furry little animal. I’ve known this to happen several times now, but it seems that squirrels can get suicidal around power stations and manage to fry themselves, sometimes taking down not just one office or one floor of the building or even one whole building but entire Acquisition communities. On that particular day, we had an urgent contract to get out, but I literally could not write it, store it, or print it from my contract writing system. I had no working computer. I had no power. Probably 50 of us were roaming around waiting for the power to come back on, not bumping into each other because there was still daylight streaming through the windows on our floor, or it was after we opened the blinds. We had to be on contract by the end of the day. The contractor was waiting in the lobby, ready to sign and for me to countersign. I made her walk up the stairs to the sixth floor.
I suddenly had a brilliant idea. Someone on our floor had a typewriter that was probably 50 years old at the time. An antique. An old manual typewriter, or as I’ve had to explain to my millennial daughters, no electricity or on-off switch. Perfect for apocalyptic times. I found a blank purchase order in a file drawer and then sat and typed the entire PO while the contractor waited to review it and sign. It’s what kept us going that day.
I had a similar situation come up around 2011 and, remembering my former glory, I ran to find an antique typewriter, only to discover that the ribbon on the sole IBM Selectric in the building had totally dried up and was useless. As an early adopter with my own tech in my purse and working in an unclassified area, I pulled out my personal iPad and created a non-FOUO document. This was not something that could wait. Unfortunately, I didn’t have phone service on my iPad and there was no wifi to be had. The contractor wouldn’t act without written direction so I pulled out my little Nokia not-very-smartphone and I texted written direction to proceed in accordance with their written request. Later, after our computers were up and running again the next day, I sent official follow-up emails with a photocopier screenshot of my texted direction. Ugh. Wild West.
I guess now technically that would be considered FOUO and that under the current rules I wouldn’t be allowed to do that either. We’re told not to use personal email on a personal device to do official work, and yet people certainly do because they can’t rely on the official IT systems in times of need. Nobody really admits it, and no, I’m not talking about sending 30 years of research through a gmail account which is probably the equivalent of just handing it over to China. I’m talking about very basic, administrative emails, text messages, and even Facebook messages to let meeting attendees know that a meeting has been changed to a different location when email is down yet again. The innocuous stuff and yet even those small things slow down our ability to get work on contract on time.
My last 10 days as a Fed, I had a solid five days that either the Internet was down or email was down or both. For my colleagues who weren’t on their way out, this meant the frustration of not being able to send competition sensitive work to their contractors, to exchange information with pricers, to receive a long-awaited audit from DCAA, to answer suspenses due by close of business, or to research the latest information on Other Transactions. If this blog had been in existence at the time, you couldn’t have accessed it from work either as a resource for learning about 10 USC 2373’s.
For me, it meant I couldn’t print out a couple of key emails that I needed to take into retirement with me or access the personnel and pay websites to set up passwords that I could use once I no longer had access to the Government IT system through a CAC. We did as much as we could to stay productive, but the guts of our workloads (and my out processing) were on hold until we had a working email system. I won’t even get into Adobe PDF’s that could no longer be read. I had to print those out and hand-deliver them.
Not having working IT systems or limping along with ones that are antiquated is the equivalent of blowing all the fuses in the building and sitting in the dark. IT systems that are down much of the time meet the description of furry little animal in that not having access to email now and then or–oh, say, half of your work week!– isn’t really understood for the big deal that it is so it never gets the highest attention of people who could actually do something about it. Or that’s how it seems in the trenches.
These furry little animals aren’t just minor annoyances anymore. They are eating our resources, not even allowing us to get to the information we depend on, and they’ll soon leave us at a disadvantage we can’t overcome when they get to be bigger than we are. Antiquated and overloaded IT systems go to the very heart of communication in our modern world. We can’t be at the top of our game in 2018 if we have to resort to 18th century communications.
But like furry little animals, they seem too small to complain much about, too unimportant in the grand scheme of Acquisition to make a point of saying, hey, this is slowing us down and we need help.
I don’t hear my friends outside the Air Force complaining about IT systems so I don’t know how bad it is elsewhere, but I do know that absolutely everywhere I go that I meet Air Force worker bees, I hear their wails of frustration.
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant
- Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
- Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
- Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
- Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
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