Monday, June 06, 2005

FBI Culture and Software

The Washington Post has another article on the FBI's problems with software development:
"The 32-page report -- prepared by the House committee's Surveys and Investigations staff and obtained by The Washington Post -- indicates that the FBI passed up numerous chances to cut its losses with the doomed Virtual Case File (VCF), instead forging ahead with a system that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $100 million in wasted expenditures."
I don't see that the article adds much to previous developments, but I would segue over to retired agent I.C.Smith, whose book "Inside" I just read. He writes clearly about his career in the FBI, including counter-intelligence and ending with a stint in charge of the Little Rock office. Nothing sensational, mildly interesting, with peripheral takes on Whitewater, Chinese campaign finance, Hanssen, etc. but no new dirt. Reading between the lines, the FBI culture was hard-drinking, as one might expect of a law-enforcement, very masculine fraternity. He divides agents into "risk takers" and "wimps". It's hard for me to believe that anyone involved in requirements specification or software development would qualify as a "risk taker" in his eyes--they'd be wimps.

In that climate, it's hard to admit mistakes and failure--the temptation is to try to plow through the obstacles. That's often a counterproductive attitude to take to software, particularly if the software isn't essential to operations so the users can just not use it. (When my old agency computerized in the mid-80's, we had the field offices by the short hairs because they had to write checks through the new system, and writing checks was the raison d'etre of the whole operation.) With the FBI, you'd have to have the U.S. attorneys requiring computerized information in order to have a similar hammer to enforce use of software.

No comments: