Friday, December 02, 2011

Niedermayer Retires: ASCS History

Speaking of retiring employees, Chris Niedermayer is retiring from HUD.   Perhaps my clearest memory of Chris is probably from early 1986 or so, in Kansas City Management Office, specifically in the testing section, when we were both working late at night, he probably testing price support software, I involved with production adjustment software. It was the first time our paths crossed, though I'd seen him in the hallways in the South Building.

If I remember correctly, Chris had been separated from a statistical agency (maybe NASS) during one of Reagan's attempts to downsize government. Those fired got help in finding openings elsewhere, so he got picked up by ASCS, initially in the in-house statistical/policy branch of the division I was in. As we started to implement the System/36 he became the go-to person for the price support program automation.  Part of the time I was his counterpart for production adjustment. So that night in 1986 while I knew who Chris was from DC, it was the first time I realized how heavily involved he was in the price support automation.

Perhaps as a reflection of differences in persons, price support automation operated differently than production adjustment:
  • price support separated the functions of doing policy (regulations and procedures) from doing automation (user requirements, working with programmers, testing). For a while, maybe 1986-89. For a while Chris was the automation guru, then he became responsible for all of price support.
  • meanwhile on the PA side we mostly had people wearing two hats, doing both automation and the procedures. 
Personally I thought the PA model was better; of course that was my personality, trying to do everything.  It was also my background; while I didn't have county experience I did have several years developing regulations and writing procedures. I didn't have much real computer experience, doing some COBOL programs on mainframes was all, but that was enough to make me dangerous to Kansas City.   Conversely my impression is that Chris had much less hands-on experience with procedure before getting involved in price support automation.  He definitely picked up on the System/36 operation faster and in more detail than I did.

As time went on, things became more specialized on the PA side: program specialists would focus on either procedure or automation, and different units handled different areas,  but until I retired the same shop would cover both sides of the subject.  I've no idea which setup works best for the field, or whether there is any difference in the end result.

Anyhow by the late 80's the IT guys were worried about the System/36; they had underestimated the extent to which we'd load the System/36 so there was a continuous process of upgrading and moving to bigger models of the System/36, but they feared running out of room.  So Chris moved to IRMD and  was named the "Trail Boss" for the System/36 replacement, "trail boss" being a then-new, now-obsolete concept GSA had for the process of determining needs and handling procurements of big IT systems. So in 1990-92 Chris managed about 15 people trying to analyze ASCS data and operations, do a cost-benefit analysis to justify procurement of replacement hardware and software, and manage the conversion.  In other words, a precursor of the current MIDAS effort, except it was bigger, since the administrative and financial side was also covered by Chris's project.

Unfortunately, Chris couldn't move the project fast enough, so when Clinton won the election and Secretary Espy assumed office, it was subject to not-invented-here syndrome.  A part of the intra-office politics of the time was the "ins" versus the "outs". Chris IMHO had antagonized some of the Democratic outs, so when they became the "ins"  they weren't inclined to keep his project going.  Chris ended up moving to the Department level for several years, then to HUD, becoming deputy CIO, which is the job from which he's retiring.

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