Dec 30

Government Shutdown’s Impact on Contractors and Employees

Contractors Face Considerable Financial Risk

With Congress and President Trump at a budget impasse, funding for significant portions of the US Federal government ended midnight Friday, December 18, 2018. Historically, government employees are not paid on time but are retroactively paid after the new budget is implemented. The same is not true for government contractors.

Government contractors compete against each other to provide a wide range of services such as computer programming, construction, security guards, cafeterias, janitorial services, technical experts, maintenance workers, and much more. When the government shuts down, contractor staff are not needed or can’t do their work. But they are real companies and people who suffer. Long-term, it’s bad for US taxpayers.

Our Contract with Amtrak is Suspended

We have a government contract with Amtrak which was suspended by this letter:

This contract provides help for Microsoft Access database programming and is relatively small. We do not have dedicated staff for the contract, so we are not really affected as our people will work on other projects.

Unfortunately, we have colleagues who are government contractors or in businesses more dependent on the government who are significantly impacted by the shutdown. This is especially true for companies who provide staff to work at government facilities that are now closed. Most are hesitant to speak publicly about their experiences in fear their government clients would be offended, so we’d like to share our experiences and theirs.

Very Tough Situation and Decisions for Government Contractors and Their Employees

Since government contractors are unlikely to be repaid when the budget is finally resolved, government contractors with dedicated staff for those contracts need to decide whether to pay their employees for time they never expected to not charge to the government. The impact is somewhat offset by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and maybe they can force employees to take vacation days. But as the shutdown lasts longer, contractors will have to pay their employees from their own funds. Not paying them runs the risk that the employees leave and won’t be available once the budget is resolved. One cannot expect employees to remain loyal if they aren’t paid. Meanwhile, employees are dusting off their resumes and seeking alternative employers.

Small businesses are especially vulnerable since many contracts have small profit margins, so without significant cash and lines of credit, a cash flow problem can quickly bankrupt a company. Even generous owners who try to do the “right thing”, may not be able to if their cash is depleted. That would lead to fewer government contractors in the future and higher costs to taxpayers.

A friend of mind who owns a firm completely focused on servicing the federal government shared:

“As contractors, our employees still get paid and yet we are unable to bill. Cash is king and small companies like mine live and die by cash. This is the worst.”

Media Coverage

On December 26th, we sent a Twitter message with the letter we received from Amtrak and the sympathy we feel for government contractors and their employees.

That led to our inclusion in a Washington DC News article on WUSA Channel 9 (CBS) by John Henry that evening. A video of the coverage with our Amtrak letter and insight are in this article: #ShutdownStories: Government contractors tackle life without pay during partial shutdown

On December 27th, I was interviewed in the Huffington Post article by Sarah Ruiz-Grossman about the challenges facing contractors entitled
Shutdown Leaves Government Contractors Without Work And Likely No Back Pay.

“Business owners who have [dedicated] staff are making the decision: Do we pay people or not, even though we won’t get paid by the government? Either you force people to take vacation, or you pay them, to be a good company ― but depending how long it drags on, one may not have a choice.”

On December 27th, Bridget Johnson included us in her Homeland Security Today article:
Federal Employees, Contractors Tweet Worries with #ShutdownStories

Self-Inflicted Wound that Should be Resolved Promptly

Eventually the budget will be resolved. We hope the parties come to their senses and do it sooner rather than later because innocent people who’ve dedicated their firms and lives to providing a professional service to US taxpayers are at risk and feeling real pain. That’s terrible for them now and our country long-term.

Apr 12

What Happened When We Created a Facebook App for Social Network Analysis

facebook-medFacebook and Mark Zuckerberg are getting blamed for a large number of issues from promoting fake news, election fraud, mishandling user data, and profiting from selling user data.

While some of that may be true, the Facebook security breach is actually a violation of Facebook API licensing rules by the people who used it. Facebook provided the data and encouraged developers like us to create innovative solutions for the Facebook ecosystem. They weren’t selling the data.They weren’t even charging us to use it.

Our Facebook App with Social Network Analysis and Maps

In 2010, we created a Facebook application using our Sentinel Visualizer technology to perform Social Network Analysis (SNA) based on a user’s friends’ friends. It would automatically cluster friends so you could quickly see their groups (high school, college, work, family, in-laws, clubs, etc.).

Facebook Social Network Analysis App of Clustered Friends

Each box (picture) was one of your friends, and you could move them around the network, hover over them to get their info, or click on them to go to their page.

We also plotted friends on a Microsoft Bing Map making it easy to see who were near you or where you were visiting.

Plotting Your Friends' Locations on a Map

 

We launched our free Sentinel Visualizer Facebook App to a limited number of users and it started to gain followers. People were amazed to see which of their friends knew each other. The application started to go viral. We were having trouble supporting the traffic.

Not Allowed to Save Facebook Data

One of the things developers couldn’t do was to save Facebook’s data. All we collected were the user names and email addresses people provided when they registered our program. Unfortunately, other developers didn’t abide by Facebook’s terms and the data improperly got to Cambridge Analytica and others.

Facebook Stopped Making the Data Available

Our app ceased to work when Facebook limited their APIs and prevented our ability to get to the list of your friends’ friends among your network.

It’s not entirely Facebook’s fault for trying to spur innovation by sharing their data for free. Some developers violated the trust Facebook gave them.

The Full Story

Here’s our new web page describing our experience in detail:

Jan 05

Sean Hannity Radio Show Interview on Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, Russian Hacking, and Cyber Warfare

sean-hannity-radioBackground

The day after an amazing personal interview of Julian Assange by Sean Hannity aired on his TV show, FMS President Luke Chung was invited to discuss the related technology on his radio show.

Hannity traveled to London to interview Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy where he’s seeking asylum. They discussed an overview of Assange’s role as founder of WikiLeaks, and their obtaining and publishing the emails from the Democratic National Committee the weeks before the US Presidential election. Some people attribute Hillary Clinton’s loss to the revelations in those emails especially from John Podesta, the former White House Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Clinton campaign. They are also accusing the Russians for hacking (stealing) and providing the data to Assange so Donald Trump could win the election.

Radio Show

On January 4, 2017, I was on the radio show with Sean Hannity and Brigadier General Eli Ben Meir, former Israeli Military Intelligence chief. The three of us discussed the WikiLeaks disclosures. I commented specifically on:

  • Cyber attacks and the security breach at OPM disclosed non-classified government employees and by omission who were covert at American Embassies globally.
  • Noting Julian Assange’s careful word choices to exclude Russia as source without excluding them as the ultimate source of his sources.
  • The need for WikiLeaks’ to keep their sources confidential and how they amplified the data from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.
  • Different approaches to preventing cyber attacks depending on the cause.
    “It’s one thing when someone steals your car because they broke into it. It’s another thing when someone steals your car because you left your keys in the ignition.”

Here’s the audio of the show:

My segment starts at the 6:50 mark. Sean and General Meir speak first, then I start around 9:25. Final comments at 14:15 and it wraps up by 14:50.

Additional Issues

Only a limited amount of information can be discussed in such a short interview. Some additional issues to consider are:

Data Security

Securing data over the internet and inside organizations is very challenging. Threats may come from:

  • External hacks that need to be monitored and defeated
  • Internal people who unintentionally leave the front door unlocked
  • Internal people who intentionally leak information

Different solutions are required for each type of threat. Some are at the software vendor, design, and developer level, while others involve end-user training, background checks, and monitoring.

Applications can be built so that simply disclosing a user name and password doesn’t compromise the whole system by require two-factor authentication and registering devices that can use those credentials.

Unfortunately, many systems were built well before today’s cyber threats existed. The cost of making those systems more secure without breaking their existing functionality will be daunting and expensive. In many cases, the original source code, development environment and/or vendor are long gone, so the only option is to replace them which is also very expensive and time consuming.

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are Not Heroes

We need to keep in mind that the WikiLeaks exposed top secret US information by publishing the disclosures from Manning and Snowden. Lives were put at risk and lives may have been lost because of those publications. The Arab Spring was inflamed in part by the disclosure of diplomatic communications and one could argue the human tragedy in Syria is tied to this as well. While Republicans are celebrating and defending Assange and WikiLeaks now for the DNC emails, the tables may turn very quickly.

Data That’s Not Exposed May be More Dangerous

While many are focused on the DNC emails, it’s not unreasonable to assume the people who hacked that also got the RNC emails. Data can be power, and in the wrong hands, data can be used for nefarious purposes such as blackmail.

If the RNC data were compromised, we should be extremely worried if the hackers discovered it was more valuable to keep private than public. Whether they use it directly or sell it to another party or country, the information can make victims puppets by threatening the exposure of their personal data. It’s not uncommon during E-discovery of an email server to discover all sorts of inappropriate language, behavior and activity conducted by individuals in an organization. Disclosures of affairs, homosexual activity, underage sex, bribery, unethical business dealings, breeches of confidentiality, collusion, and actual crimes are often found in email threads and can be used for blackmail.

Additional Resources

Sep 23

Designing a Data Entry System Properly; Overhauling the Healthcare.gov Web Site

Healthcare.govSince my original impression that the debut of the Healthcare.gov web site was a technological disaster, I’ve contended that the website could be created for much cheaper, and be much easier to use than the mess that was delivered.

New York TimesThere finally seems to be progress in this direction according to today’s New York Times article, HealthCare.gov Is Given an Overhaul. I was quoted by Robert Pear:

“Instead of being user-friendly, the original website was user-hostile”

Basics of Data Entry Systems

We at FMS have created countless database systems where data entry played an important role. Unlike fancy graphics filled systems that look nice, data entry systems must be designed with a focus on ease-of-use by the end-user to enter, review, and update their information. If there are many questions and complex relationships, users need to be able to see as much of that on one screen as possible. If multiple screens are required, being able to move back and forth between screens without losing data and having changes in one screen reflected on others is critical for an efficient and intuitive user experience.

Data Entry Systems Should Target Users with Large Screens

For complex tasks such as writing a paper or working on a large spreadsheet, computers remain the preferred platform for getting work done where people can have one or multiple large screens. Serious data entry applications should target that user.

Mobile Apps Have a Role, but Not for Serious Data Entry

While mobile applications have a place, it’s not appropriate for complicated data entry since one question per screen is very inefficient. Not being able to see previous entries and pressing Next and Back for each question drives users crazy. The original designers of the Healthcare.gov web site designed it as if it were a simple, consumer mobile app meant to be filled out with a few finger clicks. They were either paid by the screen or just clueless about what a business data entry system requires.

Initial Request for Information Should be Anonymous

The purpose of the public facing Healthcare.gov website should be focused on helping prospects with the buying process. People need to quickly browse the health insurance options that are available to them in their state and cost estimates. The initial data entry should be the minimal anonymous information necessary to produce those results such as gender, age, zip code, family size, etc. Nothing personal such as names, social security numbers, email address, etc.

Automating a Paper Form

National ArvhivesOnly after customers have made a decision to buy should they be required (and expect) to provide more detailed information. This application feature is the core of the public facing Healthcare.gov website and is simply the automation of a 12 page paper form. It shouldn’t be that difficult.

We at FMS have automated paper forms for decades. Recently, we did this for a series of paper documents at the National Archives. The cost of doing this was in the tens of thousands of dollars, not the hundred of millions that Healthcare.gov cost.

Separating Data Entry from Complex Validation

A high volume, data entry system like Healthcare.gov should be designed to collect the user’s information as quickly as possible without trying to validate everything with other government systems in real-time. The cross-validation of information against IRS, HHS, Homeland Security, and other databases should happen in a background process that can withstand slowdowns or down times of dependent systems. This separates the complexity and risk of linking multiple systems together, manages the load on the other systems, and lets the user get done quicker. If a problem is detected later, an email can be sent to the user to fix the mistake or invalidate their application. Regardless, none of that needs to happen while the user is entering their data. After all, it’s not as if they were going to get insurance immediately upon pressing Submit.

Taxpayer Abuse

It remains shocking to me that it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars initially for the broken Healthcare.gov site, and hundreds of millions dollars afterwards to the same contractors to fix it. The procurement process and incentives are completely inverted for creating and delivering quality software. It’s outright theft, but no one seems to be held responsible for it, and lots of people profiting mightily from it.

Conclusion: Data Entry Systems Aren’t Difficult If You Know What You’re Doing

Logistics Support SystemI’ve contended that we at FMS could have created the public facing Healthcare.gov site for $1 million. Some people scoff at that, but in our world and that of our customers, $1 million still goes a long ways. We created an international humanitarian relief logistics system for the United Nations for half that amount, and it supports full language localization as it’s deployed in 80+ countries. Healthcare.gov didn’t even support Spanish when it debuted, and that was one of its original requirements.

Creating a good data entry system is not rocket science. This is not something that needs to be done in Silicon Valley. What’s needed is a team who’ve done it before and know what they’re doing. Creating this type of solution requires a solid database foundation, understanding the user needs, creating an intuitive user experience, and building it so that it’s maintainable over time. It’s not something that can be created by people on their first paid programming job, but it’s not a rare skill. I’m proud that my development team at FMS have been with me for decades and continue to deliver systems that just work.

Jan 27

Helping Create Living Wage Jobs with YearUp Featured on CBS 60 Minutes

YearUpOver the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and supporting the Arlington, Virginia chapter of YearUp. YearUp is a non-profit organization helping at risk youths get out of a lifetime in minimum wage jobs and toward a career path with a living wage.

They not only teach marketable skills, but supplement it with the personal and business soft skills necessary to be successful in business. They have particular focus teaching computer hardware skills, help desk, and basic finance. They understand and address employer needs: “We know you hire for skills, and fire for behavior in the work world.” By learning what companies and bosses expect, these youths are able to better understand what it means to be a professional, provide more value to their employers, and justify earning a higher salary.

Both FMS EVP Michelle Swann-Renee and I have met the students in person to discuss what employers seek and how to differentiate oneself positively in the workforce. As employers, we need people who arrive with skills we can’t train: honesty, work ethic, personal drive, high standards and expectations of one’s performance, getting along with others, ability to accept constructive criticism, writing and speaking skills, common sense, etc. Specific technical skills can be taught and change over time; those basic skills and character traits are difficult for a company to train. We’ve been impressed with the dedication of the staff and eagerness of the students to take the opportunity to learn and succeed. Those who make it through the program are very likely to be successful in a career and further education.

60MinutesLast night, YearUp was featured on the CBS 60 Minutes episode by Morley Safer: Jobs program aids Fortune 500 and underprivileged youth

Hope you get a chance to check out and support this program.