Interview with Avi Bender, CTO, U.S. Census Bureau

By  Pat Brans — September 05, 2012

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau ramps up its workforce to over a half-million people, most of whom are hired to go door to door to collect data from people who haven’t yet responded to questionnaires. For these brief periods, the Census Bureau has one of the biggest mobile workforces in the world. In 2010, many of the workers performing non-respondent follow up (NRFU) were equipped with handsets running apps to help them collect data more accurately. By 2020, mobile computing will play an even larger role in this massive data collection and the U.S. Census Bureau will be considering new mobile technologies and planning the future architecture and infrastructure. We recently spoke with Chief Technology Officer, Avi Bender, about the challenges of planning data collection against a backdrop of evolving technology.

ME: What advice can you give on determining project requirements and ensuring business leaders agree with you on them?

AB: The project lifecycle for mobile computing is no different from any other technology. It is all about gathering the requirements to support the business case.

However, in the case of mobile computing, gathering requirements must also be done within the context of an ever-changing landscape. For example, the Census Bureau is deploying a virtual desktop capability that will enable us to get access to data at anytime, anywhere and from any mobile or desktop device. This unique capability shifts the dialogue a bit from simply the “mobile device” to the “business process” that the device enables.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years is to ask lots of why’s. People get enamored with the latest technologies, but ultimately it’s about streamlining a business process to achieve cost savings or competitive advantage.

You also need to know your mobile computing market segments. The Census Bureau collects information, but we also disseminate it. We have to think about the ultimate consumers of our data and the types of standards required to manage all types of mobile devices.We look at mobility in a very holistic way, and across several market segments.

ME: Do you agree on acceptance criteria early, so there is no ambiguity on what it takes to get sign off on delivery?

AB: We try to get early agreement on the capabilities desired for address canvassing, geocoding, work management and secure data exchange. Our focus is primarily on desired capabilities, function and the type of flexible architecture needed to exploit any new technologies.

I believe that form does follow function. We have a better perspective on the nature of the device once the business process or concept of operation is understood. And once we pin down the requirements, we can execute through a project management office (PMO). Our approach to the PMO is to initiate all projects with a charter and a binding contract with the end user concerning requirements, cost, human resources, and timing.

The projects are reviewed in a consistent and timely manner in order to mitigate potential risks, and ensure that projects are on time and within budget. By documenting what’s in scope and what’s out of scope as early as possible, all parties are committed to the desired outcome, and ambiguity is eliminated.

ME: When you work with external stakeholders, how important is it to keep them involved in understanding and defining both business and technical requirements?

AB: We conduct market research at all times to understand the changing mobile computing landscape. Our primary internal role is to define the needed capabilities to achieve the mission of the organization through technology and improved business processes.

As part of our ongoing market research, we meet with outside organizations, such as mobile middleware vendors, and learn about current capabilities. We recognize that for innovation to flourish, we must leverage external technology providers. However, outside organizations never define the business requirements for us. That’s our job.

ME: What procedures do you put in place to keep all stakeholders informed during project execution?

AB: Project communications occur at two levels. At the system development lifecycle (SDLC) level we have routine monthly status meetings to ensure that the projects are moving according to plan. We also report to our executive committee on the larger projects. Access to project information is also available at any time through our internal knowledge management and collaboration intranet based on SharePoint 2010.

ME: How do you manage scope creep from change requests? Are there specific change management procedures?

AB: This is an issue for sure, especially if requirements were originally gathered at a very high level with too much room for interpretation. It’s precisely for this reason that an SDLC and a strong project management office are required. When the impact of change is understood in terms of money, time, and resources, adjustments can be made early. There are financial consequences for scope creep, so a process for full accountability and transparency must be in place.

Then there are changes in what’s available in the market. We keep an eye on that too. In the specific case of mobile projects, the technologies are changing rapidly, so it’s important to have a flexible architecture in place that’s decoupled from the device through standards. In this way, the technology or form factor can change, and the supporting infrastructure can accommodate those modifications.

ME: What are some good cost models and their advantages to pay for solution development for specific business owners?

AB: The sponsoring organization for the specific solution should have a core IT staff who are very skilled in solution architecture, security and project management. The internal staff should define the overall blueprint but should not be the actual builders. At the same time, the sponsoring organization should not outsource its intellectual capital and rely solely on outside vendors to build mission critical solutions.

Sponsoring IT organizations sometimes lose track of their mission, which is not IT but a business value proposition. So a good model to pay for solution development is one that positions the sponsor as the general contractor with some core IT skills to oversee and guide the systems integrator.

Pat Brans is a mobile technology and productivity consultant and author of the book "Master The Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach You the Secrets of Time Management."


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