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IT Obstacles Abound on Island

Being CIO of the U.S. territory of Guam creates certain challenges with staffing, application deployment and vendor relations.

Being CIO of the U.S. territory of Guam creates certain challenges with staffing, application deployment and vendor relations.

Jim Lacson is CIO for the Government of Guam.

My daily commute to work in Guam takes me alongside a postcard-perfect white-sand beach complete with leaning coconut trees and warm turquoise waters. Living on Guam has its perks: exotic scenery, friendly people and a great climate. But running an IT organization on a remote island presents unique challenges.

Like other government agencies, Guam (known locally as GovGuam) faces the challenges of shrinking budgets, rising IT costs, security threats and staff recruitment and retention. These issues are exacerbated in an isolated island community.

Consider labor, for one: Guam’s small population of 170,000 residents limits the pool of local IT professionals. While most state and local governments on the mainland face similar difficulty, their larger populations and relatively close proximity to other states help to ensure a more stable supply of qualified talent. The closest state to Guam is Hawaii, some seven and a half hours away by air.

Although Guam is near the educated and experienced workforce of several Asian countries, our territory is subject to immigration constraints just like the rest of the United States. Unfortunately, this labor shortage has not translated into wage levels sufficient to attract IT pros from the mainland. Existing IT staff must support enterprise systems with little or no training. IT outsourcing is the most effective approach, but we lack the funds to use this solution on a sustained basis.

With an annual IT budget of about $3.5 million, GovGuam functions like a state, county, and municipal government rolled into one. Few public-sector applications are designed for this type of structure, and commercial applications tend to be priced for organizations with larger budgets. Self-funded e-government applications appeal to us, but we can’t generate the transaction volume necessary to justify the investment for many vendors.

Most of GovGuam’s software was developed by a local company for the IBM AS/400, and previous management directives called for the disbanding of our in-house development group through attrition. Many agencies are not sufficiently automated or lack automation altogether. As a result, staff sometimes resort to creative solutions. For example, power users cobble together ad-hoc software applications. And until recently, our Department of Corrections used an inmate-developed application based on Microsoft Access.

GovGuam relies on off-island hardware and software vendors for implementation and technical support. Many of these vendors offer support only during mainland office hours, which can translate to 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday on Guam. Late night or early morning conference calls are quite common.

Travel costs also eat up bigger chunks of our IT budget. Airfares are at a premium, and many companies specify business-class travel. Bringing in a single West Coast product engineer for five days can add about $5,700 to a project, not including the company’s hourly rate. High travel and implementation costs, coupled with funding deadlines, sometimes force us into partial implementations or to implement solutions on our own. This can result in under-utilized or — in the worst case — unused applications and hardware.

Establishing or maintaining relationships with mainland vendors can be somewhat difficult. When I first took over as the CIO for GovGuam in 2005, we had no contacts with Microsoft. It turns out that Microsoft considered Guam part of its Australian sales region. The Aussies were not quite sure what to make of us either. It took a year and many phone calls and e-mails to finalize an agreement with Microsoft USA. This remains a problem with several vendors. For example, a major PC maker will not ship consumer orders to Guam.

Working in government technology in this type of environment requires a unique mix of skill, patience, resourcefulness and a willingness to adapt well-established processes to local conditions.

This is not exactly how I envisioned life in a tropical paradise. But then again, the view during my morning commute sure beats the rush hour view from a California interstate.

The island of Guam is an unincorporated territory of the United States. Less than four hours by plane from Japan and other points of Asia, it is the western-most point of the United States. Guam has a robust tourism industry and is home to key U.S. military installations.

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Feb 12 2008

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