Nov 21 2017

How Open Source Tech Helps Feds Solve Workforce Turnover Issues

As older federal IT workers retire, agencies can turn to open source technologies to help them preserve knowledge automation systems, gain flexibility and create a new agency culture.

Just as a mainframe from decades ago might be ready for retirement, the IT staff who originally procured and installed that system might also be preparing for a new phase in their lives. It’s up to the current and next generation of government IT employees to prepare for that eventuality, but there are indications they may not be ready, despite evidence that older IT professionals are retiring or will soon be leaving their positions.

Unfortunately, a skills gap exists even among younger generation IT workers. Agencies are scrambling to find personnel with expertise in cloud service management, cybersecurity, technical architecture and legacy technologies, such as common business-oriented language (COBOL) and mainframes, among other areas. At the same time that many workers are getting ready to retire, leaving behind a wealth of knowledge, many younger IT professionals are struggling to gain the knowledge they will need to take their agencies into the future.

There are a number of ways open source technology can help bridge these knowledge and skills gaps. Open source can help today’s teams capture and preserve information for current and future use, facilitate automation across systems, reduce vendor lock-in and spur the creation of an innovative culture that can help government agencies attract top talent, both today and tomorrow.

Here are four ways agencies can take advantage of open source technology to help manage the “silver tsunami” of coming retirements:

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Automate Systems Before the Retirement Wave Hits

Federal IT operations are built on complex compute, storage and network systems featuring many different configurations and connections. It’s important to preserve this information after the staff who set up these systems move on.

To do so, IT staff should document their systems’ configurations, but in a machine-readable and automated manner. This can relieve the next generation of IT workers from the onerous task of manual reconfiguration. Automation can also help with mission-critical disaster recovery efforts because it can reduce and potentially even eliminate the need for traditional paper documentation and manual labor that cannot be continuously tested.

Open source tools such as Ansible, which works on both legacy and next-generation systems, offer automatic configuration for a wide array of solutions. Information also becomes human-readable so future generations of workers can then more easily understand and maintain their agencies’ original configurations.

Avoid Vendor Lock-In in Favor of Open Platforms

There are many reasons agencies should continue to use open source IT following documentation and automation.

First, open source can help agencies avoid unwanted vendor lock-in and offer a more flexible infrastructure that can adapt to future needs. It also offers an abstraction layer between physical, virtual and cloud deployments, which can enable teams to move toward the cloud at their own pace. IT professionals can also take advantage of innovative solutions, such as Linux containers and microservices, that have the ability to accelerate the pace of application development in the government.

However, as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” To that extent, agencies should be careful with their open source freedom.

Open source provides a lot of choices for agencies, but it’s important that IT teams make informed choices. Some open source communities focus on being fast-moving proving grounds for innovation, where backporting bug and security fixes and long-term lifecycles are not priorities. There is often no service level agreement when it comes to community-based open source software.

Agencies that are not paying a vendor for open source support need to ensure they are staffed with skilled professionals who are comfortable working directly with those communities, and they have the budget to support their work.

Alternatively, commercially-supported open source vendors can help IT professionals in times of need. Newly minted federal IT professionals who encounter a problem with their open source software can lean on experienced vendors to support and walk them through the challenge, thereby helping to minimize mission outages and the effort required of IT staff.

Many vendors also offer in-depth training and certification in use of specific technologies, as well as clear lifecycle commitments, so staff know when and for how long to expect bug fixes and security updates. This can help them to plan and budget for upgrades years in advance, and acquire extended support if they choose.

Make Open Source Part of the Agency Culture

It’s been said that “open source is a magnet for talent,” and that is true. According to the most recent Open Source Jobs Report, open source recruiting is skyrocketing. Millennials want more than just a paycheck; they want to be part of something big and innovative, and organizations desire that passion.

Federal agencies can tap into this passion by incorporating open source into their culture. For inspiration, look no further than the General Services Administration’s project, which is publicly developed on GitHub, a leading open source software development platform. That agency has taken a leadership position by making open source a part of its IT fabric.

Just as potential employers may look at a candidate’s GitHub contributions as proof of their technical chops and intellectual curiosity, a candidate for a federal IT job might also look at an agency’s GitHub repositories.

Like a prospect checking out a potential employer’s LinkedIn page, a glance at GitHub can offer a better feel for how amenable an agency might be to external contributions, its willingness to participate in the open source community and the overall talent of the agency’s development team.

Build a Platform for Future Generations

Throughout history, it’s been incumbent on the previous generation to prepare the next for success. In federal IT, this responsibility must fall both on the workers who blazed the trail and the ones who will inherit their legacies (and legacy systems).

Building a foundation based on open source today means creating a platform that will help today’s federal IT workers, and the agencies they represent, achieve success.

When their retirement day arrives, they will have an evergreen IT framework they can bequeath to the next generation — a gift that keeps on giving.

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