Friday, March 2, 2012

"Yesterday's Technology...TODAY!"

That's apparently the motto of U.S. Army Information Technology (IT), and it's showing no indication of changing for the better anytime soon.

Back in the old days, when men were men, and electric typewriters were cutting edge, it could take several staff hours just to produce one error-free officer or enlisted efficiency report. "White-Out", or correction tape was prohibited, so one little mistake resulted in the offending form being ripped from the typewriter, cursed roundly, and a fresh form inserted.  In the late 70s, when I was a tank battalion adjutant (personnel officer) in Germany, the battalion commander and I pooled our funds and bought our new civilian clerk one of those new word processors, and a daisy wheel printer. Once she got the hang of it, the clerk would set up the tabs and margins on her little green screen, type the words, I'd proofread it, and then she'd insert the blank form, and Voila'!... an error-free report!

When I came back in the Army in 2008, I quickly discovered that despite the tremendous advances in computer technology being successfully utilized in the civilian sector, such advances weren't even close to being fully implemented. Oh, sure, lots of processes and routine mandatory training were supposedly "On Line"...but were in reality a major obstacle to efficiency.  Frustration reached a crescendo while in Iraq, as all of our investigation reports had to be created and stored on a remote server, which required reliable internet service ("Strike ONE!"), computers which were rugged enough to withstand the hostile environment, ("Strike TWO!"), and an IT team that could troubleshoot and repair/replace machines and system infrastructure...("SteeRIKE THREE...Yer OUT!") Some agents even rustled up a couple of clunky Iraqi knock-offs of old Smith-Corona manual typewriters, so they could at least write up case reports. Naturally their initiative was "rewarded" with disdain, and a reminder that we were a "digital agency"...never mind the fact that we also had to maintain paper case files as our primary record.

What sparked this evening's rant was my participation in continued computer silliness during our Battle Assembly yesterday and today. Most of us were assigned to complete two online training modules, each designed to take no more than 60 minutes. Finding a computer which would recognize our access cards took about 45 minutes. Finding where these training modules were hiding within the Army Online Training Website took another 20 minutes. So now each of us soldiers have expended around 65 minutes, and had yet to actually start the dang classes! Of course, things continued to deteriorate. For one course, I logged in, completed the training (I timed it, and it took me 72 minutes), and then clicked on the link to take the final exam, and print my certificate of completion...without which the whole process never existed. (Very existential, I'll give the Army that much.) Upon clicking the test link, I got an error message which informed me that I "didn't have permission to access that website." I tried using the "back arrow", and clicking on the link again: Same no-go. I then figured my best tactic was to refresh the screen, which usually works quite well in a "normal" situation. Here, this approach yielded a whole new message, happily informing me that I had erased my progress, and needed to start the training over from the beginning. Here's the "coup de irony"...I apparently needed to complete the module and the test in order to have permission to access the secure website where the test link should have taken me. I could almost hear Walt Frazier and Keith Hernandez shouting, "RE-JECTED!" like in that cheesy "Just For Men" hair color commercial from a few years ago. I ended up leaving drill early, so that I could go home and complete the second training module from my home computer. (Using my iMac and broadband internet connection, I finished the training in 15 minutes.)

I'd like to believe that in the higher headquarters, like the Pentagon, none of these digital hedgerows exist. In fact, I'm 100% certain that this is indeed the case. Because no fighting force could be so darn successful as we are, with crapola IT at the top. That's my fantasy, anyway, so please don't disillusion me if that's not the case. Thanks.

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