Becoming Data Centric: What can we learn from the IRS?

by Tony Shaw

There’s a story about Chicago’s O’Hare airport that sounds absurd and yet everyone can somehow relate to it. The story goes that the tower at the airport had been using ancient computers and equipment for ages, all while newer systems wasted away in unopened boxes. The problem was that there was no break in the action of the tower, no time when the old system could be retired and the new one installed. Ultimately, the only solution was to build a completely new tower, install a newer-than-new new system in it, and then migrate to it. The story might be an urban myth, but it also feels like it could be true.

The IRS has a similar story which is absolutely true.  It’s just past tax day here in the US, and little known to most Americans, the IRS is processing this year’s tax returns on a new system.  As you might imagine, it’s been a massive project, many years in the making. It was led by Terry Milholland, the agency CTO. Terry is a colleague, and when I asked him recently what his measures of success will be, he answered without hesitation that the project will be a success if it stays “out of the news.” In the thankless world of taxes, publicity only comes when something goes wrong.

By the first week of may, I’m hoping Terry is able to cast a verdict on the system, and his own performance, because he’s scheduled to be in Atlanta at Enterprise Data World to share the strategy behind making the IRS into a “Data Centric Organization.”  You might ask, what does this mean exactly in the context of the IRS?  As an example, when Terry took over as CTO about 4 years ago, an agent could not retrieve a record using the taxpayer’s social security number. This was the legacy he started with. From that point there seems no direction to go except forward, but in this job you have to build a new system, and get it right, or risk any number of unpleasant scenarios. Not only are you accountable to all the good citizens of the US, plus their elected representatives in Congress, but if you get it wrong, you might make it to the front page of the national papers. No pressure on you here Terry, none at all.

Anyway, I can’t wait to hear more details about this changeover from the man who made it happen.  And was the system a success?  We only have to wait a couple more weeks to find out.  The talk is outlined here, and I hope Terry is still smiling by then:

http://edw2012.dataversity.net/sessionPop.cfm?confid=65&proposalid=4477

 

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