The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Rainy Monday lunchtime links

A succession of cold fronts has started traversing the Chicago area, so after an absolutely gorgeous Saturday we're now in the second day of cold, wet, gray weather. In other words, autumn in Chicago.

So here's what I'd like to read today but probably won't have time:

Meeting time. Yay.

Well, that could explain a few things

I'm excited about my new project, but as we ramp it up, I'm becoming aware of a cost: sleep. And that's not good.

Thanks to my Fitbit, I have a pretty good idea of how much I'm sleeping. Here's what October looks like so far:

The 11th through 13th and the 16th through 18th were travel days. And then on the 17th (the "wake" column of the 16th) I had to get up at an ungodly hour to get to the San Antonio MEPS by 6am.

I think this will settle down quickly, but wow, I'm really feeling it today.

Saving you the trouble of a FOIA request

I have some clarity now on what I can and can't say about the project I'm working on. In short, it's not classified (though the data we deal with is personally-identifiable information–PII—and private health information–PHI). My security clearance is "public trust," the lowest level, and in fact the only level that someone with a clearance can disclose. Also, the contracts for this project are publicly available through FOIA.

So, I'm free to discuss this project in a way that I've rarely been permitted before. Now, I'm not allowed to post photos of, or taken on, military bases, and it's a bad idea but not necessarily prohibited for me to discuss individual people. (Which is a shame, because a week ago I got a tour of the Pentagon that included the 9/11 memorial, which really moved me. I will try to obtain permission to post photos, but it doesn't look likely I can.)

Here's the story.

Technically (and I never thought I would be one of these), I'm now a defense contractor. My client is the Defense Digital Service, a franchise of the United States Digital Service. President Obama formed the latter to prevent debacles like the HealthCare.gov rollout, which funneled $50m to Accenture and produced something a well-run start-up could have produced for a tiny fraction of that amount. The former (my client) reports directly to the Secretary of Defense's office, and, as a civil service agency, is not subject to White House interference.

My client's customer is the Military Enrollment Processing Command (MEPCOM), headquartered in North Chicago, Ill. This joint command runs the country's 67 Military Enrollment Processing Stations (MEPS) and enrolls everyone who joins the U.S. armed forces in the enlisted ranks. (They also provide services for some officer candidates, but my project doesn't apply to those folks.)

Our company will be upgrading the software that MEPS use to track applicants from the time recruiters drop them off to the time they enter basic training. The current software launched in 1996 and functions only because a dedicated group of people up at MEPCOM keep it running with spit and duck tape.

We've got five months to produce a pilot program that shows how we can overhaul the entire process. We're working closely with MEPCOM, the Baltimore MEPS, and the Air Force, because if you're going to do a pilot project you really want that service to be involved. (Rimshot!)

In the end, we're going to produce software that helps kids who want to serve the United States do so without losing bonuses, or getting shut out of health care, or getting told they can't serve because of a technicality someone should have caught early. Software that helps the dedicated civil servants who work in MEPS across the country do their jobs better. Software that helps every American taxpayer by solving these real problems at a fraction of what the government would have spent 10 years ago. (In fact, they did. In the early 2000s another firm spent 5 years and tens of millions developing a replacement that completely failed.)

In the coming months, I'll post what I can about this project, and about the people we're helping. By "what I can," understand that I'm going to clear some of the information I post with DDS, MEPCOM, and in some cases, the Air Force. Since my client is the U.S. Government, I literally have a First Amendment right to post anything I learn on my blog; but I recognize that just because something is available through a FOIA request doesn't mean I should publish it. To wit: This project touches real people, many of them smart teenagers in bad situations who have lost their best shot at getting a better life because of bad software. And that pisses me off. But each situation raises a complicated interaction of privacy concerns, which the law as written may allow me to disclose, but basic human decency obligates me to protect.

Also, the kids who we'll be helping by and large don't care about who's running the government. They love their country. They want to give something back. Or maybe they just want a good job. It doesn't matter. In the past week, I've seen four swearing-in ceremonies, in each of which a group of teenagers pledged to serve the United States and our Constitution, knowing that when they come back in a few weeks, they'll be shipped off somewhere and asked to do things both boring and horrific for four to eight years. It's really moving to see that. Even the officers who do 20 or 30 of these ceremonies each week feel it.

This is going to be one of the most impactful projects I've worked on. And it's really, really cool.

Back

Wow, do I have stories to tell. Two days in San Antonio and I've got a lot to digest.

Right now, dog and man both want dinner.

Firehose

I've learned more in the last week about the U.S. armed forces and how they enroll new members than I can recount. (I mean that in several senses.) Our team were at the San Antonio MEPS before 6am and stayed until almost 11; later this afternoon, we're heading to Lackland AFB to watch Air Force recruits getting off the bus for basic training.

First, though, I need to nap. We left our hotel 15 minutes before the nearest Starbucks opened and couldn't locate an open fast-food joint on the way to Fort Sam Houston. Also, the USO volunteer—the person with control over the Keurig machine—didn't arrive until 8. Oh, the madness.

More about this later. We're still sorting out what we can and can't post on social media (no photos, no personally-identifiable information, but some details about the project). For now, I just have to assimilate all of this information and come up with a minimally-viable product outline by next week. Fun!

Links to read on the plane

I'm about to fly to San Antonio for another round of researching how the military tracks recruits from the time they get to the processing center to the time they leave for boot camp (officially "Military Basic Training" or MBT).

I have some stuff to read on the plane:

OK, off to K20. Or K18. Or wherever my plane has got to.

 

Strangest office building I've ever been in

Imagine the largest office building (in land area) you've ever been in, add a small shopping mall, four food courts, and the security that demonstrates exactly how silly and ineffectual airport security is, and that's the Pentagon.

I'm in a little island that's like an anti-SCIF (Secure Compartmented Information Facility). We're in the one unclassified office in the ring, complete with unclassified Internet service, and because of that, behind two steel doors and in a Faraday cage. And it's literally the only place we're allowed to take pictures, which is sad because every hallway in the building is a museum exhibit. It's weird.

That, and we can't go to the bathroom without an escort, makes this a very strange day indeed.

Also, it's like an ongoing pop quiz in uniform insignia recognition. And I'm still having problems with upper enlisted ranks.

Home tomorrow, after a visit to a military facility outside Baltimore.

On the Potomac

I'm in Northern Virginia for a project meeting tomorrow, so not much to post today except that I'm here. Tomorrow, though, should be very interesting. I hope to have photos. But it will soon become clear why I might not actually have any photos.

Team meeting at 8am Eastern, and it's midnight, so off I go for now.