FORT LEE, Va. (Feb. 11, 2021) – There is a common expectation among the many thousands of networked computer users here, which is devices that instantly boot up after log-on and are ready for business immediately afterward
Referencing the many advances in cyber-technology and delivery of information through online platforms over the past several years, William R. Hardy Jr., director of Network Enterprise Center-Lee, said computer users have become “comfortably expectant” as a result of that rapid maturation.
“We’ve come to a point in technology where people take computers and computing as a given,” he observed. “Here’s one of the analogies I like to use – when a user turns on the light in their office in the morning, the expectation is that it will come on. … People think the same way with their computers. They should be able to walk in, turn on their devices and immediately go to work.”
Making sure that happens is a big part of NEC’s mission. The information technology enterprise is primarily responsible for the operation and maintenance of email, telephone and data systems providing telecommunication support and services for the missions at Fort Lee.
Its staff is comprised of 76 Department of the Army and contract employees – engineers, telecommunication specialists, cybersecurity teams, system administrators and others -- who oversee the operation of 13,000 telephones, 16,000 computers and the networks on which they reside, and the Land Mobile Radio System used by drill sergeants, range control personnel and first responders.
Hardy, a former drill sergeant and signal Soldier, said all components of Fort Lee’s telecommunication portfolio are critical, especially from a general user-service-provider perspective.
“If anything goes down, we get calls,” he said with a measure of resignation. “If the network goes down, a printer doesn’t work or a computer can’t connect, we’re getting calls. If LMR goes down, we’re getting calls. We’re literally 24/7. We can get a call at 1 o’clock on a Saturday morning that a system is down, and we have to respond.”
Hardy and his team are not singularly focused on the system as a whole. He, in particular, can relate to individual users and their frustrations regarding computer operability. While he is always working to improve reliability, problems are pretty much inevitable. For starters, computers – despite being the same brand and model with identical features – may not operate the same.
“One of the things I like to say is a computer – once it’s built and baselined to a standard and starts getting used – begins to change,” Hardy said. “Literally, each computer has its own individual personality based on how it’s used. Operators tailor things to their own desires, and so, that starts to change what happens in the computer. At the end of the day, you have 16,000 different computers on your network.”
Secondly, computers are regularly updated, which may further change their inner workings depending on the circumstances surrounding the reconfiguration.
“Systems get patched (on a regular basis),” he said. “Those updates don’t always happen at the same time because, let’s say my computer was on the network when the patch was first pushed, but yours’ wasn’t. It changes the individual dynamics of that individual system. Over time, it has an impact and gets harder to manage and control those individual devices to operate exactly the same.”
Additionally, computers missing a patch can get kicked off the network and placed in quarantine.
“This frustrates users quite a bit,” Hardy said. “It may not happen to 15,000 systems, but it could happen to 100 machines on the network. They are not exactly the same. Patches don’t get everything exactly right.”
In addition to the problems patches pose, the issue of computer inoperability is further complicated by increasing budget pressures and less personnel resources.
“We no longer have the people resources to touch every single computer to keep them the way they need to be,” said Hardy, noting there is no local help desk. “We use automated tools to cut costs, but they can’t solve each individual user’s issue.”
The NEC is often the perceived culprit when users experience IT challenges, Hardy acknowledged, but many problems originate at the next level and may not necessarily be known locally. Still, he is empathetic.
“I understand the challenges of the individual users because I’m no different,” he said. “I actually have my own computer in our test group, so, as we’re deploying new patches, I get them before anyone else. That allows me to see how it impacts my world, and if (it’s not right), I’ll say, ‘Timeout guys. We need to fix this.’”
Because computers are essential to the mission, the stakes are high. When Hardy arrived at Fort Lee three years ago, he thought communication between the user community and service provider were at a deficit. In response, he employed a customer-friendly approach – which he thinks is imperative – and used various means of interaction to keep users in the loop and engaged.
“There was a lot of unhappiness from the NEC’s mission partners due to the support they were receiving,” Hardy said. “That was one of my big challenges coming in. That’s why I tend to over-communicate to make sure people are aware of what we’re doing and how those challenges impact our user community.”
Many members of Team Lee may have come to know Hardy, not by physical presence, but through the sometimes technical-in-tone emails he blasts on a weekly basis. He also participates in monthly conference calls with information management personnel representing installation organizations. He said keeping the lines of communication open and flowing makes his job a lot easier.
“It’s a way to keep up with what our mission partners are experiencing,” he said, “so we can adapt, overcome and address their particular concerns within the scope of our control.”
Retrospectively, Hardy said his building-bridges approach to information management is a work in progress but has yielded results.
“I’d like to see a little more participation … but I think it is working well,” he said. “People are more informed about NEC activities ahead of time. I get more feedback, and mission partner and user satisfaction is higher than it was three years ago.”
The NEC’s relationship with its mission partners will be a critical factor within the coming months when Microsoft Office 365 (IL5) is rolled out. The cloud-based program built on the Microsoft Teams platform represents a change in government computing and may challenge some users, according to Hardy.