Terry Millholland became the first ever CTO at the IRS in 2008, having arrived from similar roles at Visa International and EDS along with a CIO stint at Boeing.

The IRS isn't short on scale compared to the private sector with a multi-billion dollar budget and 7,000 people maintaining 400-plus systems. Even though the technology at the IRS was outdated compared to his private sector assignments, upon his arrivel Milholland saw familiarities. 

“Almost every enterprise has the same problem where people design and build applications over the years without much thought about sharing,” he says. The legacy problem is that otherwise useful information is nearly impossible to interface because of the design of data elements and shortcuts that don’t translate across systems.

The solution for the IRS was a “sole-authority database,” with a well-defined data model at the logical and physical layers that apps can be built around. “That eliminates all the angst around sharing. There is only one version of Social Security number for example, not the 10 possible ones you had before,” Milholland says.

The poster child at the IRS was called CADE2 but the philosophy is now at the core of all development projects. With two-thirds done, the last of roughly 30,000 data elements will be defined at the physical layer within six to nine months.

An enterprise data model that says, “there is only one way to do things” data related means that  governance had to be invented as well.  The experience gave Milholland an appreciation for public service and the public servants who stepped up to the task. “The vast majority of people inside the United States government are working their tails off trying to do the right thing despite all the barriers and constraints that are thrown around them.”

Most came eagerly, but when the end game proves its value, Milholland says, it’s easier to get people on board.

Quotable: “When you put discipline and rigor around the data model it truly becomes the holy grail, you don’t change it except under some very careful analysis. It becomes the thing around which all functionality can be built.”

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