Editor’s note: This column is a re-run of a previous column as Tom Temin is out on vacation.
Presidents shake quite a few hands in their careers. The familiar picture of a teenaged Bill Clinton shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy in bright sunlight stands as one of those great coincidence moments — if you believe in coincidence.
The grandeur of Kennedy’s words, and the grace with which he delivered them, inspired many to public service. Bill Clinton’s presidency concluded in 2001.
The other day I spoke with a federal employee who also shook President Kennedy’s hand. Amazingly he is still working. In fact, he joined federal service in 1960, working for the Army Map Service for the grand sum of $46 per week.
You read that right. Paul Friday, senior computer scientist at the Census Bureau, is still on the job. Although he technically started during the Eisenhower administration, Friday said it was Kennedy’s inaugural siren call that inspired him to commit to a life of public service.
Friday noted one project at the Army Map Service was making relief maps of the Moon. The resulting maps figured into the landing of 1969. In fact, Friday said he was a guest at the Cape Canaveral launch of the Moon-bound Apollo 11. That is to say, while not achieving the prominence of Bill Clinton, Friday has not labored all these years in obscurity. Like many durable, successful people, he’s just not a household name. He noted he has also been recognized with several Director’s Awards and Commerce Department medals.
In the summer of 1961, Friday told me, he was a summer intern at the White House, where he got a chance to meet the president in person and, as he put it, speak “one or two sentences.” He recalled the moment vividly, remembering Kennedy’s bearing and demeanor. Thereafter, it was the Census Bureau that provided the sustenance for his long career. Now Friday is a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. You’ll hear my interview with him next week.
A computer programmer, among Friday’s principal contributions has been the development of software to enable Census-built scanners to read forms filled in with handwriting, and turn the handwriting into data. He’s been improving the process since the 1980 decennial count. Census has used his discoveries in many other periodical surveys. His work on handwriting recognition was employed successfully in the count just concluded.
Friday has used Pascal for most of his own programming. The highly efficient language gained ascendancy in the minicomputer era of the 1970s and 1980s.
But if you are picturing an old guy snorting at the young kids with their C+ and Python, think again. In reality, Friday marvels at the young programmers, many of whom he said have capabilities well beyond his own. He gives them full credit for many of the bureau’s successful IT-based projects. My own hope is they learn a thing or two from someone who started programming back when computers had tubes.
Friday told me, there is something else that drives him, in addition to technology innovation and the Census mission. It’s the idea of outsourcing work he believes should be done by government employees. As noted on page 282 of this history of the 2000 count, major parts of data captured were outsourced to defense contractors Lockheed Martin and the old TRW. This, after the Bureau itself stated it had accomplished a “significant advance in census data capture” using cameras to photograph the 1990 Census questionnaires, as shown in the video below.
Outsourcing didn’t sit well with Friday. He said he started devoting considerable energy to bringing work back into the Bureau and keeping it there, in part to help keep the next generation of employees engaged. And in part because he believes the in-house approach has, on the whole, better and less expensive results than outsourcing.
“The contribution I made,” Friday told me, “is being able to have the seniority to put into effect employee-implemented projects. That allowed the new young folks to follow along and do the same thing.”
He chuckled. “Without the power of an old person like me, they would have been sidelined in favor of outsourcing.”
Friday said he wants to write up the history of successful employee-implemented projects “in contrast to the outsourcing, which has produced some spectacular failures.” Just so you have no doubts on where he stands on outsourcing.
To come full circle to JFK. Whatever we now know about JFK’s personal flaws and peccadillos, he nevertheless remains an attractive and inspirational figure, in large measure because of his oratory gifts. I challenge you to read the text of JFK’s inaugural speech of 1961, and fail to be moved. That speech did indeed inspire a generation of public servants. I’m not sure how many of that era are still on the job, but Friday must be one of a very few.
And as for outsourcing. Watch any of the online videos of Kennedy’s great address at Rice University, with its soaring rhetoric about exploration combined with details about metallurgy. The moon project greatly expanded NASA, which in turn established an enormous supplier base. A long list of contractors built the assemblage that eventually went to the moon, working cheek-by-jowl in collaboration with NASA employees. But many NASA items — such as that amazing little helicopter on Mars — have been designed and built entirely by employees.
There’s no final or permanent answer to make-or-buy, but you always need an active and engaged workforce to make sure the government stays in its own game. In fact, Friday said, “I wish I could report back to a Kennedy, or someone high in the government, telling them that I did as President Kennedy requested.”
The word “intern” originally described doctors who had a medical degree but not a license to practice. But after World War I, when medical school wasn’t seen as enough preparation for working in the field, “interns” referred to physicians-in-training.