PTO changes the way it invests in IT systems

Wednesday - 9/12/2012, 9:39am EDT

John Owens, PTO CIO

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The Patent and Trademark Office has found millions of dollars to upgrade legacy systems. And it did so without a budget increase or getting more user fees from companies.

Instead, John Owens, PTO's chief information officer, reduced the amount of its technology budget going to support legacy systems. He said PTO used to spend 85 percent of its budget on operations and maintenance (O&M) support and 15 percent on development, modernization and enhancements (DME) of systems. Now, the agency spends 50 percent on each.

"Over the last two years, we've done continuous scrubbing twice a year of our budget, very finely and detailed, to lower O&M costs to about 50 percent," he said. "All the rest of that money was reallocated to capital expenditure funds and that allows us to continue to build the new systems, which allows me to turn off the legacy systems, and therefore reduce operations and maintenance. That is a great cycle to get into that's really helped push the modern culture forward by identifying what's important to the business in meeting those needs and throwing everything else into the bucket for a later date or not doing them at all."

Owens said to change the way PTO spends IT money was a combination of two factors: leadership from the top, and challenging the business units to understand what they need and what they don't need in terms of technology and functionality.

"We have slowly migrated legacy systems on to a modern, virtualized platform, keeping the costs low and writing it in modern languages," he said. "We also have limited the amount of change to the legacy applications keeps the costs lower."

Owens said he asks the business unit three questions:

  • Is this an IT project that moves the business forward?
  • What benefits does it have to the business?
  • Can it wait for a later date when we have a more modern patent or trademarks system?

"That's a hard choice sometimes to make. Sometimes we do modify legacy systems to keep the business moving," he said. "But that choice is now the forefront question asked instead of last thing asked or never asked at all."

Owens said the ability to shift O&M dollars to DME spending has helped PTO complete seven of nine infrastructure modernization projects on time and on budget. These initiatives covered everything from basic network infrastructure to connectivity to systems virtualization to new PCs and laptops.

Owens said the other two projects should be completed in early fiscal 2013. These include the implementing the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) for configuration and change management, and a second disaster recovery backup site.

PTO's two biggest IT priorities remain improving the patent and trademark systems.

The White House routinely used the patent acceptance system as a poster child for problems with federal IT.

But Owens said the patent system is in a much better state than a year or two ago. He expects PTO to announce an updated status of the backlog of patent applications in the near future.

"Certainly from where we were before, our down time is measured in digit percents per hour of per year instead of double digits, so we've made vast strides there," he said. "The new systems, which we will be rolling out to a group of volunteer examiners will happen in November for patents and late next year for trademarks, really sets a new precedent for how we will deliver a modern, user- centered design applications, built agilely on fully modern web platforms and totally virtualized."

Owens said the trademark system started in better shape than the patent system, but it's in need of an upgrade.

He said the Trademark Next Generation initiative will focus on moving data, including text and pictures, into new technology and making it easier to find and use.

PTO, in fact, put the front end of one part of the trademark system in a cloud managed by Google, while the agency controls the back end infrastructure and the data.

Owens said the agency developed a few prototypes of the Trademark Next Generation system and will move forward with it over the next year or so.

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