CIO Crossroads: Federal IT in the COVID Crisis – DoT Edition

Podcast: CIO Crossroads – DOT Edition

The unique ability of government IT operations to ensure the delivery of vital services to citizens has formed the backbone of the larger Federal pandemic response. MeriTalk is chronicling the untold stories of that effort in our CIO Crossroads series. Please join us for our latest chapter: Department of Transportation.

When the Wheels Can’t Stop, DoT Keeps Rolling – CIO Q&A

Cars, trucks, planes, trains, ships, buses, subways, and drones – if it moves under motor power in the public space, it’s a good bet it’s under the purview of the Department of Transportation (DoT). Like every skillful regulator, when the mission is carried out well, the agency tends to remain mostly invisible.

Here’s a refresher: DoT regulates for safety the critical infrastructure of airlines, rail, and maritime systems. On the roads and highways, it strengthens the safety of trucking and automobile traffic. Round that out with pipelines and movement of hazardous materials, and you have an agency with a very tall order. It’s an even more vital one during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the movement of food, medicine, and other supplies forms a literal lifeline for citizens.

How do you take 55,000 DoT employees and send them home to take care of that job remotely? In an exclusive interview with MeriTalk, DoT CIO Ryan Cote credits foresight by agency leadership over the past three years to break down multiple interagency IT silos, and invest in modernization. Add to that VPN capacity expansions, extensive system testing, and employee training in the run-up to the pandemic.

The payoff? An immediate increase to 100 percent telework-ready status, up from 40 percent. Within that new service delivery paradigm, use of video and other collaboration tools jumped 300 percent routinely – with some up ten-fold – along with a huge increase in mobile use. DoT is also rethinking its cybersecurity approaches with focus on encryption, cloud access security brokers (CASB), and software-defined networking.

Whenever things get back to “normal,” DoT may actually retain many of its current processes, as employee productivity has increased during the pandemic. Please join us for an in-depth discussion with Cote about how the past three months has changed everything – sometimes for the better.

MeriTalk: As CIO of a large Federal agency with an incredibly diverse mission, what have been some of your largest priorities and successes during the last three months? What are you most proud of?

Cote: I’m proudest that we have continued to execute our mission without any disruption. In fact, I believe we are operating at a higher level today than pre-COVID.

We were able to leverage the technology we had and improve it so when we went to maximum telework, it simply worked instantly. From the IT perspective, our largest priority has been ensuring that the technology is always available and that it’s robust, resilient, and secured. In less than 10 days, we switched from about 40 percent telework ready to 100 percent telework ready. We were able to add a lot of bandwidth to our existing circuits and a lot of VPN licensing for connections on infrastructure that already existed.

With the first big CARES Act funding that came out of Congress, we were given a lot of extra responsibility in the transportation sector. The DoT offices that oversee specific transportation Modes had new grant money that they had to dispense in a hurry. From the Secretary, to every modal administrator, down to the IT folks – we all came together and simply did it.

When we went to maximum telework, we had to rethink cybersecurity and the network. For many years, we had built an inside-out network, where most people come into offices and work from behind firewalls on a secured network. We were able to protect a lot of what they did by virtue of the fact that they were inside our network. Now, everyone’s outside of the network, and we’re relying on our connections from home-based offices. In some cases, they’re using government-issued equipment, but in others they’re using personal equipment and a VDI connection. So we had to really rethink cyber, looking at encryption solutions, pushing out a CASB plan, and pushing SD-WAN networks.

This is a success story that goes back to three years ago, when Secretary Elaine Chao arrived. She realized that DoT’s modal offices had very siloed IT departments, and said, “There’s no reason for nine of everything – help desks, networks, app dev shops, and everything else.” It was her vision for shared services that brought us to the point that we were able to do it with one flip of the switch instead of in nine different places.

MeriTalk: What surprised you the most over the last few months?

The greatest surprise for us at the CIO’s office has been our users and their lightning-quick ability to adapt to a new reality – working from home. People sometimes have a hard time adjusting to change when it’s voluntary. In this case, the change just happened. They got the laptops they needed, and we got the connectivity sorted out. We’ve tripled the number of connections we’re seeing every day. I’ve seen no decrease whatsoever in productivity; in fact, I think it’s increased. People have risen to the challenge.

MeriTalk: Are there other metrics you can share that illustrate the success you’ve seen in making this quick turnaround?

Cote: On the mission front, DoT has supported the Administration’s efforts to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and ensure continuation of critical infrastructure support and relief for the American people.

In the CIO’s office, we’re tracking the technology trends related to usage. Whether it’s the Zoom Government platform or the Microsoft Teams platform or any other – we have seen the number of calls, video meetings, and chats go through the roof. That means our users are not just emailing; they’re communicating through these virtual enterprise solutions. That’s exciting. We’re also seeing a huge increase in our mobile minutes. People are using their phones a lot more, whether it’s for email, voice calls, or video calls. We’re seeing a huge spike in the use of Microsoft Teams.

The adoption rate and the usage rate of these tools has tripled or quadrupled. In some cases, it has increased by a factor of 10. Except our service desk. People needed a little more help during the first two weeks when they transitioned to work at home, but now our service numbers are down and our help desk is seeing less need for users to request support. That’s encouraging.

MeriTalk: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the last three months?

Cote: This is a very personal answer. I’m in government for the first time. I’ve been adjusting to the reality of what it means to work for the Federal government, and there have been a few challenges adapting my private-sector mindset to the way the government operates. That’s not a negative, it’s simply reality. When you work in the private sector, your mission is capitalism and profit. In government, the mission is very different. In this case, it’s about public safety and saving lives in transportation.

My biggest personal lesson is that I can trust my people in a much greater way. We needed to function at a high level, at great speed, and I had to delegate a lot of things that I might have otherwise felt like I needed to have personal involvement in. My team ran things on the ground and reported back to me when they were done. In every case, we had a 100 percent success rate.

My lesson is: Relax a little bit. Trust that your people can execute. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to micromanage. Let your people do what they have to do, and they’ll be successful.

MeriTalk: Considering your pandemic experience now, what advice might you have given yourself three months ago?

Cote: Even though I think we’ve done a good job of communicating to our user community, my advice would be to work even harder at that. That was the greatest challenge for us as we transitioned to expanded telework.

One day in late February or early March, when rumors were starting to swirl about working from home, I happened to be in an elevator with two individuals who were having a conversation about this very thing. They didn’t know who I was. They said, “Oh yeah, we’re all going to get sent home and the technology won’t work. We won’t be able to connect.” It was a very negative conversation. And I said, “Excuse me. I don’t mean to butt into your conversation, but actually, I think we’re going to be fine. I’m the CIO, and we’ve been doing a lot of work over the last week to increase the bandwidth of our circuits and increase our licenses, and we’ve been testing the heck out of this thing. We think we’re going to be able to send every employee home and we’re going to be just fine.”

And they looked at me like, “Oh my gosh, I just said in front of the CIO that his tech stack doesn’t work.” And then they said, “Wow, we had no idea that we’re actually that prepared.” It was fun, in a way, but it reminded me that I could have done a better job in communicating to put people at ease.

MeriTalk: Are there portions of the DoT workforce that can’t work from home because of their mission? Are there any IT adjustments you can provide for them?

Cote: The first group that comes to mind is in the Federal Aviation Administration – air traffic controllers. To ensure the continued resiliency of the air traffic control system, DoT and CDC put a continuity plan in place to ensure the airspace could continue operating while ensuring a safe work environment. We have been very diligent about keeping the air traffic controller workforce safe, using good distancing procedures in the towers, rotating staff in and out, and following CDC guidelines about keeping the workplace environment clean. We’ve had very few instances of illnesses with air traffic controllers and very few instances of having to curtail air operations because of that.

As it relates directly to IT, we have some system and data center administrators who sometimes need to be near the technology. We’ve done the same things for them, and when they’re not on site, they can work from home. The total population of DoT is 55,000 employees, and the Office of the CIO and technical folks are in the couple thousand range. The number of tech employees still coming into the office is a few dozen at most.

MeriTalk: What keeps you up at night regarding cybersecurity or other threats?

Cote: There’s no question we’ve seen an increase in cyber threats. Initially, it came at us in a huge wave of phishing emails, so we ramped up the fight against that with communications to our users about being on the lookout. Our firewalls, mail filters, and spam filters will get most of them, but a few will get through because no technology is perfect – so we just need to make sure users don’t click.

Beyond that first wave, we saw a lot of probing on the network because people know that the network topology has changed with remote users connecting via VPN. We’re able to see that and stop it in real time. I worry about missing one sniper shot from the cyber world, where an email gets through, a user clicks on it, we get a little bit of malware on an endpoint, and it spreads a little bit further than we’d like before we discover it. We’d always like more money in the budget for cyber, but we have to fight the battle with the means we have at hand. And we think we’re doing the best we can.

MeriTalk: How have you relied on the CDM program?

Cote: The CDM folks are fantastic partners for us. Anytime we ask for their help, they are immediately responsive. One thing we’re going to do more of – and I wish we had done earlier – is take advantage of their ability to vet, test, and provide solutions for us. They’ve been given specific dollars to help CIOs like me. They’ll give us the budget, stand up a test, and pay for the tool for the first year to see if it’s a fit. It’s a lot faster for us to go to CDM to stand up a proof of concept tomorrow, instead of taking it through the normal government acquisition process and waiting six to 12 months to get something running.

MeriTalk: Thinking about collaboration and communication across agencies, how would you grade intra-government collaboration and communication at this time? Are there more opportunities?

Cote: I would grade it with an A, no doubt. Suzette Kent at the Federal CIO level has been leading from the front and initially stood up a daily call for all Federal CIOs and Federal CISOs. We’ve since scaled back, but their leadership from day 1 has been phenomenal. All of the CIOs and CTOs have been using that platform to talk about successes, struggles, and lessons learned. At DoT, we are on calls every day with other government agencies as it relates to mission, and in my Office of the CIO we have daily calls. If I need anything, I can call any one of my CIO colleagues anytime. I know that’s happening at a higher level above us as well. That’s a real testament to all of the government departments and leaders who had to face a new reality, send everyone home, and keep the mission rolling. It’s a great story.

MeriTalk: Can you tell us a little bit about your days in the first week of the crisis and how your days have had changed since then?

Cote: Personally, my life hasn’t changed much. My wife and kids live in Michigan, and I’ve been able to keep flying home on the weekends and come back to D.C. every Sunday night. My life in the office changed a lot. We saw a massive workload increase in the first couple of weeks. The days got longer, the meetings got packed in tighter and I found myself, like everyone else, working days that ended at 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night. Now, my days in the office are somewhat normal.

MeriTalk: What systems do you think have worked best? Are there lessons learned that you can share around IT modernization, cloud, or authentication, for example?

Cote: The things that have worked the best are the things we’ve adopted gradually over the last decade as the IT community shifted to the cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS). Whether you’re using Microsoft Office 365, Salesforce, Oracle, or any of the other cloud-based applications, you can reach them from anywhere. Everything’s in your browser. I’m really glad that the visionaries of 10 years ago pushed us to the cloud. I don’t have to route everyone into my network and into my data centers. I can send everyone straight to that cloud SaaS solution, making sure it’s encrypted and secure. It’s certainly a more robust and resilient model.

MeriTalk: Any shout outs to your team members at DoT or any others across government?

Cote: For sure. Starting with Secretary Elaine Chao and her leadership – she has been present all the time, doing everything she can to keep the mission moving. The modal administrators and their staffs, and my senior OCIO IT team, have been just fantastic. We were faced with an unprecedented and historic moment, and the mission has continued. It starts at the top and goes all the way to the bottom. Everyone has pulled their weight. They’ve learned new things; they’ve pushed themselves. We conduct almost daily training classes on Microsoft Teams and other collaboration platforms. The classes are full every day because people want to learn. They want to stay connected. It’s a fantastic testament to the entire team at the Department of Transportation.

Read other Fed success stories

On a broader note, it’s easy to cast aspersions upon this great broad thing called government. But when you dig deeper, the government is made up of people who work hard every day to do the best they can for this country. I’m grateful to be a part of that. At the Department of Transportation, thousands of people go to work every day out of service. They love the mission of the department and that they’re saving lives whether it’s in the air, on the roads, on the rails, or on transit. We are doing our very best. People should know that.

I would like to thank my colleagues at the department and all the IT people in the Office of the CIO who work for me. I’m grateful for the team that follows me every day as I’m trying to lead this Department toward technology modernization and greater strength and resiliency in the technology stack. I’m grateful that I work with great people and appreciate all the support that we have from the community.

MeriTalk: What do you think will change in our government and our society moving forward as a result of this pandemic? What are some things we might do that are new, and what are some things that we might stop doing?

Cote: I think telework has been normalized in government and every other sector. Many people, myself included, were skeptical of telework years ago. There was a trust issue. I think we’ve broken through that barrier. I think a lot of people might never go back to the office. In government, I think we’ll have a hybrid. I hope the government can look at it as an opportunity to rethink where employees are based and how organizations are modeled. I hope the General Services Administration or Office of Management and Budget is looking at whether we can send some people home and eliminate some of the cost of physical structures or leases. I think that would be a logical step.

And I think we’ll continue to look at this new reality as an advantage as it relates to talent. One of the greatest challenges is attracting top talent from the private sector to work for the government. That’s because generally government doesn’t pay as well and oftentimes we tell people they have to move to Washington, D.C., where the cost of living is very high. I hope this makes us think about having top talent work for the government, but from outside D.C.

MeriTalk: How might you and your team function in a world that does not have the regular tech industry conferences? How would you envision interacting with industry – finding out what they have going on, looking at products, meeting people?

Cote: Conferences are a great platform for meeting people, hearing about and seeing new ideas, and personally and professionally recharging yourself. I’ll take this opportunity to publicly apologize to everyone who is emailing me and reaching out to me through LinkedIn to talk about a product or a solution. I would love to respond to everyone, but the volumes just don’t make that possible. These are the people who I would normally meet at conferences and we could have a conversation. There’s just something about shaking someone’s hand and hearing their story, whether they’re a brand-new startup or they’re an established company. I’m going to hold out hope that conferences return.

Read other Federal success stories from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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