The Federal IT Papers–Part 13


Editor’s Note: The following story is taken from a book-length work authored by a senior Federal IT official currently working in government. This is one part of an extensive, firsthand account of how IT decisions are made, the obstacles standing in the way of real change in government technology management, and what one career Federal IT employee really thinks about the way government does IT.

Because the author is a current government employee and is concerned about the impact this may have on their career, we’ve agreed to publish this series of weekly excerpts under the author’s chosen pseudonym—Demosthenes.

MeriTalk has agreed not to make substantive changes to any of the chapters.

— Dan Verton, Executive Editor


Invest in Leaders

I have already railed against the mind-set of the USDS people coming in with a supersized superiority complex. Still, I must concede that someone sent a jet to the West Coast to bring them here for a reason. There is a perception that the IT leader on the East Coast is inferior to one from the West Coast. Alternatively, there is a perception that there aren’t enough good IT leaders here in the Washington, D.C., area. This is complete bullshit, of course. Before Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley there was AOL, NexTel, and MicroStrategy, which were some of the dot-com titans, each started in the D.C. metropolitan area. Later, companies like Mandiant and LivingSocial also started in this area. So I would argue that there is a very strong innovation presence in the area but for some reason people still think that SV is the hub of tech innovation.

Of course, I strongly disagree with this position but nonetheless some people think it is reasonable. So here is my take on what we need to do. We need to eliminate the perception that there is a deficiency by growing our own IT leaders. If you are or will be a CIO, YOU have a responsibility to establish a program that will cultivate your replacement. If you are reading this stuff because you aspire to be a CIO someday, you can do much of this stuff on your own without a formal program.

My thinking is simple. Eliminate the need to import IT leaders by developing our own. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be bringing in people from outside the government in its entirety. It is good to get new ideas and embrace diverse thinking. The problem is that we seem to have a singular focus on bringing these people in. But importing all of our leadership from a 15-mile radius around Silicon Valley is not diversifying our thinking. In fact, it is the opposite. We are battling against the perception that everyone who was in IT in the Federal government before 2014 is shit. When I watch a TED Talk featuring Haley Van Dyck1 lamenting the fact that a working mom has to take time to complete an application for food stamps and that this represents the problem with Federal IT, I cringe.

I don’t just cringe because she is trashing the career Feds, I cringe because in her statement, it is crystal clear that she doesn’t understand the program. This issue, like many issues in the Federal government, is more nuanced and complicated than it first seems. For example, in the food stamp program, which incidentally isn’t called food stamps anymore, it is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. But while Congress created this program, the Federal government funds it and the states actually run it. So in applying for the program that working mom isn’t applying to the Federal government; instead, she is actually applying to the state that administers the program where she lives.

My point in citing this case is that the people who have been working to deliver IT capabilities from within the Federal government already know and understand these complexities. This surface appeal to our emotions is a sham. Are we better off with people who understand and appreciate the complexity of the program that Congress designed, or are we better off going back to square one and relearning all of that stuff? It is clear how I would respond to that question, but nonetheless the issue still remains that there is a perception that the current crop of Federal IT leaders aren’t good or there aren’t enough of them. So let’s take that challenge on.

Back in the olden days of like 2004, there really weren’t enough leaders with the skills to be CIOs in the Federal government. There were people who were good IT directors and good at certain functions but very few people with the breadth of skills and experience to manage what we now recognize as the full suite of IT needs, including portfolio management, infrastructure management, security, policy, and budgeting. To help address this gap, Karen Evans and others got together to develop CIO University. This was a program to which colleges and universities could apply, and their graduates would receive an additional certificate indicating a minimal competence with aspects that seem to be important to being a CIO. Unfortunately, it was ineffectively managed by GSA and was eventually shuttered. But not to worry because now one can’t throw a rock without hitting at least 15 colleges and universities that offer master’s degrees in CIO-related fields. Thus the need for an additional incentive is nullified.

I went through one of those programs, and it was very good. It cost me about $35,000, but it was very good. I still keep in touch with several of my classmates from that program (now bunches of years later). But as a GS-14 going through that program, with a vast majority of the class made up of the contractors who supported government programs, I became a little resentful. Working through the HR office at my agency, I received a grand total of $4,000 to offset the costs of the program. My classmates from BAH, NG, PwC, IBM, etc., had most or all of the tuition paid by their employer. This makes good business sense for those companies. They are able to bill that person at x dollars per hour without a master’s degree, but with the degree they will be able to bill that person at x+ (25 to 50) dollars per hour. Additionally, they will be able to lock that person in to their company for three years. Thus by increasing the billing rate by $25 per hour, the firm will make an additional $141,000 over three years for a $35,000 investment.

But government agencies aren’t motivated by the bottom line and the billable rate of its personnel. So while that equation may work well in the private sector, it has some translation issues in the public sector. But I think there are some scenarios in which government organizations have made substantial investments in people and it has proven to be effective. I look at the example set by the Department of Defense. Each service implements this a little differently, but the principles are similar. They invest in specific and discrete training. Things like basic training and advanced infantry training are those initial instances in which we ensure basic competencies. Officers go to Officer Candidate school. Then there are about a million different special interest training opportunities like Airborne School, Ranger School, SEAL training, etc. Add to that all of that the opportunities in which the service pays for external educational programs and it is easy to see that they make a substantial investment in people.

But why? They are in the general building business. Hmmm. Let me say that again. They are in the business of building generals. We don’t need very many generals (and admirals), but the ones who achieve those ranks need to be awesome. Awesome doesn’t grow in the wild, it has to be nurtured. All of this training, both supplied by the service and education supplied outside of the service is intended to develop the skills, and competencies necessary to be successful at the subsequent step on the career path. In the Army, for example, as you move from lieutenant to captain to major to lieutenant colonel and finally to full colonel, each step has competencies and experiences that must be attained in order to progress to the next rank. The investment, especially the investment of external education (college or university program) is made to both deliver the necessary competency, but also as an incentive to continue to the next rank.

Take the example moving from lieutenant to captain. You just get promoted to a captain, now we make a plan to give you the knowledge and competencies to achieve the rank of major. We’ll pay for you to get a master’s degree, about $35,000 or so but you must commit to stay in for 3 more years. You get the degree and by the end of the third year you can leave, but, assuming you have done well, you are probably only a year or two away from making the rank of major. As such the incentive mounts for you to stay and achieve that rank. Once you do, the army works to train you up to be a lieutenant colonel and the process begins anew.

At each step along that process the investment in the soldier is greater and greater, but with each step along that process the value that he or she provides back to the organization is greater.

Now you as a CIO are not building generals or admirals, you are building CIOs. We need to create opportunities for people to accumulate the knowledge and experiences necessary to be an effective CIO. One thing to keep in mind is the fact that a soldier can start anywhere and achieve the rank of general or admiral. You can be infantry, a helicopter pilot, or even an escalator repairman and still get there. The path will be different for each person, but the knowledge and competencies at each rank are generally the same.

About Demosthenes
Demosthenes is a pseudonym for a senior Federal IT official.
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