In his first public appearance as CIO of the U.S. federal government, Steven VanRoekel talked about his strategy for tackling the biggest IT bureaucracy in the country.
The main thrust: weed out inefficiencies, reap cost savings, and change a fiefdom culture to a sharing culture through exciting new technologies such as cloud computing, XML data, mobile and Web services.
"Never before have we had such tools at our disposal," says VanRoekel. "Technologies like cloud, mobile, Web platforms, and servers have matured to the point where they can now play a key role in transforming every aspect of government."
VanRoekel calls this his "shared first" initiative that spans best practices and commodity IT. The initiative expresses itself most notably in cloud computing and the consolidation of data centers. His goal is to shut down 472 duplicative, underutilized data centers by the end of next year, en route to shutting down 962 by the end of 2015.
Yet how does a CIO make real progress amid enormous challenges?
VanRoekel, former managing director at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, succeeded Vivek Kundra to become the second U.S. CIO in history. Only two months into the job, VanRoekel was soon in awe of the sweeping federal IT landscape.
"At some point, it's incomprehensible," he told me.
So he decided to build on the progress already made under Kundra's watch. Like Kundra, VanRoekel hopes to trim the fat and get rid of redundancies wherever he finds them through technologies like cloud computing.
"By taking a hard look at government IT projects over the last two years we've already cut project costs by over $3 billion, and at the same time accelerated the time to get usable products up and running," he says.
VanRoekel, who spent 15 years at Microsoft, is no stranger to streamlining complex processes and simplifying costs. I interviewed him five years ago when he was director of midmarket solutions, Windows Server at Microsoft. At the time, he was helping to eliminate price disparities in Microsoft's convoluted licensing program for midmarket customers.
The key to IT sharing, of course, is to change the stovepipe culture that permeates federal IT. VanRoekel says he must strike a balance between pushing people and inspiring them to make changes.
"Culture is the hardest thing to overcome in any organization," he says.
One way of doing this is to give incentives, often in the form of money. The U.S. CIO has oversight of federal tech spending, including at non-civilian agencies such as the Department of Defense. "The biggest incentive lever in the government is budget, controlling spending and funding behaviors you want to see," VanRoekel says.
Savings from shared practices can be rolled back into IT projects as added incentive, insists VanRoekel. He gave an example of a geological research effort to put expensive systems into homes—home owners opt in for this program—to monitor even the slightest earthquake and other ground movements. By tapping the cloud for the backend, savings will be used to put even more systems in the field.
What about people who want to keep things the same?
"There's a great business for someone," VanRoekel jokes. "Create a front plate of a server with blinking lights on it but no hardware behind it. People can look at it and say, 'There's my server.' Then we just virtualize it and put it all somewhere in the cloud."