Meet the Nation's First CIO

Vivek Kundra's track record indicates a discipline for project ROI and a passion for making cool technologies useful.

By Galen Gruman
Fri, March 06, 2009

InfoWorld — In a surprise announcement, President Obama has named  the nation's first federal CIO: Vivek Kundra, CTO of the District of Columbia. (He has yet to name the position he did promise he would create: the first national CTO.) So who is Kundra, and what might his appointment mean for the federal government's direction for and spending on technology? As the federal CIO, he will oversee a US$71 billion IT budget and manage technology interoperability among agencies. Kundra told a press conference that he will investigate how the government might improve its technology investments and make more information accessible to citizens through the Internet. He's done both as D.C.'s CTO.

The District of Columbia has been a leader in smart deployment of technology for years, boasting a succession of strong CTOs. Under Suzanne Peck's tenure, previous to Kundra's, D.C. was among the  first to use SOA to rationalize software development efforts, to use XML to make government  operational data open for mashups, and to deploy  next-gen wireless technology for public safety and other agency usage. Kundra became CTO in 2006 and quickly staked out his own innovation focus.

As D.C.'s CTO, Kundra has emphazied what he calls a stock-market approach to IT project management and the adoption of consumer technologies in business. Both approaches come from the same epiphany he recalls having: The technology most users employ at work is kludgy compared to what they use in their daily routines, even though consumer technologies are often less expensive or even free. "For some weird reason I cannot understand, the way we organize ourselves at work is so much less agile than what we do in our personal lives," Kundra told InfoWorld. "Why not use consumer technology at work?"

The IT "stock market"As D.C.'s CTO, Kundra hired a team of analysts to track projects -- in the style of a financial analyst -- on a daily basis. Smaller projects get bundled into "funds" of related efforts. Pretty quickly, the successes and failures were obvious. For example, the analysts discovered that a three-year enterprise content management project had made little progress and was run by project managers who had four previous failures. "It was not going anywhere. So I decided to 'sell' the stock -- I killed the project -- and put that capital elsewhere," Kundra recalls. In this case, he redirected the money to add mobile laptops to police cars.

The stock metaphor made sense to more business-minded leaders at the district, but Kundra admits he had to really sell the concept to most employees and the 87 agency heads served by his team. "It was an education," he notes drily. What really sold the concept was the result: lower cost due to fewer long-burning misfires.

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