by Thor Olavsrud

USPTO digital transformation rests on culture change

Sep 01, 2020
Digital TransformationGovernment ITIT Leadership

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office CIO Jamie Holcombe has overhauled the federal agency's IT culture as part of its digital transformation.

Jamie Holcombe, CIO, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Two years ago, a database corruption issue at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office brought parts of the agency’s electronic filing system down for several days. The IT platform that the Patent Application Locating and Monitoring (PALM) system depended on was nearly two decades old.

The USPTO IT team got PALM up and running on a brand-new server platform within a few days and noted the new platform was 1,000 times faster, 20 times more efficient, and far more stable than the previous one. The incident also spurred the agency to take a fresh look at its IT systems from top to bottom, particularly with respect to stability, resiliency, and security. It hired Jamie Holcombe, a long-time veteran of both the private sector and government, as its new CIO to see the process through.

“My mandate was to make change. It was to get the resiliency of the organization to its proper level,” Holcombe says. “The patent office had experienced a number of key outages prior to my arrival. Those outages could have been prevented through the right architecture and the right operations.”

Holcombe notes USPTO had been plugging away at an infrastructure overhaul and transformation for several years before his arrival, so his job was to reenergize IT and create a sense of urgency. About 18 months into the overhaul, Holcombe has shifted IT from a “project” focus to a “product” focus. He has divided IT into four product lines: patents, trademarks, back office (finance, HR, legal, supply chain, etc.), and IT and infrastructure (the common services within the IT realm).

Each product line is subdivided into eight product teams, each of which has a product owner from the business unit. That’s a big deal, Holcombe explains, because business units own the business value they derive from the team’s efforts.

Holcombe calls it USPTO’s “new ways of working.”

“I’m creating a whole new culture such that we can challenge all the old ways of doing business so that we can become better, cheaper, and faster,” he says. “That’s my criteria for metrics. It’s a commercial way to look at things and I’m asking them to do it in 30-, 60-, and 90-day sprints.”

If they fail to complete their sprint objective, that’s OK, Holcombe says, because failing fast is just as important as succeeding long-term.

“When you fail fast, you know what not to do again,” he says. “There’s such a problem with the government that they keep on doing these yearly things. The commercial world teaches us that you’ve got to get it done in the quarter. And if you can’t get it done, readjust, adapt, learn the value of sunk costs. Don’t throw good money after bad.”

Facilitating change

Another key benefit of Holcombe’s organizational makeover is that product teams own every bit of a new application from conception to maintenance, which means they need to consider how to maintain operations when they create new functionality. There’s no throwing it over the wall to make it another team’s problem.

“You have to make sure you take care of the operations and maintenance along the way so you can retire the technical debt and you can upgrade when needed without affecting the whole timeline,” Holcombe says.

Like many CIOs seeking to transform their business, Holcombe says culture change has been a challenge.

“The biggest problem I’ve identified is scaling with expertise,” he says. “When you’re picking the first teammates at any softball game or kickball game or whatever, you always take the best athletes first. We’ve done that, and now we’re picking people who may not be 100 percent ready to embrace the new ways to work. We’re hoping they are, and we’re trying to show them this is a better way to do things, but you do have a certain reticence about change.”

Getting people who are leaning forward to be on your side is easy, Holcombe says, but getting the “solid middle” to come along is much harder. Here, leading by example is key, as is finding individuals who share common values with you so you can bring them along and let them “walk the talk” as well, he says.

“The other big thing as far as bringing people along is to talk to those folks who’ve never been heard,” Holcombe says. “Rally people around the mission. Understand how what they’re doing affects the mission. Help them feel pride about how they contribute every day to the mission of the USPTO.”

The most important thing, he says, is to really listen to what your team members have to say.

“For leaders and managers, to think that they have the best ideas is so inept, it’s incompetent,” Holcombe says. “You need to ask your folks how to do things better. Your job as a leader is to lead, it’s not to come up with everything.”

Holcombe says he was nearly at the tipping point with that “solid middle” when COVID-19 hit and everyone went home.

“We’re still continuing our efforts, but it’s a little harder to do,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the point where we can get back in as a group and a team.”

That said, the past 18 months’ focus on the security and stabilization of USPTO’s core infrastructure has helped make the remote work transition nearly seamless. With roughly 13,000 staff across the U.S., the USPTO operates both a network operations center (NOC) and a security operations center (SOC) that run 24 hours a day, year-round.

“We have to ensure that our 13,000 staff have access to and can operate the tools they need to do their jobs,” Holcombe says. “We don’t assume that anybody’s just doing a nine-to-five job. We have people nationwide, and a lot of examiners like to do work in the middle of the evening.”

A big part of that security and stabilization focus has been applying automation to the NOC and SOC with the help of machine learning and robotic process automation. Holcombe points to efforts to reduce alerts caused by false positives and automating security compliance tasks as two big wins on that front.

“We had 100 percent mandatory telework,” Holcombe says. “Everybody was out. Now we have almost 96 percent telework. So, we’re maintaining almost 14,000 simultaneous VPN connections every day. We have over 1,200 WebExes every week with 40 or more people on.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, USPTO has experienced only one break in service, which was caused by an authentication server going down.

“Hardware. It happens. We replaced the hardware within three hours and had it up and running,” Holcombe says. “However, because of the scale that’s needed, this one server, when it tried to get back in the cluster, the other servers in the cluster thought they were being attacked and wouldn’t let it in. We had to take every one of them down and then we could actually bring everything back in less of a denial-of-service pattern.”

Beyond security and stabilization, USPTO IT has also started leveraging machine learning to provide examiners with new tools. The agency issued its 10 millionth patent in 2018. It has augmented its patent end-to-end search tool with machine learning to help examiners search not just for the context of words that may be in a patent filing, but the context of concepts.

“That’s really a great leap forward where you don’t have to think about all the words that may be associated with something, but rather you can search on the concept of those words.”