FBI CIO’s Mission: Modernize

When he joined the FBI from Lehman Brothers, Chad Fulgham inherited an obsolete IT infrastructure and major project on the brink of failure. Two years later, agents have BlackBerrys and SharePoint, but the work isn’t finished.

Five years and $405 million into the FBI’s effort to create an all-digital case-management system for its special agents, it’s clear how far the Sentinel project has slid off the rails. According to the inspector general at the Department of Justice, many promised functions remain undelivered and defective code inhibits the use of some of the pieces of the system that are already in the FBI’s hands.

But FBI CIO Chad Fulgham insists Sentinel, which he inherited when he joined the bureau in December 2008, isn’t doomed—even though independent reviewers estimate it could take another eight years to complete, at an additional cost of $453 million. To save it, the former Lehman Brothers IT executive is battling what he calls “old guard” thinking and a federal bureaucracy that he says is “nuts.”

Sentinel is a big problem, but it’s just one of several Fulgham faced when he arrived. He was surprised to also find outdated technology, 200 open IT positions and a convoluted federal purchasing process.

Like any new CIO, in government or the private sector, Fulgham had to assess what was working and what wasn’t, triage immediate problems and build relationships with colleagues who could support his long-term agenda. Congress and various government oversight groups want action, just as a corporate CEO and board of directors would, observes Charlie Feld, CEO of the Feld Group, an IT turnaround consultancy.

Feld, who has been CIO at Delta Airlines, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad and Frito-Lay, says that upon starting a new job, a CIO carries the most political capital he’ll have for the next two years. And he needs to spend it “even if it pisses people off,” Feld advises. “Senior executives can take bad news. They just can’t take not knowing or continuous streams of bad news that build uncertainty.”

In the past two years, Fulgham has drawn heavily on his political capital, using his corporate experience to bring the latest IT-management techniques and new technologies to the FBI. This includes collaboration software, mobile applications and a modern network infrastructure. Nowhere has Fulgham spent more of his political capital, however, than on his remediation plan for Sentinel. With support from FBI Director Robert Mueller, Fulgham has restructured parts of the original project agenda. He has, for example, traded traditional sequential software development for agile methods and will replace a Sun Solaris platform with virtualized Red Hat Linux servers.

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