by Sarah D. Scalet

Darwin John Takes IT Reins at the FBI

Feb 15, 200314 mins

On the five-minute morning walk from his Washington, D.C., apartment to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover building, Darwin A. John, the bureau’s new CIO, thought about his upcoming interview with this reporter and made himself a promise: “I’m just going to talk specifics.” Infrastructure upgrades. A virtual case management system with multimedia capabilities. A data warehousing project with advanced search functions that would help the FBI “know what it knows,” and thereby prevent intelligence failures like the ones that led to 9/11.

But despite his best intentions, that’s not what happens. By 9:30 a.m., John, a slightly rumpled, deeply jowled elder of the CIO profession, is talking about how the FBI needs to think “holistically,” how law enforcement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security can work together to find “simplicity on the other side of complexity,” and how having a philosophical bent could work to his advantage at an agency that worships action, not thought.

Got all that?

“I’m talking about three things at once, which I always do, because that’s the way I think,” says John, 64, who’s tall (5 feet 11 inches) without seeming so (he hunches) and speaks authoritatively in a quiet voice. He has clear blue eyes that he veils and unveils by taking off and putting on his eyeglasses throughout the day. “For me,” he says, explaining how he thinks about his plans to remake the FBI’s IT, “there’s a canvas, and we’re painting a picture, and we’ll draw a little tree here or rock there. I don’t start at the top and work to the bottom. That drives some people crazy.”

What remains to be seen is whether it will drive Washington crazy enough to prevent John from completing his picture. The FBI is not known for valuing introspection, yet on July 8, after an extensive national search, it chose this compulsively thoughtful and unassuming man, and charged him with transforming this almost mythical agency from a Keystone cop shop into an IT-powered hive of supersleuths. As one of FBI Director Robert Mueller’s most prominent appointments after 9/11, John, former CIO of the Mormon Church and Scott Paper, has put his neck on the line in a way few federal government CIOs ever have.

He didn’t do it for the money. The position was advertised at between $125,972 and $138,200 a year for a person who, as the recruiter who led the search puts it, “could be pulling down his $500K.” John and his wife of 45 years, both lifelong Mormons, left their home state of Utah last July so that John could move into a bare office in the seventh-floor executive corridor known to FBI insiders as Mahogany Row.

Now, instead of gazing out his window upon the mountains of Salt Lake City and the desert valley that Brigham Young transformed into Mormon country, John sees the terra-cotta roof of the Department of Justice, a building surrounded by tall fences and stern guards. This new view is a harsh reminder of the war on terrorism?and the intense pressure on the bureau to protect the people of the United States.

The Father Bear

In 1983, at Scott Paper, John became one of the very first people to be called a chief information officer?a title he worried people would interpret as “an ego thing.” At the same time, he began expanding the borders of the discipline. He wanted to move from IT into general business management. “Some days I say it’s cruel and unusual punishment that someone would have to be responsible for a data center for three decades,” he says. But as it worked out, he introduced business management into IT and in that way became a gentlemanly forefather of the CIO profession.

“Darwin taught us how to be CIOs. You watch what the Father Bear does,” says Steve Finnerty, board member and former president of the Society for Information Management (SIM) and a former CIO of Kraft Foods, who first suggested to a recruiter that John would be a good candidate to fill the position vacated by retiring FBI CIO Bob Dies. “Darwin has as an ability to stay in touch with people,” Finnerty adds. “I still get a note from him every once in a while telling me how proud he is of me.”

Finnerty is not the only one who has watched and learned from the Father Bear. One of the CIOs who gets a chipper note from time to time is John’s own son, Steven, CIO of farm cooperative Agriliance in St. Paul, Minn. (See “Unto the Second Generation,” Page 71.) Another is Steve Edmonson, vice president of IT and CIO of the Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health’s Oral Technologies division, who, with Finnerty, worked for John at Scott Paper.

“There was a time when I thought that good guys could not be successful, and that to get people’s attention you had to curse and swear and put the fear of God in them,” Edmonson says. “Then I saw Darwin and found another type of role model.”

John works in subtle ways his wonders to perform. When leading a meeting, he sometimes avoids sitting at the head of the table, the better to encourage his subordinates to express themselves. He likes to ask his direct reports, “In one word, tell me how you feel today,” in order to gauge the mood of the organization. “He’s not the kind of guy that Carly Simon sang about, watching himself in the mirror,” says Cliff Higbee, director of the management information center for the Mormon Church, who reported to John for a dozen years. “He does not raise his voice.”

When meeting with vendors, John politely seizes control without employing overt aggression. “One of the things I’ve said to vendors over the years is, Don’t come and sell me something,” John says. “Come and sit with me, and I’ll tell you what I’m trying to do. We will discover together what makes sense and where we fit.”

John hasn’t yet dared to play musical chairs at the FBI (he hasn’t been there long enough to begin toying with the symbols of his new authority), and federal procurement regulations prevent him from having such frank conversations with vendors. (“Somebody already counseled me: You can bump your head on that one a long time, and maybe you’ll just get a bad headache,” he says.) He knows he doesn’t fit the profile of an FBI honcho. (It’s hard to imagine a manager at the FBI asking an agent how he feels.) He knows he’s something of a misfit. “Being here a few weeks, I feel enormous pressure to fold into doing things the way the bureau does things,” John says.

“My choice is not to do that.”

A “Burdensome” Bureaucracy

John’s choice in this matter of leadership style will simply make a hard job harder. When observers and John himself describe the FBI position as “the Everest of IT challenges,” they’re not exaggerating. After 9/11, the public started to wake up to what FBI insiders and policy wonks had known for years: The bureau’s technology operations were dismal. Newspapers reported how field offices had to share photographs of the 19 hijackers by overnight mail. More disturbing, the perfect vision of hindsight suggests that with better tools, the FBI might have been able to prevent the terrorist attacks altogether.

Agents testified to Congress that the bureau’s decade-old case management system?green-screen technology that relies on keystrokes rather than a computer mouse?would let them search for the word flight or schools but not flight schools.

Visitors to the Strategic Information Operations Center (SIOC), where the 9/11 investigations were coordinated, encountered a bewildering sea of papers being faxed and re-faxed to other offices on dozens of fax machines. “I think we both came away tremendously impressed?in a negative way” is how one of those visitors, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) described his trip to SIOC with another member of the House Appropriations Committee. In June testimony, Mueller himself said the bureau had a “paper bureaucracy” that was “torturous” and “burdensome.”

Then, more than a year after 9/11, during the sniper investigation in the Washington, D.C., area, the same problems cropped up again. Three different command centers were set up with unconnected LANs. Not that information was likely to be entered in any of those systems with any alacrity. According to FBI chronicler Ronald Kessler, the license plate number of the two men who were eventually arrested was written down 11 times by police near the crime scenes but never matched or flagged by the FBI’s cranky computer systems. “It was a total wreck,” says Kessler, whose most recent book is The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI.

He and others blame former FBI Director Louis Freeh for the sorry state of the FBI’s IT. “The first thing [Freeh] did when he came into office in 1993 was to have the computer in his office taken out,” Kessler says. “That really tells you everything you need to know about why the technology is in the Stone Age.”

Congress, weary of funding modernizations that never came to pass, simply pulled the plug on the FBI’s computer projects and let agents go about their business the old-fashioned way with pens, notepads and guns. But when Mueller took office a week before 9/11, he decided that things needed to change. “Bob Mueller is very tech-savvy, totally the opposite of Freeh, and the first thing he did was start ordering thousands of Dell computers, so now everyone has a new PC,” Kessler says. “They got rid of the old stupid machines.”

Mueller also started bringing in people like W. Wilson Lowery, who was instrumental in Lou Gerstner’s dramatic turnaround of IBM in the mid-1990s. As executive assistant director of administration, Lowery is in charge of the FBI’s reengineering. Since June, he’s been plugging away at everything from streamlining the travel process to shortening the amount of time it takes to hire a new agent. Most of the projects involve IT.

“Lots of the issues here are the same as at IBM,” Lowery says. “It’s the NIH factor: not invented here. If it wasn’t invented here, then it must not be right. I will tell you, from a reengineering point of view, that there is usually no one gold nugget that you just do, and it makes everything better. It’s lots and lots of little things, process changes, and sometimes big changes.”

Despite the easy North Carolina lilt to his voice, Lowery is every bit as aggressive and tactical as John is unassuming and conceptual. “Darwin is kind of philosophical,” Lowery says, describing their diametrically opposite leadership styles, “and I’m down here trying to figure out how to survive until lunchtime.”

A Reputation on the Line

When John isn’t prefacing his remarks by saying, “I’m going to go conceptual on you again” or “Allow me to go on a tangent,” he describes his technical priorities at the FBI this way. First come infrastructure upgrades, including new PCs and network upgrades, scheduled to be finished sometime this spring. The end result will be a GUI system with enough bandwidth to carry multimedia files. Second is the new “virtual case file” software, which will replace physical case files with virtual ones that include photographs, audio files, news clips or anything else easily digitized and uploaded or downloaded. That has a target completion date of December 2003. Collectively, this project is known as Trilogy because it includes applications, hardware and network capabilities. Its price tag is $379 million.

The third, longer-term project is a data warehousing initiative that would tie together various FBI databases. Eventually, this would be a platform that could give investigators from different agencies access to FBI files on a secure, need-to-know basis.

Meanwhile, some 23 million FBI documents?all the past files to date?have been scanned, and about 8 million of them run through an optical character recognition scanner so that eventually they’ll be accessible through the new computer systems.

In many ways, this kind of transformation recalls what John accomplished at the Church of Latter-day Saints, according to the recruiter who led the FBI’s search. “Darwin was central to the application of technology to transform the Mormon Church into a global organization and a real global community, with everything from advanced videoconferencing to a very sophisticated Web portal,” says Robert McHale, managing director of Korn/Ferry International in Los Angeles. “None of that was in place before he came. They are a very conservative organization, and he was able to really bridge the communication divide in terms of the value of technology in helping the Mormon Church achieve its mission.”

The capstone of John’s work at the church is its genealogy records: a group of seamlessly linked databases, containing 900 million names, that help Saints, as Mormons call themselves, find ancestors who they believe are in spiritual limbo and need to be baptized into the faith by proxy. Today its search engine gets 8 million hits a day and will find “Mohammed” no matter how you spell it?exactly the kind of sophisticated name recognition capability the FBI needs to domesticate the information in its wild and woolly computer files.

John, however, bristles at the notion that he was hired because of his achievement in creating the Mormon database. “I hope I was recruited specifically for my capability as a CIO rather than…. Let’s talk about it conceptually,” he says, interrupting himself. “I would be worried if anyone said we recruited a CIO in order to get knowledge from one company into another.”

But if nothing else, the database testifies to the fact that despite his mild-mannered insistence on the theoretical aspects of the CIO job, John can get things done. Real things. Technical things. Big things.

“Darwin looks like he would be a pushover for some in-your-face aggressive consultant talking mile-a-minute,” says Dick Dooley, a former CIO at First National Bank of Chicago and at Colonial Penn Insurance in Philadelphia, who helped found SIM in 1968 and has known John for three decades. “But it’s not true. Darwin knows how to pull the trigger. He’s not a pushover. He’s quite capable of dominating a meeting, but he’s not dying to do it.”

As for whether John can make wheels turn inside the beltway, well, that’s another story.

“He’s not a Washington insider, so he’s going to have to get some good advisers in that area,” says Christopher Baum, vice president and electronic government analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. John still hasn’t passed the major test of speaking before Congress. He admits that he’s still struggling to find that delicate line between what he can say publicly about his work and what’s classified. But, then, he did manage to maneuver successfully within the Mormon Church for more than a decade?an organization known for being intensely political, intensely hierarchical and intensely private. “John does understand politics,” Baum says, “so it might be that he’s the right guy for the job.”

If he lasts long enough to prove himself, that is. “Maybe [people at the FBI] would feel better if they’d hired some athlete with a strong ego need,” Dooley surmises.

But as far as John is concerned, different is good. “Let me quote my wife’s father, who is 95 and still going strong. He says, ’If two people think exactly alike, there’s no need for one of them.’ I think it’s clear that my style is not the predominant style at the bureau. It’s probably fair to say that I think about things differently than many do here, but that’s probably been true in every setting I’ve ever been in. And, by the way, I think I’ve built a successful career on thinking about things differently.

“I’ve always been comfortable with who I am, and if somebody thinks I’m soft and that’s bad, then I’m sorry,” he says. “They have a problem.”