by Niel Nickolaisen

CIOs Counsel Vivek Kundra: Advice for Obama’s New Federal CIO

Mar 09, 20096 mins
Government IT

In the first of a five-part series running this week, we're sharing tactical and strategic advice for Vivek Kundra from CIOs in the trenches. Today's author: Niel Nickolaisen, CIO and Director of Strategic Planning at Headwaters.

Is there anything more irritating than unwanted advice? Somebody thinks they have knowledge, experience, or perspective that will really help you when, in reality, they lack the context; they don’t know or understand the personalities, political nuances, or constraints of your situation. Yet, they spout off and you feel no obligation to take their advice seriously.

More CIOs Give Advice to Kundra

Check out the lessons learned that our other authors have to share with Vivek Kundra, the first federal CIO. Remember your customer, says Thomas Murphy, Senior VP & CIO for AmerisourceBergen.Don’t underestimate the importance of your advisors, says Mykolas Rambus, CIO of Forbes Media.

I thought of unwanted advice when I read that President Obama had appointed the federal government’s first ever CIO, Vivek Kundra. In his announcement, President Obama said that the goal of the CIO is “to work to ensure that we are using the spirit of American innovation and the power of technology to improve performance and lower the cost of government operations, As chief information officer, he will play a key role in making sure our government is running in the most secure, open, and efficient way possible.” (For a look at what Kundra has already done in government IT, see’s profile of his Google Apps rollout in the District of Columbia.)

After reading the announcement, my first thought was, “Dead man walking.” But, then I started to think about all the good that Mr. Kundra can do in this role. Then, I started to think about what I would do if I were in Vivek’s position. Since the following is what I would do, it is clearly not unwanted advice.

Make the Better Both Comfortable and Familiar

One of my CIO peers was once tasked with consolidating the IT spread across 26 separate state government agencies. Even with the strong and vocal support of the governor, this CIO did not make progress and finally quit in frustration. I asked him about what surprised him most about the resistance he encountered. He said that the active resistance was easy to deal with. What tripped him up was the passive resistance. Many of the state agency department and IT heads knew that they could wait out this big change initiative. They would come up with excuses for not taking action. They would find reasons to do additional analysis. The passive resisters knew that eventually the governor would seek a different office and that the legislature would move on to other priorities. They just had to bide their time.

What would I do in such a situation? When it comes to grueling change management issues, I recall the words a very wise man once told me:

“People prefer the familiar to the comfortable and the comfortable to the better.”

What would this mean for me as the new CIO of the federal government? I suspect that many of the federal agencies and their personnel are very familiar with their current IT. Even if their current IT is not comfortable to use (for example, some of the ancient systems at the IRS), it is not enough to offer them a more comfortable system.

And, if they are comfortable with their current IT, it will not be enough to show them a “better” alternative. In order to get the agencies and employees to adopt and embrace “better” processes and systems, I need to make the better both comfortable and familiar. How do I do this? With small and rapid pilots. This means that I need to resist my natural attraction for big, put-the-organization-at-risk initiatives. With so much change to make, I need to ease into the better. Taking targeted, small steps not only makes the better both comfortable and familiar, it also creates a cadre of agencies and personnel that become evangelists for the “better”.

Focus on The Right Relationships

A few years ago, I met with some of my CIO peers to talk about the critical success factors for a CIO. As we reflected back on our own successes and failures, we agreed that what made a successful CIO was relationships. But what relationships? Based on our experience, we decided that our relationships with our CEO and our staffs were important but that the relationships we most needed to nurture were those with our management team peers.

After more reflection, I have decided that this makes sense. The CEO’s (or President’s) perception of IT will ultimately be based on the organization’s perception of IT. And who determines the organization’s perception of IT? The functional leaders. So, if I were the CIO of the federal government, I would develop very specific plans for how I would form relationships of credibility, integrity, and trust with the cabinet and agency heads. I would spend a significant portion of my time with them, understanding their goals, wants, and needs. If the agency leaders see IT as a partner that can help them achieve their goals, I might just have a chance to succeed.

Build and Use a Network of Nerds

The best thing I have ever done is to seek out and ask advice of my successful CIO peers. I call these people my “network of nerds” and they have saved me from multiple failures while showing me how to succeed. When I have a question about process, technology, or leadership, I ask my network of nerds. Were I the new CIO of the federal government, I would find and filter an informal group of advisors that I could rely on in those situations when I just did not know what to do.

As unwanted advice, this might not be much help. But, these three tactics have helped me in the rough and tumble world of demanding, demeaning and rewarding enterprise IT.

Niel Nickolaisen is the CIO and Director of Strategic Planning at Headwaters, Inc. He has held technology executive and operations executive positions; typically in turnaround roles. He has developed a strategic and tactical alignment model that significantly improves returns on technology and business initiatives (by both improving the benefits and reducing the costs and risks). He holds a MS in Engineering from MIT and a BS in Physics from Utah State University. He writes the “Practical CIO” column for the CIO Leadership Network and a “how to” column for Search CIO. He is the author of an Addison Wesley book on Agile Leadership scheduled for release in 2009. He is one of the founders of Accelinnova, a think tank focused on improving organizational and IT agility.