André Mendes: ‘Status quo’ is the CIO’s riskiest strategy

Mar 16, 2022
Government Government IT Hiring

Maintaining the status quo ensures constant decay in your ability to respond to your environment, warns the U.S. Department of Commerce CIO.

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André Mendes stepped into the top technology leadership job at the Department of Commerce in April of 2020, just a few weeks into the global pandemic.  His responsibilities and oversight include all the technology and operations for the Department of Commerce and its 13 associated bureaus, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institutes for Standards and Technology, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Among the many honors that Mendes has collected across an incredible, multifaceted career are an MIT Award for IT Innovation and induction into the CIO Hall of Fame.

CIO’s Maryfran Johnson caught up with Mendes on a recent episode of CIO Leadership Live. What follows are edited excerpts of that wide-ranging conversation. Watch the full episode embedded below to hear more of Mendes’s insights.

On fostering collaboration in a diverse organization:

The challenge with having a cadre of bureaus that are so diverse, and some of them so large, is that you cannot assume a completely centralized role and expect that you will have the agility necessary to move on a daily basis.  So, what you have to do is bring about an understanding of a shared agenda, an understanding of a shared desire to excel, that can be best achieved by leveraging economies of scale, by helping each other organize around very joint objectives, let’s say, and even leverage the strengths of certain bureaus to help other bureaus rather than having to depend on the Department of Commerce. 

I’ll give you an example [of how we leverage strengths].  NOAA has an internal organization that was necessitated by their geographic dispersion and massive bandwidth and networking needs called N-Wave.  And they are an exceptional organization that operates on the very edge of high-speed networking and reliability.  Well, it didn’t make any sense for all these bureaus to be contracting services from the private sector vendors when we had this internal player that was just rooted in extreme technical and operational excellence.  And so over the last two years or so, we have basically managed to migrate almost all of the bureaus into the N-Wave environment, not only dramatically increasing our throughput, dramatically increasing our resilience and reliability, but also dramatically reducing costs. 

On the risk of maintaining the status quo:

The status quo effectively, without evolutionary pressure, is ensuring that you’re constantly decaying in your opportunity or ability to respond to your environment.  And so for me, having an analysis of the end games, and then establishing a North Star, in terms of how you’re going to migrate to accomplish those end games, is the end all/be all of technological evolution, and it is an extension of biological evolution. 

I think that there are great lessons to be learned from that in terms of agility and ability to adapt being the crucial part about not only surviving but thriving in a very fast-changing technological environment. 

On hiring IT leaders who will make a difference: 

Whenever we’re going to hire somebody to a senior position, I want to interview that person as the last step.  Because I want to understand the motivation, I want to understand the adaptability, I want to understand the flexibility and the intellectual curiosity associated with that individual that is going to allow them to come in and completely upgrade the environment by virtue of their presence. 

I’m never going to hire somebody that is incredibly skilled, but when asked why they want to work for the Department of Commerce tells me that it’s because their commute is going to be a little shorter.  And I’ve had people tell me that.  Or that they are looking for getting to the next grade level.  Those are not the things that are interesting to us in terms of getting people on board.  And I think we have been very successful in attracting and retaining the kind of individuals that take you to the next level, that bring to the table maybe a little different angle or view into an environment that is less status quo, that is less established knowledge, and more about expanding the boundaries of that particular job or that particular job description.  

[In my own work experience] I have always wanted to select an environment where I didn’t know much about what they were doing.  But by virtue of coming on board with a fresh view, I could ask all of the stupid questions that nobody there that was on board dared to ask or thought about asking, because they were so steeped into their working environment.  So, by virtue of doing that, you can ask the questions that prompt actual change, not only to the organization, but often to the industry itself.  And if that change to the industry itself turns into benefit to the overall community, then effectively, by leading, you become a servant of a greater purpose, because you enable new paradigms, new ways of operating that are sometimes radically different and far more effective.