Enough with convention already

A look at seven individuals for whom the unconventional is second nature

Behind most unconventional ideas, there are unconventional thinkers. But everyone has moments of inspiration when they see things in a different light. The real unconventional thinker — someone who looks at the world from a different perspective as a matter of course — is a much rarer breed.

Federal Computer Week editors recently canvassed the federal information technology community to find those people in government and industry who have a reputation for unconventionality. They may not be the doers who grab the spotlight and make things happen. Instead, they are often the ones behind the scenes who ask, "What if ...?" and "Why can't we ...?" Others sometimes respond to their ideas with hostility; unconventional thinking is not always a ticket to popularity.

The group we have selected is not exhaustive, but rather it is meant to be representative, a subset that provides some insight into the unconventional mind-set and its value to the community.

Robert Cook: Ahead of the curve

No one disputes that Robert Cook, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of secure messaging company Sigaba, is smart. His history with Systems Center, WebMethods and now Sigaba — all of which are industry leaders — proves that.

But his ability to spot trends well before other market analysts do places Cook outside the norm, according to those who know him.

For example, Cook started Systems Center in 1981 to provide software utilities for IBM's VM operating system even though IBM officials told him those weren't needed, said Tom Hewitt, who founded market research firm Federal Sources in 1984.

Within eight years, Systems Center was quoted on the New York Stock Exchange, and Cook eventually sold the company in 1993 to Sterling Software for almost $180 million.

"Thousands of people may have been able to see that need," said Hewitt, who has known Cook for 30 years. "But they didn't, and he did."

Barry West, chief information officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Cook's advantage is the product of intelligence and strategic thinking from a technical perspective. The latter likely gives him that crucial edge.

"He asks the right questions, and he knows how to come back to you and fit a solution to the issues and problems," West said. "Most people who are in their 60s don't have a clue technically, so that's key."

It's not all smooth sailing. Hewitt suspects that Cook, whom he described as a voracious reader and quiet thinker, gets bored relatively quickly with the day-to-day needs of running a company. He gets his kicks from looking ahead.

"There are sales people who respond to [requests for proposals], and there are those who go in and write RFPs with clients," Hewitt said. Cook "is someone who goes looking for the guy who will have a requirement in a couple of years' time, so he can build something that will be way out in front of the pack."

Brand Niemann: Just enough nerve

If you were to peruse his résumé, you would probably assume Brand Niemann has a Type A personality and is a go-to guy.

In the federal IT community, Niemann is closely associated with Extensible Markup Language initiatives. Interested in XML since the technology's inception, he has helped pioneer the use of XML in government as chairman of the CIO Council's Web Services Working Group and leader of several projects. He is also co-chairman of the Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice, which focuses on technologies that can link information stored on multiple Web sites.

But behind this public persona is an innovative thinker who is not afraid to push people in new directions, according to his colleagues.

In his role as a technology leader, Niemann can see lines between points that most people miss, said Ralph Hodgson, an executive partner at consulting firm TopQuadrant who has worked with Niemann.

"He makes connections between ideas," Hodgson said. "He's open to new ideas [and] has an ability on the operational side to be inclusive, to give people a listen."

By challenging the status quo, Niemann helped XML gain a foothold in agencies, colleagues say.

"It's a lot easier to think innovative thoughts in anonymity than it is when you become known," said Owen Ambur, chief XML strategist at the Interior Department. "The challenge for Brand now that he's become well-known is to continue to think and act innovatively. There will be, and I'm sure there have been, pressures on him to conform."

Mark Forman, who oversaw e-government projects at the Office of Management and Budget before leaving last year to accept a position at a private firm, recruited Niemann for early test programs.

"He was one of the guys really focused on leveraging open standards like XML," Forman said. "That was critical not just for

e-government but for many of the missions of government."

Niemann has not always had an easy task, Forman said, as innovators rarely do.

"In the area that Brand is working, there are a lot of creative people with good ideas," Forman said. "Some people get won over and some get threatened, and that's the nature of change."

"It separates people into two groups, people who support you and people who oppose you," Niemann said of his work. "I've had a lot

of opposition, but I didn't do it just to be different. I did it to do the right thing. I don't go around trying to think differently than everybody else."

Arthur Cebrowski: Thought leader at large

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski loves to put his ideas into play.

He is widely known as the father of network-centric warfare. He earned the moniker after writing an article describing his vision for incorporating technology in battle operations for the January 1998 issue of Proceedings, a monthly magazine published by the Naval Institute.

It was a classic Cebrowski approach to exploring new fields, said Thomas Barnett, a professor at the Naval War College and author of the best-selling book "The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century."

"He engages in data-free research," Barnett said. "He reads widely, thinks horizontally and looks for patterns. He then proposes an idea based on that approach."

Cebrowski's reputation helped him get a job with the Bush administration. In 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld formed a new organization to help Pentagon officials rethink their approach to warfighting. Cebrowski had recently retired as president of the Naval War College. Given Cebrowski's reputation, it made sense to put him in charge of the Office of Force Transformation.

Cebrowski's brilliance also results from his ability to listen, said Jerry Tuttle, a retired Navy vice admiral who led the service's IT efforts in the 1990s but now heads his own aerospace and communications consulting firm, JOT Enterprises.

"When he listens, he listens with empathy," said Tuttle, who met Cebrowski 40 years ago and later chose him to oversee IT customer service for the Navy fleet. "He then thinks about his ideas. And if they are bad ones, he'll flush them."

One of Cebrowski's first initiatives as director of the office involved improving the military's logistics. He dubbed the effort "sense and respond." He sought to use technology to sense when troops' fuel, ammunition, water, food and hygiene supplies get low and respond by automatically ordering more of them.

Barnett cited another example of Cebrowski's creative thinking: When he first worked with Cebrowski at the war college in 1998, the big concern was fixing the Year 2000 date problem on government computers and networks, which had some serious implications for national security.

But Cebrowski started thinking along other lines. As seen during the Year 2000 effort, computer systems worldwide are becoming increasingly networked. Beyond fixing the computer bugs, he wanted to know the national and international security ramifications of such connectivity.

By publishing his thoughts, Cebrowski gets comments from people he might otherwise not meet, and then he refines his thoughts. "If you [are] ambiguous, people come to you," Barnett said.

Ken Heitkamp: Problem solver

When Air Force officials need fresh ideas for solving technical problems related to acquisition management and policy, they go to Ken Heitkamp.

Air Force and industry officials said they turn to the service's assistant CIO for life cycle management and director of the Air Force IT Commodity Council because his solutions anticipate future military technology scenarios.

"He is curious and always looking to learn," said Frank Weber, director of the new Operations Support Systems Wing in the Air Force's Electronic Systems Center. They worked together last year, when Weber was executive director of the Air Force's Headquarters Standard Systems Group and Heitkamp was the organization's technical director.

"He understands the area and finds ways to get to the next level," Weber said.

Military and industry officials who refer to Cebrowski as the father of network-centric warfare could call Heitkamp the driving force behind the One Air Force, One Network initiative announced last November. That effort streamlines how the Air Force acquires and manages hardware, software and services, Weber said.

Heitkamp helped shape the IT Commodity Council concept. Weber said the council's efforts have saved $6 million to date — money Air Force officials can use on other IT initiatives, such as adding more data links to aircraft. Heitkamp also helped start the Java Center of Excellence at the Headquarters Standard Systems Group.

Weber said Heitkamp realized that Air Force personnel were graduating from the service's technical school without the skills necessary to operate in the military's evolving network-centric warfare environment, so he helped devise a three-week course in programming languages and object-oriented and Oracle database design.

Heitkamp's humility also serves him well, said Phil Butler, who heads his own IT consulting firm, Phil Butler and Associates. Butler recalled a meeting in 1997 that Heitkamp led with vendors. At one point, Heitkamp stepped away so the vendors could talk with one another and decide on a solution.

"He is humble enough to know that he doesn't always know the answer," Butler said. "A lot of people who get to that level in government show that they know the answer, and that really doesn't bother him."

Bob Dix: Eyes wide open

Pragmatism is not often a trait of the unconventional. But when everyone else is dodging problems or building a case for failure, the straight talker stands out.

At a recent roundtable discussion on cybersecurity, one participant complained that congressionally mandated policies for protecting information on government networks had become an expensive paperwork exercise, with some offices spending as much as $50 million and getting few real computer security improvements in return.

Then it was Bob Dix's turn to speak. And he wasted no words. "With all due respect," he said, "that's a gross misrepresentation of the current situation."

The former staff chief of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee then rebuked those who try to only pay lip service to the law mandating computer security throughout the federal government. "We have to quit making excuses and kidding ourselves about these artificial attempts to comply with the requirements of the law," he said.

It was classic Dix, say those who know him well. "He encourages people to take action, to make progress where they would otherwise be complacent," said Amit Yoran, former director of the Homeland Security Department's National Cyber Security Division.

That pragmatic approach is what makes Dix an unconventional thinker in the cybersecurity community, Yoran said. Some people in government treat security as an academic exercise, he said.

But Dix will not be back on Capitol Hill when the 109th Congress convenes this month. Last fall, his boss, subcommittee Chairman Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), made the jump to the House Rules Committee, and shortly thereafter Dix announced he was leaving government to become vice president of government affairs and corporate development at Citadel Security Software.

Nevertheless, their legacy is an amendment to the Clinger-Cohen Act requiring federal agencies to factor computer security into all of their IT planning and purchasing decisions.

"Dix has done a yeoman's job by taking a strong stand on reform, by questioning our leaders," said John Weiler, executive director of the Interoperability Clearinghouse's Architecture Resource Center. "Are they pursuing real IT reform or putting lipstick on the pig? With Putnam gone, Dix gone, who's going to take over the leadership?"

Jeanette Thornton: Staying flexible

Late in 2003, all was not well with the e-Authentication initiative. Federal officials were uncomfortable with the technical architecture behind the effort of verifying citizens' electronic identities. Privacy watchdogs were raising concerns about the centralized authentication gateway involved in every application.

But often people "get behind a particular direction or an objective, and they don't listen to alternative approaches," said Tim Young, associate administrator of e-government and information technology at OMB. Changing course requires an often difficult public admission that a project isn't working out as intended, he added.

Overseeing the project at OMB, however, was career civil servant Jeanette Thornton, who does not think of herself as an unconventional thinker. She's simply someone who "won't accept just doing it the way we've always done it," she said. Thornton supervised the e-Authentication initiative from the start as portfolio manager and said it became her job to convince her peers "that we needed to take a new approach."

Under the initiative's original design, all transactions had to pass through a single federal node before an identification could be verified with a private credential provider. Now there's nothing in the middle. Authentication is "a private transaction between your credential provider and the applications," Thornton said.

And the procedure is standardized, meaning commercial vendors can develop off-the-shelf software that works with the system. Project staffers say encouraging private-sector development will drive down costs.

"Jeanette is the one who led the charge," Young said. No one person makes a project happen, but Thornton gained support from the management team at the General Services Administration and "internally in OMB, which is not easy," Young added.

"It was a group effort," Thornton said.

"She didn't do it by herself," agreed Glenn Schlarman, chief of OMB's Information Policy and Technology Branch. "Yet she was still instrumental to the success, as were a lot of folks at GSA as well. ... The way she tackled that is the way she tackles everything. She does think outside the box."

Wagner's rules for the unconventional

Marty Wagner is an accomplished out-of-the-box thinker, former and current colleagues say, with a reputation for solving problems in unconventional ways.

"He would always consider new things," said Phil Kiviat, a consultant at Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik and Associates, which advises companies on how to do business with the federal government.

When vendors approach the General Services Administration with unusual ideas, Kiviat said they often hear the response, "We don't know how to do this; it's not the way we've done things. Let's go talk to Marty about it."

Wagner, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy, says he doesn't mind being labeled an out-of-the-box thinker. But he insists that unconventional thinking is not a mysterious capacity. Like anything else, it has rules.

Rule 1: When we are sure we're right about something, we should think more until we discover a way in which we are wrong. "It's a good exercise," he said. But it is more than that; it's being open-minded.

Rule 2: If something appears difficult, he said, we should try to find a way in which the same problem or solution appears simple.

Rule 3: We're much less in control of things than we think we are. "A lot of being successful has to do with people or organizations outside our direct control, but they make the difference between winning and losing," he said.

"A lot of things that really matter depend on what Congress does," Wagner said. "If you have some idea of how Congress looks at a problem, you can imagine where they're going to come in, and then you can see how the solution will get modified."

Rule 4: Good ideas are often discovered where the boundaries of the domain we are most familiar with touch the boundaries of a domain with which we are less familiar, Wagner said. That discovery often happens when people collaborate with others unlike themselves.

Rules aside, however, Wagner said he is convinced that the actual merit of an idea is less important than how an idea is presented to others.

"You've got to treat people well," he said. "It's amazing to me how often one discovers one's mother is right," he said, adding that "it really is important to say please and thank you, and that's probably more significant in being successful with an idea than what the actual idea is."

— Florence Olsen

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