FlipSide: A few minutes with...James Van Derhoff
James Van Derhoff, the State Department’s chief information officer, stepped down last month after 33 years with the department and 41 years as a federal employee. Beginning at State as a radio technician, then as a senior Foreign Service officer, Van Derhoff has had a career that took him to every continent, except Antarctica. He and his family have lived in places as far away from the United States as Karachi, Pakistan, and Montevideo, Uruguay.
In an interview with Federal Computer Week before he retired, Van Derhoff talked about his government service, accomplishments, love of travel and future plans. Why are you leaving now?
I’ve seen too many people stay too long. It doesn’t get any better than this. I am at the top of my game. I’m leaving on a high note. What are you most proud of?
We started a mentoring program that I think will be one of my legacies.
Another thing we have started that is gaining momentum is information technology consolidation.
When I took the job, even desktop PC support was done by 32 different bureaus. We expect to gain a lot of economies of scale and benefits from standardization.
When I came onboard almost two years ago, the project to revamp the department’s internal messaging system had been deemed a failure. We re-engineered it, and I’m happy that we are now in a pilot program, and it has been deemed a success.
IT security is another one I am proud of. When we took over, we had gone yellow on our way to red for [e-government] on the President’s Management Agenda score card. We went from yellow to green. What were the biggest challenges coming in?
Because of the federal budget process, if you don’t plan ahead two years in advance you are trying to do things without a budget. We had to find money. It was frustrating that I couldn’t make things happen faster than they happened. I was a little frustrated by the bureaucracy and changing the way people think. What would you tell young people considering a career in government?
If you join the government to get rich, you are making a big mistake, but it’s not all about money. My career in the government has been tremendously rewarding to me. Life in the Foreign Service is amazing — to be able to live in all of these environments. I couldn’t have bought that. You can’t go on vacation to that many places. What do you think you’ll miss most?
The people. I’m going to leave with mixed emotions. I’ve spent half of my life in this organization. I know thousands and thousands of people around the world. There are amazing people in the foreign and civil service. When you wake up retired, what do you think you will want to do?
I’m not the kind of guy who can sit in a rocking chair. I’m young enough to have another career.
Once I retire I’ll be pursuing another career and that could be in IT, or it could be in something else. Certainly my strengths are in IT, but they are also in leadership and management. I would like to think my global experience is probably pretty valuable to someone.
Now that I’ve finished my turkey, I’m starting to put my résumé out there.