The new CTOs: entrepreneurs in residence

The need to keep up with the fast pace of new technology is prompting many agencies to assign chief technology officers as dedicated lookouts for online opportunities

Ask Todd Park what he does as chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department, and he doesn’t talk about fine-tuning server performance or keeping critical software applications up and running.

Instead, he’ll go on about the intricacies of change management or the best ways to build a culture steeped in innovation. He quickly begins to sound like exactly what he is: a former chief executive officer of a high-tech start-up.

“Friends from the private sector ask how I’m enjoying filling out all those forms in triplicate and going through 14 steering committees to get anything done,” Park said.

Instead, he tells them about the long hours and intense pace he experiences as he works to “lay the groundwork for the programs that never existed before.” In short, it’s a daily routine much like the one he experienced when he took his health care software business public.

In that respect, Park is getting what he bargained for last year when he first sat down with HHS Deputy Secretary William Corr to discuss the newly created CTO position.

“He said this is not a job where you run all the line operations with respect to technology," Park said. "This is a job where you are the entrepreneur-in-residence.”


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Being an inside-the-Beltway entrepreneur might be cutting edge, but it’s not unique. The push for entrepreneurial-minded CTOs has gained steam in the past 18 months. The catalyst is the growing recognition that the time and energy chief information officers must spend to manage huge staffs and IT operations leave few chances for them to be forward-looking.

A CTO can act as an organization’s dedicated scout for new technologies. However, CTOs often have a small or nonexistent staff, so after identifying and vetting new opportunities, they usually hand over the deployment and integration work to others.

The most prominent example of the entrepreneurial CTO is Aneesh Chopra, the federal government’s CTO, a position that carries the political clout of presidential adviser. Chopra is part of the daily senior staff meeting with National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and other members of the president’s inner circle.

At the agency level, the new breed of CTOs includes Park and Peter Levin, who became the first CTO at the Veterans Affairs Department last year. Levin had what he called a “peripatetic career in technology” before entering government. Part of his training for becoming an entrepreneurial CTO was “20 years' worth of thinking about technology 90 hours a week.”

An applied mathematician, Levin also studied electrical and computer engineering and computer modeling at Carnegie Mellon University. He later worked as a venture capitalist, founded and ran a semiconductor software company, taught at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, and was research dean at Boston University.

Entrepreneurial CTOs are also appearing at other levels of government. The position is becoming more common among states, and at the local level, where budgets might not allow for a CIO and an entrepreneurial CTO, some governments have a dual position that combines the two.

Bryan Sivak, founder and former head of a software start-up, took on a hybrid CTO/CIO position last year as the top IT person for the District of Columbia, a job previously held by Vivek Kundra, now the federal CIO.

Sivak reports to the mayor’s office and manages about 550 people at the district’s centralized data center. At the same time, he directs an internal research lab that scouts and prototypes new technologies, and he oversees new initiatives proposed by CIOs at the district’s various departments.

The number of entrepreneurial CTOs might be growing, but they’re all still working without any guidebooks for doing the job. “Most CTOs are winging it,” said Roger Smith, CTO at the Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation.

That’s because the more common CTO job description at federal agencies is still defined as a kind of deputy CIO who helps keep core day-to-day operations running reliably. That might include everything from helping CIOs prepare IT budgets and procuring hardware and software to supervising production systems and recovery responses.

“But because it’s necessary for there to be so much new technology injection into the federal government, in time, a majority of agencies will have" entrepreneurial CTOs, said Norm Lorentz, director of global public services at Grant Thornton. From January 2002 until late 2003, he served as CTO of the Office of Management and Budget after holding that position at the U.S. Postal Service and in private industry.

The Many Faces of Innovation

The new generation of CTOs is redefining the role in ways that challenge the cliché that government is slow to change.

“Many in the traditional IT community are looking at five- to seven-year projects," Chopra said. "I traffic much more in the 90-day increments.”

He brings this quick-win mentality to his mandate to find ways of using innovative technologies to help strengthen the nation’s economy, more closely connect citizens with the government, and promote government oversight and accountability.

His role includes acting as vice chairman of the White House's health IT task force, which was created earlier this year. He’s also part of an effort to create an electronic health record for military personnel that various doctors can access throughout the service members' lives.

At VA, Levin also seeks to expand health records for veterans. One project is looking for ways to capture data during overseas service that could qualify vets for additional benefits. “We are making it easier for the claims processors to be able to connect certain kinds of disabilities and illnesses to certain kinds of service,” he said.

In addition, Levin leads a VA effort to convert a paper-based claims processing system to one that uses electronic documents, which he said sounds mundane and tedious but is extraordinarily interesting.

“This is as much about cultural change and business process change as it is about technology," he added.

Park has been the point person for HHS’ response to the White House’s Open Government Directive and has been an active participant in health care reform programs. His role includes leading the Community Health Data Initiative, which is making some of the health information that HHS collects freely available in formats that promote its use by news organizations, application developers and others outside the agency.

Smith described his position at the Army’s simulation and training office as hunting for new technologies that should be part of the next generation of systems. “I try to look at the edge and see what I can put in front of the people who are going to turn it into a product,” Smith said.

CIO Collaboration

The focus on change management versus daily IT operations is just one of the differences between entrepreneurial and traditional CTOs. Another is that the change agents don’t typically report to CIOs but instead answer directly to agency leaders, as is the case for Park, Levin, Sivak and Smith.

But that doesn’t mean that entrepreneurial CTOs are off pursuing an agenda completely separate from the CIO and the rest of the IT organization. The relationship between CTOs and CIOs — who grapple with the here-and-now duties of updating, consolidating and integrating existing technologies — is necessarily close.

“The key is for an organization to delineate exactly where the overlap and touch points are for the two positions,” said Tom Greenspon, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. “But at the end of the day, it’s still all about data and the supporting infrastructure.”

Therefore, a CTO’s job is typically only partly about predicting the technology future. They must also evaluate emerging technologies in light of existing and anticipated mission requirements.

“Pre-eminently, it comes down to an understanding of mission and business needs that’s equal to or greater than how much you understand the technology,” Lorentz said.

After CTOs find a technology innovation that’s a fit for their agencies, they don’t simply hand off the adoption process to someone else.

“If I just carry the new idea into a meeting, expound on its benefits, and then drop it on the table for them to understand and adopt, it will almost always fail,” Smith said.

So CTOs typically stay involved to champion the technology by working with technical or research and development staff members to create demonstrations and prototypes. At the Army's simulation and training office, Smith, who doesn’t have a staff that reports directly to him, works with acquisition employees to write the request for funding to acquire a new system or update an existing one. The operations staff take over to perform the implementation only after the project secures funding.

A similar process unfolds at VA. Once Levin, VA CIO Roger Baker and department leaders agree to devote resources to a new technology, the CTO becomes the point person for ushering it into production using an internal process known as the Program Management Accountability System.

Levin, who has only a skeleton staff of about 10 employees who report directly to him, works with Baker to appoint IT department employees to create the project’s business specifications, do the necessary software development or hardware engineering, test prototypes, and launch the new technology.

The Challenges of Change

On the surface, living in a world of cutting-edge technology and endless possibilities sounds like a dream job. But replacing the old with the new can be hard given that the government has “a very difficult time turning the lights out on anything, especially when you put the political icing on that cake,” Lorentz said.

But even with a formal process in place, a CTO change agent isn’t always a welcome sight. “A guy like me who comes in with a relatively broad set of experiences in technology implementation looks a little bit like an antibody to folks who understand the agency’s business requirements really well,” Levin said. “To convince them that we are actually here to make their lives better frankly can be a long discussion sometimes.”

The answer? His nickname inside the agency is Jaws. “I clamp on and don’t let go,” he said. “In public service, there’s a premium put on being able to stay on message.”

Reader comments

Wed, Jul 21, 2010 John Weiler Alex VA

Timely article given the White House, Congressional and OSD efforts to drive Sustainable IT Acquisition Reform. Having worked nearly every side of the federal IT supply chain, I can tell you first hand that technology is never the problem, it is the culture, the processes and the "acquisition ecosystem" that has become too focused on compliance and the wrong type of risk avoidance. With IT program failure rates hovering at 80%, and 90% of all IT programs going to the big 6 SIs, we are on a death march that is bankrupting our country, while undermining core missions like Health IT, Cyber Security, IT Infrastructure, Info Sharing and e-Gov. It takes DoD on average 81 months to cycle thru their processes, with 25% of the budget on producing useless paper. Innovators like Dr.Levin, Parks, Smith and the like will have their hands tied if the acquisition community remains unresponsive and the processes are not fixed. OMB gets it, as evidenced by Peter Orszag's June 28th memo to agency heads entitled "“Reforming the Federal Government’s Efforts to Manage Information Technology Projects”. To help advance the President's management agenda, the IT Acquisition Advisory Council, a coalition of public interest concerns, is hosting a leadership forum on Aug 12 with OMB to detail the Roadmap for Sustainable IT Acquisition Reform. As Einstein would observe "insanity is continuing the same process over and over again and expecting different results". Hopefully both agency leaders and industry recognize failure to fix IT will have dire consequences, and chose to put country first. Vendors can still make money delivering on time and on budget.

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