Naba Barkakati: On your side
- By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
- Mar 06, 2013
Naba Barkakati is 'eager to empower' people, according to a colleague. (FCW photo by Zaid Hamid)
Federal workers usually dread an inquiry from the Government Accountability Office. After all, GAO reports often make negative headlines by calling attention to shortcomings in government systems and programs.
GAO Chief Technologist Naba Barkakati wants to dispel the notion of a GAO audit as a procedure to be dreaded and endured, the bureaucratic version of a root canal. He prefers to view a GAO inquiry as an opportunity to call attention to the improvements and changes officials would like to see in their agencies.
"The mistake agencies typically make is because of too much pride...thinking they have to defend their project," Barkakati said in a recent interview with FCW. "Without drawing blame to yourself, if you can identify the problems, you can use GAO as a vehicle for recommendations, which will then come to senior management in your agencies. Maybe they were not aware of it, and it can do your program good."
Along with GAO Chief Scientist Tim Persons, Barkakati leads the Center for Science, Technology and Engineering (CSTE) within the Applied Research and Methods team. ARM is one of 14 teams at GAO that are organized around specific subject areas, such as defense, financial management, health care, natural resources, IT and homeland security.
The center lends staff support to GAO audits and reports in three ways: as internal consultants to another team that is leading an inquiry (the most common engagement, with 60 to 80 projects a year); by leading audits that are technical in nature (one or two a year); and by conducting broad technology assessments, such as the recent report on cybersecurity (one or two a year).
Given that GAO is part of the legislative branch, almost every GAO report begins with a congressional request or a legislative mandate. GAO managers hold an engagement acceptance meeting to assign audits to a specific team and give them a priority level. If there is a technical element to an audit, Barkakati and Persons decide which of their roughly 40 employees will become part of the audit team. Those employees participate in meetings with the government agencies under review, ask technical questions and assess the answers. For example, a CSTE employee might join an audit on biometrics led by the homeland security team, or an inquiry into geostationary environmental satellites led by the natural resources team.
"There’s always a pipeline of work," said Barkakati, a soft-spoken man who is quick with his gentle smile. "I do like the fact that you get to see so many things all the time."
An ‘element of fate’
As a child growing up in Assam, India, Barkakati viewed the United States as the place to be, the country that sent men to the moon. An uncle paid for him to take an examination for admission to a boarding school in West Bengal, so he left home at the age of 9 to pursue an elite education. After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur with a degree in electrical engineering in 1978, he applied to graduate programs in America, with the main criterion being affordable application fees.
He ended up at the University at Buffalo, where he met his now-wife Leha, an immigrant from Vietnam. They married a year later and moved together to the University of Maryland, where Barkakati earned a doctorate in electrical engineering.
"I always thought I would stay in the United States," he said. "There’s some element of fate. You think like that a bit more, being from India."
Take the happenstance of a fellow Maryland graduate student being an IBM employee and getting Barkakati a discount on a personal computer in 1981, which gave him an opportunity to tinker and keep up with programming developments. That eventually led to him writing a tutorial on the C programming language in 1987, the first of more than two dozen books.
Then one of his professors hired him to work for his consulting firm and sent Barkakati to the Naval Research Laboratory to write software simulations as part of a project to defeat incoming missiles. In 1987, he became a federal employee of NRL and eventually moved to the National Weather Service to work on modernizing the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, which became one of his favorite projects. Amid rumors of possible staff reductions at NWS, he applied for an opening at GAO and was hired as an assistant director in 1997.
"Our core values [at GAO] are accountability, integrity and reliability," Persons said. "Naba embodies those values; he lives for those values as an IT leader. He’s very much a person interested in helping the nation do the right thing on IT [and] just generally technology issues. What gets him up in the morning is the idea that he works in a senior leadership position in arguably the most trusted agency in all of government, respected in terms of truth telling and [being] non-agenda driven."
Enthusiasm and credibility
When GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro hired Persons and appointed him and Barkakati co-directors of CSTE, some Beltway observers might have expected the men to fight over who would control the team. Instead, the second email message Persons received -- after the one from human resources -- was a note from Barkakati expressing his excitement about working with Persons, who soon realized that this was typical behavior for his colleague.
"He’s eager to empower and delegate to people," Persons said. "In conversations, he’s typically encouraging; he’s gracious. Even if somebody has done something colossally wrong, there’s a way he conveys that while preserving human dignity and building the person up."
Barkakati’s low-key management style masks a steely backbone when the time comes to make tough calls, according to his boss, Nancy Kingsbury, managing director of ARM. She cited Barkakati’s deft handling of a recent "tough personnel decision that required both institutional savvy and a certain amount of backbone to stand up to the pressures that were being brought."
He is open to new ways of doing things and enthusiastic about the work, so people typically respond positively to him, Kingsbury said. "He’s so knowledgeable about everything in the technical world that he has a lot of credibility," she added.
As a testament to his reputation, Congress called Barkakati to testify about the source code for electronic voting machines and 18,000 missing votes in a Florida congressional race during the contested 2006 election.
"There are many science and technology leaders who can have extremely large egos, so it actually gets in the way of getting the right thing done for all," Persons said. "Naba is the opposite of that, and I think that’s what makes him extraordinary."
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning journalist who covers money, careers and technology. A regular contributor to Fortune magazine online, she has also written for Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Times, Slate and the Washington Post Magazine. Find her on Twitter at @KatherineLewis.