- By Judi Hasson
- May 17, 2004
For technology-savvy federal employees, it can be tempting to step through the exit door and join the private sector, where the pay is better and the opportunities for advancement are more plentiful.
The door, in fact, is more of a revolving one, as industry executives cross to government in search of different experiences and to satisfy a yen for public service.
However, people on both sides of that door will tell you the view is not always better on the other side. Sometimes it's not easy to land in the right place, and there will be times that you don't find what you're looking for. (See Michael Lisagor's column, Page 40.)
Those who have made the transition have advice about what to do. More importantly, they can tell you what to expect when moving from the comfort of a federal job to the high-stress world of private industry or when leaving the high-paying private sector for the bureaucracy of the federal government.
"The transition to the private sector is something a government person has to be careful of," said Roger Baker, former chief information officer at the Commerce Department. "Far too many companies will hire people for who they know and not what they know."
Baker has gone in both directions. He worked for the Visa International Service Association before joining Commerce and then returned to the private sector for a job with CACI International Inc. Recently, he joined General Dynamics Network Systems.
Federal employees should be wary of jobs offered by someone who wants to take advantage of their government contacts, Baker said. Often, those contacts will get new jobs as well, rendering the Rolodex obsolete.
Unless they do the right research, such as finding out what the work is really like, former federal information technology officials may find themselves hopscotching from job-to-job until they find the one that fits, he added.
On the other hand, executives seeking to serve in the federal sector for altruistic reasons, or to get different kinds of experience can find themselves stuck in a bureaucracy they never envisioned, Baker said.
Mark Forman has worked for Unisys Corp. and IBM Corp. in the private sector, and Congress and the White House in government. He describes the federal IT space as a unique community with relationships that make it easier to go in and out of government.
Those relationships stem from government's dependence on industry for so much of its technology. "It is essentially an outsourced industry," Forman said. "Just like the Defense Department can't build weapons without the defense industry, the federal IT community is dependent on the private sector."
Forman left Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s because he felt he had gone as far as he could at the time. He returned to oversee the Bush administration's e-government efforts for two years because he saw an opportunity to induce change. Forman is now head of worldwide services for Cassatt Corp., a new software company aiming for a frontline position in the emerging market of autonomic computing.
No one denies the culture shock that occurs in moving from one workplace to another, and no one says it is ever easy.
One of the biggest differences is budgeting, according to Renny DiPentima, president of SRA International Inc. He joined the company in 1995 after retiring as the Social Security Administration's deputy commissioner for systems.
"In the federal government, the downside is that you are inheriting someone else's budget that was written two years ago," DiPentima said. In the private sector, he warned, you are accountable only to stockholders.
"I can rework my budget and redirect the dollars in a matter of weeks," DiPentima said. "I am not inheriting something chiseled in stone." He knows the transition to the private sector can be difficult, which is why his company typically gives former top federal officials a few months in different parts of SRA to find the right fit.
Alan Balutis, a longtime federal IT executive who joined the private sector last year as president of Veridyne Inc., said there is always one telling sign when a federal IT executive is thinking of moving on. "When someone showed up at a leadership conference for the first time, I thought, 'Oh, they're thinking of leaving,' " Balutis said.
With this kind of advice in mind, Federal Computer Week asked a variety of IT executives how they coped with the changing landscape, moving from government to the private sector or in the other direction.
A different mind-set
Alonzo Short retired from the military 10 years ago as commander of the Defense Information Systems Agency. When he began helping a small company called Mica Systems Inc. build its government practice, he realized that he had left a place he had called home for 32 years.
"I realized it was not going to be a cakewalk," Short said. "I was no longer in the military. I was in a completely different
At DISA, he had a staff of more than 100 people. "When I became a civilian, [it was] the first office I opened, and I was the only person in there," he said. "My wife came in and helped for a little while, but she certainly wasn't going to be commanded by me."
Short, now president and chief operating officer of Houston Associates Inc., a high-tech engineering firm in Arlington, Va., learned some important lessons. He doesn't want to go back to military life even though he treasures his experiences there, but he knows many people who did return.
"I have seen people who come out in the private sector, were not able to make the adjustment and went back into the government," Short said. "Some of these men and women had not adequately done their homework on what to expect. You go from having a staff and aide de camp to just having yourself in the office."
"I have a basic philosophy about life," he said. "I never had a job I didn't like, but I never had a job that I wanted to go back to. When I made up my mind it was time to retire, I came into the private sector with my eyes open."
In reality, he said, the private sector was an easier job because all he had to think about was selling products and services, not about the welfare of hundreds of people under his command.
His advice is simple: Before making any move, think about it. Learn as much as you can about the area you want to go into and talk to people who have made the transition to find helpful hints that might make the transition easier, he said. "Be focused and understand you are no longer in a world where you know moment-by-moment what's going to occur."
A change of pace
Betsy Steele was already a mainstay in the federal IT arena when she took her first job with government. She spent 20 years working for government contractors, mostly for Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin Corp., but also for Informix Corp., which was later gobbled up by IBM, and BroadVision Inc.
Steele is now comfortable in the federal government, after she joined the General Services Administration's Federal Systems Integration and Management (Fedsim) program, which is part of the Office of IT Solutions, in 2002.
At first, Steele said she was impatient when she took her federal job because she didn't have a specific assignment and was eager to find demanding ones.
"Perhaps the most challenging aspect was being assigned to sit on the bench while going through the initial training and orientation, not knowing what team [civilian, DOD, Air Force or others] I would be assigned to and not knowing who would be my supervisor," Steele said.
Although the transition was not easy, she began to realize the benefits of her new job. For starters, the training she went through was awesome, she said. Also, the technology she is using is state of the art, and she has been doing "some very challenging, satisfying projects in a very positive work atmosphere."
Steele is most happy about leaving the private sector because she no longer has to worry about the bottom line. "The understandable attitude that's in industry is that it's all about the bottom line, and the bottom line is profit," she said.
She misses her friends in the private sector, but she doesn't miss the drive for the buck. Knowing what she does now, would she have left her job in industry? "You betcha," she said.
To do: Buy white shirts
Bob McFarland has a grand view of the nation's capital that includes the Washington Monument from his office at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA's chief information officer, he has an office 12 times the size of the cubicle he had at Dell Inc., where he was vice president of the federal sector. But that's not the only thing he likes about moving to the public sector.
A longtime Dell executive, McFarland was used to seeing government from the outside looking in. He enjoys the change he has made at the end of a long and successful private-sector career.
"I'm used to having a profit motive €" return on equity," McFarland said. "To be able to move into an environment where the mission is just as strong makes it easier."
McFarland had culture shock when he returned to work in government. The Texas native worked for a number of private companies before joining Dell in 1996. After his his retirement in 2002, he spent a year fly-fishing and skiing, but the attraction of returning to the government sector at the VA was too good to pass up.
"My father was a veteran, my father-in-law was a veteran, my grandfather was a veteran," said McFarland, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War. But things are different in government now. "I had to go buy a bunch of new white shirts," he said. "Coming out of the IT sector, we were business casual everyday. I had to go buy a bunch of suits, ties too."
McFarland decided not to get rid of his cowboy boots €" standard footwear for a Texan. "On the right occasion, you will find me in them."
He hasn't been in the job long enough to comment on the bureaucratic environment, but he said that, compared to what he's used to, the government moves at a far slower pace.
"The speed of execution at which government moves compared to what I was used to is certainly different," McFarland said. "Dell's execution was absolutely the finest. The transition from Dell to government is certainly more severe than from companies that don't execute as swiftly."
But forget about government bureaucracy, tight budgets, rules and regulations, he said.
"You have to believe in what you are doing," he said. "This is not just another job. It's different here because you have to keep in perspective that you are doing this to give service to your country. I don't think you can look at government service in the same way as the private sector where there is better pay."
The challenge is huge. His day starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at
"I am eating at my desk a lot," McFarland said. "I'm drinking from a fire hose right now trying to learn everything. It's a huge agency with a lot going on. Just getting your arms around a portion of it requires a little bit of time."
His advice to anyone who wants to follow his path is simple. "You have to believe in what you're doing," he said. "You have to be sure and clear that is your goal. I'm doing it for a chance to give back. It's certainly not for the money."
Both sides now
Mayi Canales, who has gone from the private sector to government and back again, makes no bones about it: Government, from a manager's perspective, is not easy.
"Moving from the private to the public sector was much harder than moving the other way," she said. "There are so many things to learn in government."
Every decision she makes can impact every business and every citizen. There are thousands of rules about what you can and cannot do. There are limits on a supervisor's power, said Canales, former acting CIO at the Treasury Department and CIO of the VA's Health Care Network in the Midwest.
In government, she said, it's important to avoid risks and analyze the impact of every business decision on citizens.
"It's actually easier to promote public-sector change in the private sector," Canales said.
Canales is now chief executive officer of an 8(a) Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, M Squared Strategies Inc.
The private sector offers much more freedom to maneuver, she said, especially because you are so much more tied to a mission in the public sector. Budgeting is also more straightforward, "because when you get a project or program, it's funded and
approved. As a public servant, you work all the years prior trying to get the funding and approval for new programs," Canales said.
Working in the public sector comes with one big advantage: You are working to promote large-scale sharing across government €" breaking down the stovepipes. And that, she said, "was extremely fulfilling."