John Gioia: Program management innovator

John Gioia, who broke new ground in information technology-related program management while working with the Air Force, then took his experience and evangelizing skills to other federal agencies as a private consultant, died of cancer Dec. 26. He was 76.

Along with Jack Robbins, Gioia co-founded the project management consulting firm of Robbins-Gioia in 1980, serving as chairman, president and chief executive officer. Both men were Air Force veterans — Gioia retired as a colonel, Robbins as a major general. They launched the business in Gioia’s home in Alexandria, Va., and it grew into a prominent player in the federal IT community.

Avon James, a former president of Robbins-Gioia and a retired Air Force brigadier general, said Gioia took management disciplines developed for weapons systems and applied them to information systems, which was a revolutionary approach at the time. While still in the Air Force, Gioia served as program manager for the service’s Phase IV program, which was created to upgrade computer systems at more than 100 air bases around the world. 

As part of the Phase IV acquisition strategy, Gioia employed a fly-off, selecting two vendors from the larger field of bidders to compete head to head for the final contract. Although the Air Force had conducted fly-offs for weapons programs, “that had not been done heretofore on IT projects,” James said.

In fact, some observers were skeptical about the idea because it added another $120 million to the cost of the acquisition, James said. But “John was a disciple of competition,” he said. He knew that “competition being competition, in the long run it pays off.”

Emory Miller, a senior vice president at Robbins-Gioia, said Gioia established and expanded the company just as the discipline of program management was maturing in the federal government. Gioia saw the need for program management services and could translate that into a business strategy, said Miller, who joined the company in 2004.

But there was more to it than that, Miller said. “John was good at what he did because when he was in government, he realized he could improve government and help it do its mission successfully,” Miller said. “He wanted to continue that legacy when he changed his career.”

Gioia’s influence in the federal IT community was significant as well.

“Where many have their individual effects on parts of our community, John set a level of excellence in helping others to enjoy success, and not just in his company,” said Robert Guerra, co-founder of the Guerra, Kiviat consulting firm.

Gioia stepped down as president in 1997, turning over operations management to longtime employee Tony Baggiano. He retired as CEO in December 2002.

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