Milking CIO role for success

Growing up on a dairy farm in the Midwest taught Roger Baker, the chief information officer at the Commerce Department, a thing or two about hard work.

"When you wake up at four in the morning and it's January and it's 20 below zero outside and you're going to be working for the next four hours before you go to school, that's a pretty tough environment," Baker said, recalling his life growing up in Michigan, where 16-hour workdays were the norm.

Things did not exactly get easier for Baker after he graduated from high school and found that he could make good money pounding spikes into a railroad line during the summer. "I had a very simple job description: Take this 12-pound hammer and hit this spike and—to use a computer term—recurse on that routine," he said. The job, which paid $13 an hour in 1977, covered the costs of his college education at the University of Michigan.

Baker said his experiences on the farm and the railroad gave him a sense of perspective that should serve him well as the CIO at Commerce, overseeing a $1 billion information technology budget. "My attitude is, 'I know I don't want to go back to that kind of environment, but I know I can,' " he said. "It doesn't scare me to do that kind of thing. There's nothing about any job I've had that scares me."

That is not to say there are no immediate challenges in store for Baker, who was appointed CIO at Commerce about six months ago. There is, of course, the Year 2000 problem and ensuring that the department has its systems ready for the date change. Also, the Census Bureau is under great pressure to execute a successful and accurate national head count next year.

But perhaps the biggest challenge Baker sees is persuading people to accept change. For example, he is considering seat management and outsourcing --buzzwords that create a certain amount of consternation among some employees. "We have a responsibility to make certain we are doing things the right way," he said. "And if there are better ways to do it, we have a responsibility to look at that and see how to do that. The whole reason I'm here is to cause positive change to occur."

Baker is accustomed to working in the private sector, where companies must keep pace with change or go out of business. He was most recently an electronic-commerce analyst at the Meta Group for five months. Before that, he served as a vice president at Visa International, where he was responsible for the creation and operation of the Visa Online Banking system.

Baker said he was attracted to the CIO job primarily for the opportunity to manage a $1 billion IT budget. "We spend on IT what a Fortune 50 company spends," he said. "And the people are the kind of people you look to work for—real honest, straightforward and extremely bright."

But there are some things that will take getting used to. Baker found that his private-sector management style did not mesh with the way the government operates. "In the private sector, most actions occur bottom up," he said. "Good people come up with good ideas, and they sell them through management. In the government, most actions, from my experience, occur top down. That's tough. As an individual, you can't do everybody's job."

Still, Baker believes that he brings a lot to the table, including enthusiasm, business professionalism and the combination of a marketing and technical background. "I wouldn't call [those characteristics] unique, but that's the particular package that God has blessed me with," he said.

"I was going to say this was the way I developed, but I started out this way," he added.

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