Leading the way

Office of Federal Student Aid

It all adds up. The multiple degrees, including a master's in accounting and technology management. The years in industry upgrading financial systems. And the passion for modernization.

Stephen Hawald seemed destined to lead the information technology revolution at the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA).

But as is often the case with fate, Hawald didn't see it coming.

"Government?" was his response to recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International's pitch to bring him to FSA. "I wanted to be politically correct," he explained recently, smiling. So despite reservations, he met with the feds.

And was swayed.

"I could come and make a difference and it was a noble mission," he said.

Congress established FSA as a performance-based organization in 1998. Meeting its mission — to put America through school — meant the office had to reinvent itself and, in turn, re- engineer its computer systems to eliminate the burdensome paper process long associated with loans.

That's where Hawald entered the picture, specifically as chief information officer.

"I love modernization and turnaround projects," he said from FSA's new digs, a building downtown whose inside captures the spirit of a modern loft with exposed rafters. Not your typical federal work space. Then again, not your typical cyberspace.

With help from Accenture, which won the FSA modernization deal, Hawald's team got 14 different systems talking with one another and created three "channels" to customers for the more than 33 million students, 8,000 schools and 4,600 financial partners the office serves.

"You've got this mess that had just happened over 30 years," and cleaning it up was like transforming the Exxon Valdez into a fun cruise ship, he said.

When he arrived at FSA, just 10 percent of the students seeking aid filed applications electronically. Today, 50 percent do.

As other agencies continue to grapple with their legacy systems, FSA is looking ahead to Web services and grid computing.

So how did Hawald emerge in front of the federal pack? The perfect blend of experience hasn't hurt.

Hawald got his start working part-time as an auditor in college while majoring in electrical engineering and accounting — that's after graduating from high school at 16. To pay for his schooling, he took a $3,600 loan from the federal government. There were "tons of paperwork and then the scare of would you ever get it," he recalled.

Two master's degrees and part of a Ph.D. later, he was upgrading Vitro Laboratories' old data centers to the latest IBM Corp. mainframes in the chief financial officer's office. "I had to get people onto new equipment without crashing and burning."

He spent time at other firms along the way and eventually left a job at UnitedHealthcare Dental Managed Care to join the public sector, where he relies heavily on lessons from his industry years.

"In the federal space, you don't find clients like Steve Hawald every day," said Jeff Rogers, director of the federal software group for IBM, which is a partner of FSA's. "At IBM, we've been remarkably impressed by Steve's vision and by his willingness to apply commercial-sector best practices to FSA. He's helped prove that e-government truly can learn from e-business."

To stay fresh, Hawald networks with IT colleagues from a mix of industries and countries. Still, some things never change. He continues to work from the center of a virtual Venn diagram with circles for accounting and IT.

According to his peers, that marriage is a success.

***

The Stephen Hawald File

Position: Chief information officer at the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid.

Age: 51

Family: He is married to Florence Grant Hawald and has a son, Michael; a daughter, Katherine; and two dogs, Mr. Jack and Nikki.

Hobbies: International travel, European cooking, golf. Ask him about: His secret white wine pasta dish.

Advice from the information technology highway: "It's a never-ending journey. Have a good road map, have fun while you're doing it, stay customer-focused, look for technologies that don't fit and always be looking out three years ahead."

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