Insider information

During the past two years, the Bush administration has hired a crop of new chief information officers hailing from industry, but a handful of CIOs prove there is still a place for career employees at the top of the information technology ladder.

These CIOs, with years of federal experience under their belts, clearly are bucking the trend. But it's their experience and inside knowledge of how the government works that have worked to their advantage.

"Folks in career positions who have been there for a long time and perhaps understand the various business lines clearly have a broader understanding of how the organization as a whole works [than] someone coming in from the outside," said Patricia Dunnington, who was tapped as CIO at NASA last month after serving as deputy CIO there.

Dunnington joined NASA more than 20 years ago and worked her way up though several capacities. The various positions she held gave her the necessary skills for the CIO position, which she described as a natural career progression for her.

"I've just been very fortunate to broaden my own experiences and gain experience and knowledge," she said. "I think that has helped position me to take this position."

Career CIOs can bring continuity, strong relationships and an understanding of the agency, and they have a greater stake in the department's direction, other CIOs said.

"If the government agency is very large, the learning curve can take two to three years," said U.S. Postal Service chief technology officer and CIO Robert Otto, who entered the public sector right out of high school and has been with USPS for more than 20 years. "Most private- industry professionals get frustrated with this learning curve, and they call this the political part of the job, but it is the part that if a CIO is to become effective, they must master."

Effective CIOs, whether from industry or government, set the tone for the department and facilitate change, Otto said. Career CIOs, he said, have the longevity to see projects through and know the business paths to make fast changes.

"Individuals with good work ethics, ethics, leadership, vision [and who] know the lay of the land and the people, can implement change, which has immediate results," Otto said.

Career CIOs can tackle agency problems from within, said Commerce Department CIO Tom Pyke. A 30-year veteran of the agency, Pyke grew into the CIO position through several senior management positions. All CIOs, he said, should have this type of experience on their resumes.

"He or she would know how to motivate federal agency managers effectively, helping them to give priority to IT management concerns," he said. "Such a person can work within the agency while at the same time being a change agent for the organization and for its culture."

Still, many see an advantage to hiring CIOs from industry who come in as political appointees. Because they are handpicked with ties to the president's administration, they can have more power and "a seat at the table," said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division. They often leave the department when the administration changes, however, "a trade-off that comes with being a part of the [department] secretary's team," she said.

"That's technically a downside, but I think it's worth it," Grkavac said. "The fact that they are tied to the agency and have a decision-making role is very helpful."

Many say having a CIO from industry and a deputy CIO with years of federal experience who can offer continuity is a winning combination.

"It's always good to have a healthy mix of career people and government people. It creates more creativity," said consultant and former Treasury Department CIO Jim Flyzik.

In fact, effective IT leaders should look outside government to round out their skills rather than relying solely on the knowledge gained from within the department, Dunnington said. She spent 15 years in the private sector before joining NASA and worked on private-sector career development programs while at NASA, a move she recommends for aspiring CIOs.

"You can't just stay in government. You have to be mobile," she said. "A career person benefits from seeing how other environments did with the same types of issues. It brings you a new perspective and allows you to bring new ideas in."


  • Workforce
    White House rainbow light shutterstock ID : 1130423963 By zhephotography

    White House rolls out DEIA strategy

    On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued agencies a roadmap to guide their efforts to develop strategic plans for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), as required under a as required under a June executive order.

  • Defense
    software (whiteMocca/

    Why DOD is so bad at buying software

    The Defense Department wants to acquire emerging technology faster and more efficiently. But will its latest attempts to streamline its processes be enough?

Stay Connected