First Person

Sonny Hashmi: The exit interview

photo of Sonny Hashmi

GSA Chief Information Officer Sonny Hashmi has departed for the private sector after four years with the agency.

General Services Administration CIO Sonny Hashmi, who is leaving to become managing director for government at the cloud collaboration firm Box, spoke with FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider on March 20. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First off, congratulations on the new job.

Thank you. I'm very excited to be joining Box -- though obviously it's a bittersweet thing for me because I really will miss GSA. At Box I'm going to be starting up the Box for Government vertical.

My whole career -- either in the private sector side or the public sector side -- has been focused on improving the health and wellness of government IT. Through this initiative and through this opportunity, I'm hoping to continue down that track.

I'm very excited about it -- not only build the brand and awareness of Box, but also to really continue the discussion around adoption of cloud and mobility into the federal government. That's something I've been doing at GSA for some time now.

GSA has often been the agency tasked with making the administration IT initiatives actually happen. Is there an area where you are proudest of the progress that's been made over the last three or four years?

Absolutely. If you think about four years ago, the discussion in the government IT circles was, is this cloud thing going to stick around? Is it something that could ever work for government?

I'm not sure how this works, is it mature? And if you fast forward to today, the conversation has changed dramatically to, how do we adopt it? How do we scale it? How do we get the most value out of it? That's a completely different discussion.

I'm also very proud of the work GSA has done in the area of mobility. Our new headquarters is a completely different model for how organizations run and operate. It's a sharing economy model, it's a democratized field space model -- and a lot of that is dependent on the technology platform that is required to enable all of that.

When it comes to mobility, when it comes to working in a secure and compliant environment, I think the work that we've done at GSA is pretty remarkable, and I'm proud to have been part of that conversation.

And then with the tools that we developed for our operations, we shifted the discussion, effectively, from building highly integrated vertical solutions to solve a single point problem, to let's invest in common, extensible open platforms that can be reused and integrated in new ways to solve business problems across the board.

It's yielded remarkable results -- our applications cost a fraction of what they used to cost on the old model.

And are there initiatives or different areas that you wish could have moved along faster?

This is really government‑wide, in fact an industry‑wide comment, because the same challenges exist elsewhere.

When you see smart organizations and smart companies, they have put a lot of effort and energy into figuring out how to leverage the data and content that they have and use it to drive business results. That's yielded amazing results for those companies.

I feel that same revolution has been hard to catch on in government. It's been challenging to really adopt that data science philosophy where you are constantly looking at enterprise data as an asset, putting it through the right science to really drive business decisions and make those decisions in real time.

There are many reasons for that. But I'm very enthusiastic about the work that is already going on.

We are seeing a trend of several chief data scientists or chief data officers going to federal agencies. GSA has had a chief data officer for the last year and a half, and just the results that they have achieved are tremendous.

It's amazing to see that happen, but there's a long way to go before it's really baked into our DNA. That's an area that I think is ripe for innovation, and there is a lot of skill there that needs to be built in government.

There's also the challenge that federal acquisition approaches are sometimes not congruent with the way the most innovative, the most aggressive cloud providers are looking to engage, right?

If you're willing to buy something with a very strict mandate, a strict requirement for a long period of time, when the world, the products and solutions are changing literally on a three-to-six-month basis, it's always going to be a conflict.

That's the challenge that exists today, and I hope GSA solves that challenge.

The last thing is one of the biggest challenges across the board in government, and is one of the areas that I am very passionate about: the bringing back or in‑sourcing of technical expertise to a certain extent within the government.

I believe pretty strongly that, for many years, for a lot of reasons that are neither here nor there, government agencies have worked to perfect the compliance posture within technology.

We have people who know how to accurately and appropriately process the invoice, issue an RFP, do an award. We have all these people who can make sure all the oversight responsibilities are fulfilled. But in the process of that, somehow we have weakened the muscles we had ... to actually have hands‑on techies who understand tech deeply.

That's caused a situation, I believe, where many governing agencies struggle with really understanding what they buy, what they do with it, what they need.

That leads to a lot of duplication, a lot of wasted energy, and this leads to negative outcomes that can be avoided if we really focused on bringing the right technology skills back into government.

We have already seen that happen and had amazing results. 18F is really one of the models where we can accelerate it, but there are other models as well.

That push to in‑source talent has certainly picked up speed. Is there advice you would give to those new hires? Things that you wish you knew when you first moved into the federal space?

There are all these processes and policies. Sometimes those policies are real, based on legislation or executive directorates and things like that.

Other times, those policies are just common law policies, as I like to call them. They're just processes that have evolved because that's always the way we have done it, and now people think that that should be a law somewhere.

My advice to anybody coming in in any capacity would be -- and it's the same advice that I've given my deputy who's going to be taking over for me as the acting CIO -- you should always question the status quo, but be aware of where the hard and soft boundaries are.

Question and probe, really get a better understanding of what the landscape looks like and then decide which areas you want to push on. It would be unfortunate if you just take the landscape as it is and decide that it's the only play you can make.

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