7 things no one tells a new CIO

What current and former CIOs wish they'd known before they jumped into an agency job.

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The role of federal agency CIOs, like most senior government positions, has always been a high-pressure, high-turnover job. And with the two-term administration of President Barack Obama winding down, CIO departures are all but certain to increase as political appointees cycle out and career executives choose to retire before a new team cycles in.

That means new hires -- lots of them -- at a time when cybersecurity concerns, the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act and the growing digitization of all government services make the CIO role more important than ever. And although there are talented IT professionals inside government and out, leading IT for a federal agency comes with high expectations and not much of an owner's manual.

FCW asked both current and former agency CIOs what they didn't know when they started and desperately wish they had. Here's what they had to share.

1. You don't know nearly enough about your agency

Several CIOs told FCW that the core technology and management challenges at a federal agency are not so different from those at any big organization. Wrapping one's head around an agency's mission and culture, on the other hand, is a job in itself.

"You've got to learn your own agency," Commerce Department CIO Steve Cooper said. "That's far and away the biggest thing."

NASA CIO Renee Wynn, who served for a time as acting CIO at the Environmental Protection Agency before moving to her current post, said, "A day didn't go by at EPA and certainly not at NASA where I didn't learn something new about the agency's mission and how IT is used to support it. In one day at NASA, I went from discussing quantum physics -- well, I didn't discuss, I just listened -- to the implementation of [the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation program]."

Wynn, who joined the space agency last July, said she is still spending personal time "reading about NASA's mission so that I can follow the myriad of conversations."

David Shive, who has been the General Services Administration's CIO for about a year, said it is crucial for a would-be CIO to understand "the volume and tenor of internal stakeholder influences" and how the agency's culture will shape "your day-to-day delivery of IT operations and overarching strategic thought."

"Ask yourself: Have you assessed the politics and structure of the business units of the agency you will support?" Shive said. "Do you know their business well enough to properly support them? Can you effectively speak their language and convey convincing technology solutions?"

Lt. Gen. William Bender, the Air Force's CIO, put it another way: CIOs must deeply understand the mission because their work is an integral part of it.

"Air Force information systems are an overly complex layering of networks upon networks with overlapping and duplicative applications, operated in a decentralized manner by different [components] following different policies," he said. A CIO needs to know enough to truly solve problems and not just service all those requests.

"It has become increasingly clear to me the Air Force must begin to manage IT as a warfighting support function," he said.

No matter how much one prepares, Wynn warned, "you are going to make some mistakes [as you learn]. Apologize, fix it, and have a good laugh" -- and then don't repeat the error.

2. There's nothing quite like federal acquisition

Nearly every CIO interviewed said acquisition was a big and unpleasant surprise. Many added that the federal hiring process is not much better.

"Procurement and hiring are so hard," EPA CIO Ann Dunkin said. "It's harder than you can possibly imagine."

"My private-sector experience did not prepare me for the unique mechanism of buying things in the federal government."

Dunkin, who stepped into the CIO job in early 2015, is no stranger to sprawling organizations. She spent years at Silicon Valley tech giant HP and before coming to Washington was director of technology and then CTO for California's Palo Alto Unified School District. But when it comes to acquisition, she said, the federal government presents a level of complexity that is unheard of in local government or the private sector.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO Mark Schwartz agreed. Before he started as CIO, a federal IT manager urged him to "get the best procurement and HR specialists you can find." That advice was absolutely spot-on, he said, but "it took me a couple of years to discover that."

Even Cooper, who has held CIO positions at multiple agencies and in both the private and nonprofit sectors, shuddered when he thought back to what he didn't know when he became the Department of Homeland Security's CIO in 2002. "I wish I'd absolutely had...some detailed understanding of the IT acquisition process," he said, such as the differences between acquiring products versus services and the many types of blanket purchase agreements and governmentwide contracts.

"My private-sector experience did not prepare me for the unique mechanism of buying things in the federal government," he said.

3. Your time is not your own

Private-sector CIOs are busy, too, but they generally are not swarmed by contractors at every public meeting or called to testify before Congress. "The CIO role will consume all your waking hours," Federal Communications Commission CIO David Bray warned.

That immersion can be good, he added, but "being a public-service CIO is not something one can do for eight to nine hours and then head home.... You are 'on-demand' 24/7 at any time for your organization's leadership, for the U.S. public and for your organization's stakeholders -- when they have questions, when something isn't working or when a thorny issue needs resolving."

Cooper recalled being shocked at how little collaboration took place across agencies compared to his private-sector experience, and he attributed it to time constraints more than any innate aversion to working together.

"The list of things that I have to do as a federal CIO -- oversight, compliance, governance, things that just come at your office…I think is probably greater than there was for me in the private sector," he said. "I had more choice in the private sector as to what I could set aside and do when I got to it as opposed to I've got to do it because somebody on the Hill or somebody in [the Government Accountability Office] or somebody in my [inspector general's] office is holding me accountable yesterday."

Dunkin said a friend of hers recently visited from California and was astonished by the never-ending nature of her job. "You really are always on," she said.

4. Tech expertise is necessary but not sufficient

The Professional Services Council's David Wennergren, a former Navy Department CIO and Defense Department IT executive, declared that "the ability to successfully lead change is the most important job skill."

"Understanding and being articulate on the opportunities that technology presents [are] important," he said, but "by far the most important job skill is the ability to address cultural change issues, build coalitions and deliver meaningful change that will live on beyond your tenure as CIO."

Bray also stressed the change-agent role. "Being a public-service CIO is much less about technology per se than it is providing leadership and a calm presence in the face of constrained resources and massive amounts of legacy systems," he said.

Whether the challenge is a late-night distributed denial-of-service attack or the realization that the "budget is frozen for the sixth year in a row," an agency CIO must be able to put on "a brave game face no matter what the odds are that evening," he added.

A new CIO is also expected to understand the intricacies of a situation without losing sight of the big picture, Wynn said. "Details matter more as the CIO," she added. "You'll need to understand the details and that your projects are adding value and the mission projects are not disrupted."

"Any of us who have come out of the private sector...really do know the substance and the content" of the technology, Cooper said. "But I tremendously underestimated the learning curve of all the federal policies, oversight rules, governance and bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that go into things."

5. Government doesn't have to be intransigent

If new CIOs are generally unprepared for the acquisition hoops and other mumbo-jumbo, most candidates come in fully expecting a hidebound bureaucracy that resists all meaningful change. Yet "government is more pliable that I thought it was going to be," Schwartz said. "I didn't initially push as hard as I might have because people said change wasn't possible."

He quickly learned, however, that many in government want change and will respond if challenged and supported. "If you say, 'We can do this,' we can," Schwartz said.

"There's more flexibility [at EPA] than when I was at HP," Dunkin said. "Government is more hierarchical than you could possibly imagine...but it's possible to break it down."

And that flexibility must go both ways, Wynn said. "Customer orientation goes further than compliance," she said. "While in theory 'no' seems easy, it isn't."

The more she meets with different teams at NASA, she added, "the better we can integrate cybersecurity into all that we do and they do.... Getting to know what my clients are doing helps us manage the cyber aspects of our business better than just saying no."

6. You need to make friends -- fast

Whether they are flexible or not, CIOs can't do it alone. "As a CIO, your success is going to be greatly affected by your partners in finance, procurement, legal and HR," said Casey Coleman, the former GSA CIO who is now at Unisys Federal Systems. "Any initiative you undertake depends on their cooperation and assistance."

Those dependences can be especially convoluted in government, and "you will find varying degrees of helpfulness," Coleman said. "However, there are almost always at least one or two forward-leaning colleagues who share your vision for modernization. I strongly recommend that you find those people and make friends with them."

"If you have to navigate that learning curve on your own," Cooper agreed, "it slows tremendously your ability to move quickly…and accomplish whatever it is that your new executives have asked you to take on. A new CIO must quickly find someone who knows your new environment and who can help you with the culture [and] unique processes."

Shive stressed that forging a solid relationship with the agency's top leaders is also invaluable. "Before you take the job, make sure you are on the same page as agency leadership when it comes to agency priorities and initiatives," he said. "Validate with them that IT is integral and critical to carrying out those priorities and initiatives. If you get a lukewarm response, that might not be the right job for you."

"As a CIO, your success is going to be greatly affected by your partners in finance, procurement, legal and HR."

And the alliance-building doesn't stop at the department's edge. "In today's world, technology challenges rarely nest conveniently within a single agency," Wennergren said. "Your success as a CIO will depend on not only delighting your customer base within your agency, but also on your commitment to help solve technology challenges that impact the entire federal government."

Thankfully, he and others said, the career ranks of government hold plenty of talented potential allies. "There are amazing people in the government," Dunkin said. "We beat the government workers up so much," but the talent and commitment to the agency's mission make for some tremendous teams.

Cooper said his IT team at Commerce boasts "extremely solid and comprehensive educational backgrounds" that compare favorably to anything he saw in industry. And they're not limited to tech. "I've got folks in my office who have law degrees, they have Ph.D.s," he said. "They've got a hell of a lot more academic credentials than I do."

7. It could be the best job you've ever had

The pressures are intense, the pay can't compare to what top companies offer, and the range of public critics is like nothing most nongovernment CIOs have ever seen. And yet talented individuals keep jumping into the jobs -- largely because the rewards of effecting change at government scale are hard to find anywhere else.

Several CIOs stressed the appeal of public-service IT leadership, but Bray put it best: "It is an inspiring and humbling role. Success is tied to you championing your team...above all else, and such championing is only possible if you find joy and family support in what you do for the public. I am both thankful and inspired every day."

Dunkin said she was taken aback when her California visitor said, "You must hate this job." Dunkin told her friend she had misunderstood: "I just said it was hard. I love this."


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