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How the government IT shop is changing

Shutterstock image (by Athos Boncompagni Illustratore): arrows converging on the center. 

Extreme commoditization and automation of infrastructure, culminating in cloud technology, are changing the job of the government CIO. His or her time and attention are shifting from an infrastructure focus to an application management and development focus.

That is a good thing, but it represents a major shift in skills and perspective. Those CIOs who embrace the new mindset will help government perform better. Agile technology, acquisition and a new approach to labor will aid with the shift. But first, it's worth taking a moment to understand how the CIO operated in the past and where the IT shop is heading.

The CIO of yesteryear

Until recently, the CIO's responsibility for all computing operations heavily emphasized infrastructure: desktops, servers and software platforms, connectivity, data centers and commodity procurement. Those are primarily tactical activities from a mission perspective, yet they took up 90 percent of the CIO's time.

The successful CIO of yesteryear was commodity-driven, process-focused and a manager of a large, lower-skilled labor force that performed repetitive tasks. His or her main concern was keeping the infrastructure running.

Today's CIO in transition

Now the federal government is reaching an inflection point with the advent of cloud technology. Most of the tasks the CIO's organization performs are automated -- procuring computing resources or storage, provisioning, failover/disaster recovery and technology refreshes. The change is reducing the demands on a huge percentage of the CIO’s responsibilities, time and workforce.

Aided by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program and evolving procurement practices, cloud technology allows the government to provision computing and storage in minutes when it used to take months. In short, the IT shop has more time to focus on mission-centered application needs.

The CIO of tomorrow

The CIO sits at a critical juncture. Custom applications have always been the lifeblood of most government organizations because they enable agencies to deliver on unique missions. But you wouldn’t know it by examining where most CIOs spend their time. Now the order-of-magnitude productivity gains of managing infrastructure via the cloud has laid bare the truth that the CIO mission is about the applications. There's no escaping that truth anymore.

From my perspective, CIO shops face a number of challenges in shifting to an application mindset. Managing infrastructure requires a large, semi-skilled workforce that follows scripted processes. Application management requires significantly more skill and, because every application is different, is immune to being managed by rigid, scripted processes.

The infrastructure-focused mindset is no longer viable in an application-centered world. Iterative delivery and fewer highly skilled workers can do more than 10 times the work of many people with lesser skills following a script. The new work introduces a different tempo and positions the team as a more strategic agency resource as it delivers unique applications that keep pace with changing mission-critical capabilities.

What's next?

Cloud and agile approaches have created a perfect storm for the CIO. Recent agile initiatives led by the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration’s 18F are making the inevitable come to light. Government CIOs fall into three categories when it comes to acknowledging the new reality: those leading the shift, those preparing to embrace it and those who don't get it.

All three groups must grapple with issues such as agile development, software delivery management, procurement and a new workforce that can keep pace with new demands.

In future articles, I will discuss how these issues and opportunities will help government CIOs successfully transition to an application management and development approach. As a result, the new CIO will emerge as a strategic adviser, and the government will get more bang for its buck.

About the Author

Lawrence Fitzpatrick is a general manager and senior vice president for NCI Inc. of Reston, Va.

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