Familiar territory

Agriculture CIO Scott Charbo takes on a new challenge

Scott Charbo is the new kid on the block, but don't be deceived. Although he's just getting his feet wet as the chief information officer at the Agriculture Department, he's got plenty of experience in technology and management under his belt. And he is coming to the department at a critical time.

The USDA is in the process of implementing its Common Computing Environment. Officials are looking at managed services as the wave of the future, and the agency is striving to keep pace with farmers who have already turned to technology to grow better crops. These days, a farmer is more likely to have a laptop than a hoe.

"I think there are some real advantages to integrating various sets of data but also some of the service applications out there," Charbo said.

When it comes to managed services, "the approach is to evaluate each mission area and determine what is capable of being sourced outside. The questions to ask [are], Is this a better value? Is it competitive, and is the quality superior?" Charbo said.

Charbo comes to government with a great deal of private-sector experience. He was president of mPower3 Inc., a ConAgra Foods company, where he worked to integrate technology into farming.

And it was there that he made "the stuff work," said Warren Hammerbeck, a farmer and executive vice president of United Agri Products who worked with Charbo.

"At the top of his list is how to deliver programs to farmers and how to combine how the programs are delivered, using the best technology to do [that]. And he certainly knows how," he said.

In the past, farmers relied on history and tradition, but now, using technology, they can rely on science, according to Hammerbeck. "What USDA is able to do now with technology will be the next big leap forward in agriculture, and no other country is doing this."

Charbo still is on a learning curve. He came to Washington, D.C., in July as director of the Office of Business and Program Integration for the USDA's Farm Service Agency. He was responsible for planning, developing and administering the agency's programs and policies.

He had been in that job for only a month when USDA Secretary Ann Veneman tapped him to be the agency's CIO — a difficult job considering that the USDA has offices in nearly every county in the country and is still functioning under a structure set up in the 1930s.

As CIO, Charbo is responsible for managing the USDA's information resources and information technology assets. He oversees more than 4,000 IT professionals and $1.7 billion in physical assets.

The agency has not had an appointed CIO since Joseph Leo left the position 18 months ago. Ira Hobbs, deputy CIO, has been acting CIO since then.

Being the top CIO is no small task, according to Leo. There are more than two dozen CIOs within the USDA, with different missions and customers. For example, he said, the Forest Service and the Food and Nutrition Service have very different needs.

"One takes care of Mother Nature, and the other takes care of human beings," Leo said. "While the mission is to serve, the technology policy and direction for taking care of the Forest Service is going to be a mission directed differently than helping states take care of the nation's food assistance needs."

Nevertheless, Charbo is up to the challenge. "I see a lot of folks working darn hard around here," he said. "I know what they do is important. Part of our job is to try to say, 'Here's a vision of what we want to do.' You communicate. You work with people and give them the resources to do it."

***

The Scott Charbo file

Career: President of mPower3 Inc., 1998-2002; director of environmental and regulatory services for Tri-State Delta Chemicals in Memphis, Tenn., 1993-1997; extension agent for the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, 1989-1993.

Education: Bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Tampa. Master's degree in plant science from the University of Nevada-Reno.

Personal: He and his wife, Tanya, have two children and live in Haymarket, Va.

Favorite books: "The Life of Reilly" by Rick Reilly, "Voodoo Science" by Robert Park and anything by Stephen King.

Quote: "Ever since I was a county agent, I was the guy who was asked to be the link."

NEXT STORY: New CIO starts at USDA

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