U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel remembers well his first day on the job with the federal government. After ending a successful career with Microsoft to join the Federal Communications Commission in 2009, he reported to work, jiggled his mouse and up came – much to his surprise – an outdated version of Windows XP.
It was a product he had helped to launch more than a decade ago.
“It was kind of a startling wake up call,” VanRoekel told a group of Georgetown University Master’s in Technology Management students and guest students attending a July 26 lecture at the Clarendon campus of the university’s School of Continuing Studies.
In one short year, VanRoekel was able to help the FCC overcome many of its technology challenges, a feat he hopes to repeat since being appointed a year ago as President Obama’s U.S. CIO, with oversight over the government’s $80 billion IT budget.
“You can spend a lot of time, in a job like this, just fixing things inside in a very quiet way,” he told the audience of guests and students in the Master program’s Management of Technology class. “But I came to DC to help the president create a successful legacy.”
Doing More with Less
While many successful IT professionals move on to other cutting-edge technology companies, VanRoekel said he wanted to write a different script.
“It’s actually a fascinating time to be in federal IT,” he said.
Under his watch, U.S. federal agencies have already begun to speed up internet connections, consolidate multiple e-mail systems and shrink costs associated with an overabundance of data centers and other IT redundancies. Lowering IT costs is critical at a time when federal IT spending has been frozen since 2009, VanRoekel said. But now is also the time to modernize the federal government’s digital services to U.S. citizens through the Obama Administration’s Digital Government Strategy.
The challenge will be to “innovate with less,” VanRoekel said. He has been working diligently with agency IT managers to identify billions in IT savings – money that can now be recommitted to create new digital services for Americans.
“We’re finding savings and pouring that back into the innovation column,” he said. “Luckily, we’re now in an era where technology will allow us to do things differently.”
Working with Entrepreneurs
VanRoekel has also established a Presidential Innovation Fellows program and led what he calls “Datapaloozas,” calling on private sector innovators, non-profit think tanks, academic leaders and others to help the federal government “reimagine” how digital solutions can be used to improve services.
A central part of the program is an “open data initiative” that makes government data available to entrepreneurs to develop new apps and services such as helping people find the right health care providers, identify outbreaks in diseases or learn more about surrounding communities when buying homes.
Greater use of mobile technologies is also essential, VanRoekel said. Mobile technologies are now the norm and have raised the expectations of citizens who now expect “anytime, anywhere, any device access” to government services.
“I think we have an opportunity to really change the way our citizens interact with their government.”
The Road to Success
VanRoekel said he’s always had a love of computers, teaching himself how to program on a Commodore 64 his parents bought him in middle school. While attending Iowa State, he taught himself object-oriented programing and started a consulting company to help network PCs at K-12 schools. While doing this work, he developed a way to get Windows 3.1 to boot completely off the network in a way that Microsoft hadn’t anticipated. He was soon offered a job at Microsoft.
“I can attest that each time I’ve had an interesting, intellectual and fascinating job, I’ve been able to move on to a better one later,” said VanRoekel, whose storied career at Microsoft included work on the Xbox, numerous Windows projects and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The keys to any success, he told the IT students, are to embrace feedback and clearly understand the end point of a project before jumping into tactics. On the first day of a new job or major project, VanRoekel said he always writes a press release announcing what the end result will look like.
“It’s always a good guiding post for me to help me focus on the important, not just the urgent,” he said. “Think about the end result and work your way backwards. What do you need to do today to get to your ultimate goal? [Information Technology] is a means not an end. You’ve got to always remember what you’re trying to accomplish.”