Olson’s customer-first approach helped Treasury get out from under technical debt

Eric Olson, the former Treasury Department chief information officer, said the agency moved key systems to highly secured cloud services over the last four year...

When it comes to technology, the Treasury Department is a much different place today than it was in 2017 when Eric Olson arrived to be the chief information officer.

Olson inherited technical debt both in the devices employees used and the underlying network the mission areas relied on.

Nearly four years later, Olson, who recently left his CIO role, said Treasury has made progress in transforming its IT substantially and is on a solid path for the future.

“I spent a lot of time, particularly early on, focusing on paying down that that technical debt, at least in certain areas of the department. I also think we were probably underserved in certain areas, from a mobility capabilities perspective. So we spent a lot of time getting everybody current on mobile services,” said Olson, who retired from federal service in July after 18 years, on Ask the CIO. “Beyond that, at the time that I started with Treasury, the orientation or focus was more toward an on-premise data center consolidation initiative, and that’s really moved to a multi-cloud approach now. I think there was much more of an emphasis on bespoke development practices and waterfall development practices as opposed to today, there’s much more of an orientation around agile and low-code platforms. I think, and we’re not alone in this respect by any means of Treasury, but from a cyber perspective, looking at things much more from a risk management perspective than a compliance perspective.”

Olson’s initial focus was on the end user, changing out laptops and mobile devices, and then on the infrastructure to make sure the hardware would work well.

“If the end user is frustrated and doesn’t feel good about their experience, then it’s hard to make a case you need to focus on some of these issues that may be more abstract or far reaching kinds of mission capabilities that we know we need,” said Olson, who rarely spoke at industry or government association events, this being among the first real looks inside Treasury’s IT modernization efforts. “You’ve got to have that strong foundation first is my belief.”

Initial focus on FISMA high clouds

That strong foundation for the user starts with moving to the cloud. Olson said Treasury was one of the first agencies to move infrastructure and applications to a Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) high cloud.

“We moved some of our enterprise shared service or common business function systems into cloud services. Our talent management system that we deployed to the entire Treasury Department is cloud based. We moved our human resources platform into the cloud,” he said. “The way we are looking at this is for any given application, there is a rationalized decision making process. If we can buy it as a service, we’d like to do that. If we can’t buy it as a service, can we configure it or develop it on a low code platform? And then if that’s not the case, then we look to bespoke development.”

Olson said Treasury has taken advantage of low code platforms and software-as-a-service over the last few years, particularly to modernize legacy applications.

The next step is through the new T-Cloud acquisition strategy. Treasury released a request for information in October 2020 to establish a Treasurywide set of cloud services through multiple providers.

“T-Cloud will include the management activities required to oversee the contract ensuring the service offering performs within its cost, schedule, quality and performance baselines,” the sources sought notice stated.

Olson said this basic set of infrastructure and compute capabilities will be for the entire agency and let the mission and back-office areas access to infrastructure- and platform-as-a-service tools.

“We acquired a managed service provider to handle the 80% solution for the network. We want that service provider in the infrastructure and cloud space that could then provide that 60% to 80% requirement for this generalized compute and storage capability. There’s always going to be certain workloads that we’re not going to be able to put in the cloud, whether for performance or security reasons, but that’s really what T-Cloud is about,” he said.

While Olson said it was hard to quantify the percentage of applications or systems already in the cloud, he said there is plenty of opportunity going forward to take advantage of these off-premise services.

FITARA score is one measure of success

One of the ways to measure Treasury’s IT transformation progress is through the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) scorecard. Under Olson’s watch, Treasury’s grade went from a “C-” when he arrived to a “B” on the July 2021 scorecard.

More specifically, Treasury saw improved scores around meeting FISMA goals, transitioning to the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) program and with its data center consolidation and optimization efforts. It struggled around giving the CIO full authority over all technology spending and with IT portfolio risk management and transparency.

Olson said while FITARA is helpful, it takes more to change the direction of an agency’s IT transformation.

“Within the Treasury Department, one of the things I really tried to do was to take FITARA and turn it into a set of guiding principles for governance across the Treasury enterprise space. The question is, how do you manage with FITARA as the driver, but also on a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year basis?” he said. “We spent a lot of time authoring and then collaborating with the bureau CIOs to get that set of guiding principles and say, this is what FITARA means to the Treasury Department. It’s helped us improve our grade, and the grade isn’t the whole story. My view is that there’s some opportunity for further improvement on some of the FITARA elements, but it is something we are proud of, and spent a lot of time trying to meet the spirit of what FITARA is all about.”

Olson said he’d like to see some changes to FITARA, particularly around the scorecard metrics.

“The CIO Council made some recommendations on this. Some of the metrics are more spot on than others. I think the other element of the scorecard is, in my view, sort of analogous in the corporate world. I would like to see more of a balanced scorecard,” he said. “The current scorecard is very much about the business of IT, cybersecurity and data centers and all of this sort of technical stuff. But there’s a mission enablement, mission impact piece of it that creates the balance in all of this. That might be one element to highlight in more of a balanced scorecard, reviewing how effective and efficient is IT being in the enterprise.”

As for his future, Olson said he plans to continue to work in the federal sector in some capacity to continue to support the government’s mission areas. He said he has no specific plans at this time.

“It’s really just impossible to underemphasize the importance of technology and the government, and really, in business, nothing at scale really gets done without IT. I continue to be very motivated by the mission and will look for other ways to contribute other than that of being an agency or department level CIO,” he said.

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