The ‘Rock Star’ CIO lives, sort of

In my previous notebook, I asked for comments on whether the federal community needs to rethink the term and concept of a “Rock Star chief information officer.”

I received several interesting on-the-record and background comments I wanted to share.

First, Roger Baker, the former CIO of the Commerce and Veterans Affairs departments, sent me this comment:

“I’ve always found the term ‘Rock Star CIO’ to be a bit humorous. Rock Star from whose perspective? It seems to be applied mostly to those getting the most positive press, yet from my experience there is little correlation between bad or good press and the quality of job a CIO is doing. Each CIO job is so complex, so demanding, and subject to such different constraints that it is impossible for those outside an agency to get an objective view. Do you know what instructions the CIO was given by the secretary? Do you understand the political realities inside the agency? Did he or she inherit a pot of gold, or a POS (pot of stuff)? Does he or she get the most out of their team, or do they berate, belittle, and behead?”

A current CIO, Andre Mendes of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, offered this insight:

“I think there is a happy medium. I came into the BBG with quite a reputation but quickly realized that I was dealing with a different beast. In the last six years, we executed a remarkable turnaround and created one of the most advanced IT environments in the federal space from an organization that was stuck in the late 1990s and where every single server was controlled by the Chinese cyber Army. Two years ago, I was promoted to COO and last year to Interim CEO in charge of the entire $750 million agency.”

By the way, Mendes will be a guest on my Ask the CIO program in the coming weeks, and the story about how BBG overcame an enormous cybersecurity infestation is well worth listening to.

Finally, I received this comment from federal employee who work their agency’s IT department:

“I believe that we, the taxpayers, deserve the best fit for the CIO position, regardless of the path followed to the office (private or public path). However, there is a key skill that is required that tends to be overlooked when evaluating the performance of a single person — teamwork. I currently work in an environment with an IT adviser. This individual brings an amazing resume. However, this person arrived believing that all work completed to date is worthless and the result of contractor skullduggery. He believes that none of the existing staff have the skills or the motivation to deliver quality solutions. At the same time, he does not have even the most basic understanding of federal procurement, budget, HR, etc. In short, any of his good ideas are lost because he didn’t come in with respect for our situation or with respect for the existing staff. Instead of working as a team to advance on projects that will improve the IT infrastructure, most of us have been marginalized and are simply stuck writing emails for the record to detail how we explained how things should work.

“This individual will leave, within a year at the most. However, the damage left in his wake will take years to fix. He is a rock star with a great resume. However, he is not the best fit for this environment.”

All three brought forward interesting insights and comments. Baker is correct, no matter the experience of the CIO, there are so many outside factors that come into play, the person’s resume is almost secondary to whether they understand what they are walking into.

Mendes builds on Baker’s point with the idea that the federal government is not like any other organization the CIO has been a part of before if they are coming directly from the private sector, and understanding that is a key success factor.

And the federal employee who works in the IT organization is experiencing this situation firsthand. Too often, CIOs or digital services experts fail to truly understand the political, cultural and technical environments, and that is what dooms them in the end. And all the excitement over these “rock stars” coming in to government quickly dissipates when the staff realizes this shortcoming and know — because they’ve seen it before — the “rock star” will find their next gig soon enough.

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