The end of an era: BlackBerry’s impact on feds, industry endures

Federal News Network asked former federal executives for their memories and thoughts about the impact of the BlackBerry device on the federal sector.

President Barack Obama wouldn’t give his up. President George W. Bush wasn’t allowed to have one, even though he wanted one.

For about 15 years, the BlackBerry phone was Velcroed to every federal and industry executives’ hand from the Oval Office on down.

While the news on Jan. 4 that Research-In-Motion (RIM) dropped its support for the BlackBerry phone wasn’t surprising to say the least, it did make you stop and think about the impact of the device on the federal sector.

Roger Baker is a former Commerce Department chief information officer. He offered a memory from January 2001:

“We needed to quickly support the mobility needs of the new secretary and his team, so about two days after inauguration we had our BlackBerry vendor in to get us information. They were able to get us 12 BlackBerrys set up and delivered about two days later. Each was labeled with an individual’s name (for the secretary, chief of staff, CIO, etc.) except one with no label. When I asked about it they said ‘it’s for your boss’s boss.’ The secretary was headed to the White House that afternoon so I took him his and asked him if he wanted to offer the unlabeled unit to his boss. He said sure, and took it with him.

“The next day the unlabeled unit was handed back to me with the explanation that the president wanted to keep the unit, but the Secret Service wouldn’t allow it.”

From the late 1990s to the mid-2010s in meeting rooms from the White House to the Pentagon, on the metro and airplanes and during emergencies, federal employees and contractors fell in love with, became addicted to, and realized the potential of the handheld device.

“The BlackBerry revolutionized the way the federal government worked. It was the first to make remote work possible,” said Clint Robinson, a former vice president of government relations for Research in Motion, which developed the BlackBerry, and a former associate administrator in the General Services Administration’s Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs. “It fundamentally changed how people work and changed managers’ expectations of people who work for them — for better or for worse. We joked about this at BlackBerry, that if you didn’t get a response back in 15 minutes, you started to worry the person was in a car accident or something. You expected an immediate response, and while you can argue whether it’s healthy or not, you no longer were tethered to your desk so you have more freedom.”

Robinson, who now is a partner with Capitol Counsel, called it an “amazing time” when he worked for RIM between 2006 and 2015.

Robert Shea, a former associate director at the Office of Management and Budget and now national managing principal for public policy at Grant Thornton, described the culture change that began to take place during the early days of BlackBerry.

“I remember vividly OMB Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson and I in a meeting with then GSA Administrator Steve Perry and his then Chief of Staff David Safavian. A noise emitted from David’s Blackberry and he picked it up and began to talk into it as if it was a phone. It seemed so absurd to me I reached down, took off my shoe, and began to talk into it à la Maxwell Smart. Laughter ensued.”

While BlackBerry didn’t offer any statistics or numbers about just how well the device permeated the government, there was a time when the device was a status symbol, an emergency lifeline and showed the path of the future.

Articles from the height of the BlackBerry show just where it stood. In a 2012 article in InfoWorld, RIM said it had over 1 million government customers in North America. Government Executive reported that in 2009 77% of all federal managers said they used the BlackBerry device.

Craig Luigart, the former CIO at the Education Department and now CTO for health technologies at the Veterans Health Administration in the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in 1999 he became the first agency technology executive to bring BlackBerrys into government.

“I came from private industry in Atlanta and at that time was working with BellSouth and the original BlackBerry for alerting homecare nurses and other health care aligned uses.

“When Secretary Richard Riley selected me in late summer to take over the CIO job I brought with me the knowledge of what the BlackBerry could do and a connection to the then CEO and president of BlackBerry Jim Balsillie.  Having talked to Jim they had not yet considered a federal channel. I told Jim I had a contact I would make for him and that if it worked out we might actually desire to be the first federal department with the BlackBerry and its new capability to provide Microsoft Outlook services.

“Shortly after I arrived at Education as Riley’s CIO I called Dendy [Young, then CEO of GTSI] and Jim and said ‘I think I have a marriage for the two of you that would be of mutual benefit.’

“Shortly we had the devices and services on GTSI’s GSA schedule and Education became the first user of BlackBerry in the federal government. I showed it around at the CIO Council meeting and to Jim Fyzik [the co-chairman of the council] and the rest is history.”

In a Federal News Network online survey of its audience, 73% of respondents said the BlackBerry device was “very impactful” on their agency or office.

Respondents said the biggest impact was that it created the “always on” culture by making remote work possible. Making email the preferred way their agency communicated was the next most impactful way in which the BlackBerry changed their office or agency.

Retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Bob Day, the president of BlackBerry Government Solutions, said in an email to Federal News Network that more than 20 years ago the company helped usher in the beginning of the mobile workforce, letting employees have the flexibility to work wherever and be productive.

He said what agencies liked most about the BlackBerry was its secure mobility.

“It is not just the independence that the handset provided that made it so alluring. Since the company’s very beginning, BlackBerry has always taken security seriously, and the security and privacy of the BlackBerry device was lauded by federal executives, who relied on their BlackBerry devices to communicate sensitive and classified matters,” Day said. “The handset provided federal staff with the confidence and ability to work on-the-go while also giving them the peace of mind to know their work was safe and secure.”

Karen Evans, former OMB administrator of e-government and IT during the George W. Bush administration and now managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute, highlighted what many thought was the best part of the BlackBerry: The keyboard.

“The transition to Blackberry was great. You no longer had to carry multiple devices because everything was integrated into the one device. I do remember we had to get legal opinions regarding records management due to the capabilities. The QWERTY keyboard was the best! No smudged screens.”

A majority of Federal News Network’s survey respondents and the former federal executives expressed their enduring love for the keyboard.

Everything from the click-clack-click noise the keys made to the speed and ease by which you could type to the way the curved shape of the device comfortably fit into two hands, the BlackBerry, for many, was a perfect fit.

Renee Wynn, the former NASA CIO and now CEO of RP Wynn Consulting, delayed her move to an iPhone as long as she could.

“I loved my Blackberry and hated giving it up. What I loved was the keyboard.  I could listen to speakers and take notes because I didn’t have to look down to make sure I was on the right keys thus rendering notes useless! Auto-correct wasn’t a dastardly thing back then!”

Simon Szykman, former Commerce CIO and now senior vice president for client growth at Maximus, praised a feature that most of us take for granted with today’s devices.

“The BlackBerry Auto Text feature allowed a user to define a text shortcut that would automatically expand to something longer, for example you could set ‘TYVM’ to automatically be replaced with ‘Thank you very much,'” he said. “It was such a convenience and a timesaver that I had trouble getting by without it once non-BlackBerry smartphones became prevalent both in government and personal use. There are now multiple keyboard apps that have that functionality, but it took surprisingly long for that capability to be implemented outside of the Blackberry ecosystem. Even today whenever I upgrade my own smartphone, I re-implement the same Auto Text replacements that I was first using two decades ago and have grown accustomed to.”

Joe Paiva, the former CIO at Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration and now vice president of the public sector for HireVue, had to make an extra effort to get his staff to give up their BlackBerrys:

“It was 14 years after the BlackBerry had been launched, but only two years after the first iPhone appeared on Verizon’s network. The ITA had started replacing Blackberrys with the iPhone just before I arrived, but the project was halted because almost every single person outside of headquarters, which is 90% of the ITA, were furious. They very correctly and understandably complained that email took way too long to sync, and people were missing everything from warnings of inbound rockets in Israel to time critical trade negotiation notes. That part wasn’t funny, but what happened next most definitely was …

“Of course, we immediately started working day and night to fix the network and sync problems, and within a relatively short period of time had them all resolved. So, I took another trip out into the field to see if folks were now happy with their iPhones. Much to my chagrin, I found dozens of users with BlackBerrys on their belts and iPhones still in boxes in their desk drawers. Frustrated, I said, ‘You know folks in DoD and lots of other agencies are stuck with Blackberrys, and would love to have the option of using the iPhones sitting in your desk drawers. What gives?’

“Without hesitation, an entire group of folks sitting in one room looked at me, and said ‘We’re not giving up our keyboards, and you can’t make us.’ So began a multi-month campaign during which I very literally needed to fly around the world prying BlackBerrys out of peoples’ hands in order to get them to at least try an iPhone.”

Robinson, the former vice president of government relations for RIM, said while most users extolled the keyboard, the BlackBerry’s battery life and the ability to change out batteries were features few, if any, of today’s handheld devices can match.

“Carriers loved the BlackBerry because it was an efficient consumer of data. It had a low profile on carrier networks,” he said.

The keyboard, the battery life and the other aesthetic features of the device is what many people focus on. But Robinson and BlackBerry’s Day point to another characteristic that the government loved: RIM’s security.

Robinson said the encryption RIM used and the fact it was made available for customers created trust across all government and industry users.

“BlackBerry operated its own enterprise server and made available a level of security and reliability that was not available anywhere else. From a CIO’s standpoint, it was a perfectly secure network,” he said.

Dave Wennergren, the former Navy CIO and now CEO of the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC), credited his former boss Dan Porter, then the Navy CIO, to making BlackBerrys widely available across the service.

“The Navy definitely took a leadership role in deploying BlackBerrys, from working with the company on security measures, secure servers in the U.S., smart card readers, etc., that would make them a go-to solution for years, to deployment plans that accelerated the demand signal for these devices that allowed you to be connected anywhere, anytime.

“One of the early steps we took was to deliver BlackBerrys to the top leaders of both the Navy and Marine Corps, a move that immediately won the leadership team over to the power of these devices, broke down numerous barriers to their widespread adoption and created energy and peer pressure around keeping up with the bosses. We also outfitted the entire Department of the Navy CIO team with BlackBerrys, to include the clerical staff.

“This was a radical idea at the time, but helped pave the way for the democratization of technology and the recognition that these powerful tools allowed the entire workforce, not just the bosses, to be more productive and provide better customer service.”

As for why we are talking about the BlackBerry in the past tense today, as Robinson rightfully pointed out, there are hundreds of thousands of words written by professors, journalists and analysts that delve into RIM’s mistakes and inability to keep up with the changing desires of society. Time magazine wrote in 2013 about the “fatal mistake” that doomed BlackBerry. Just last week, BusinessInsider revisited this often talked about story, saying it failed to innovate and became complacent. There’s even an entire Reddit thread from 2015 where users tried to answer the question why BlackBerry failed as a device provider.

But this retrospective isn’t about why RIM and BlackBerry ultimately fell out of favor and halted support for the phone devices. It’s about the impact this one small device had, and will continue to have, on agencies and industry.

The fact, as we’ve seen both anecdotally and from the survey, is that federal employees and industry will remember, praise and even denounce the BlackBerry as one of the biggest game changers over the past 25 years.

Robinson said maybe the best story about the impact of the BlackBerry came from a member of Congress, most of whom are not known for their savvy use of technology.

“When I was at Research In Motion (RIM), our co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis would often come to Washington for customer meetings and to meet with members of Congress on whatever policy matters were pertinent at the time. Once, Jim and I were taken by staff to the Rayburn room in the Capitol to meet with a member from Florida. We sat down and she said, ‘Before you say anything, I just want you to know that my BlackBerry has made me a better legislator, a better friend and a better mother.’ Jim said, ‘Wow. Thank you. I believe our work here is done.’”

While many can debate the era — or error to some — that BlackBerry ushered in, the “always on” culture and the expectation that emails need to be answered in minutes and not hours, the device broke down barriers, opened the eyes of agencies and industry leaders to the true potential of remote work and democratized technology from the board room to the back room to the customer service desk.

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