One of the most interesting facts about new Federal CIO Tony Scott is that he owns a Cirrus SR22 airplane. At a half million dollars a copy, the SR22 is popular with enthusiasts and even small commercial operators. It’s faster than a lot of other single-engine planes and it’s made of modern composite materials. But it’s not in the class of single-engine planes with turbine engines and near-jet speeds. Those start at more than $1 million. One more thing. The SR22 has a built in parachute so that should the engine quit, the plane can still make it to the ground with the pilot and passengers in one piece. All in all, not a bad metaphor for federal information technology. It should be up- to-date, perform well, come in at reasonable cost and have a safe way to bail when projects don’t go right. Since the appointment, all of the trade media have dutifully trotted out the usual parade of experts, giving their opinions on what the new CIO has to do first, what his agenda should be and what he must accomplish in two years. But the White House was pretty clear about what it wants Scott to do — drive value in IT investments, deliver world-class digital services, and protect federal IT assets and information. In other words, stop the billions spent on failures, get online services up to date and enhance cybersecurity. Pretty much what federal CIOs and their equivalents going back 20 years have been trying to do. By the blog accounts, Scott left Microsoft in 2013 amicably. Geekwire‘s Todd Bishop reported at the time that Scott left because of family needs following the death of his father and because he wanted time to complete his instrument rating for his airplane. One tidbit from that post gives a clue to how Scott might approach his White House job. To wit, dogfooding. These things can be murky, but Microsoft is apparently where the term “eating your own dog food” first came into the high technology industry in the 1980s. When one group develops new software, Microsoft employees use it internally to see if it’s any good. The practice continued while Scott was CIO. (Aside: That does raise the question of how in Hades the company felt it was safe to publish Windows 8.) How could dogfooding help federal IT? Consider how the federal IT market has bifurcated. On one side you find the apps and data people represented by the Presidential Innovation Fellows. This side focuses on quick developments, using agile techniques and multiple data sources. Example: SmokeFreeGov, which is a website, app and Twitter handle all at once. Up the food chain a bit is something like the Labor Department’s Enforcement Database. This pulls information from five databases, each developed separately, so they are more searchable and useful. On the other side are the traditional large-scale developments driven by program managers that still take years and billions of dollars. Case in point: the next generation of electronic health records, torturously pursued by the lumbering Veterans Affairs and Defense departments. Maybe Scott can help each side adopt what is good about the other. Serving each a little taste of the other would be a great strategy. Send a starry-eyed Fellow over to the VA CIO shop for a few weeks. And send some DoD health functionary over to a few hack sessions. This wouldn’t be dogfooding in the classic sense, more like giving the dry kibble eaters a taste of canned, and vice versa. By the way, if you find the term “dogfooding” unpalatable, so did Scott. Thanks again to Bishop, we know from the Puget Sound Business Journal back in 2009 that Scott replaced the term dogfooding with ice-creaming. Feds, pick up your spoons.
Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.