Meet America's first CIO

Meet America's first CIO

Vivek Kundra's track record indicates a discipline for project ROI and a passion for making cool technologies useful


In a surprise announcement, President Obama has named the first federal CIO of the US: Vivek Kundra, CTO of the District of Columbia. (He has yet to name the position he did promise he would create: the first national CTO.) So who is Kundra, and what might his appointment mean for the federal government's direction for and spending on technology?

The District of Columbia has been a leader in smart deployment of technology for years, boasting a succession of strong CTOs. Under Suzanne Peck's tenure, previous to Kundra's, D.C. was among the first to use SOA to rationalize software development efforts, to use XML to make government operational data open for mashups, and to deploy next-gen wireless technology for public safety and other agency usage. Kundra became CTO in 2006 and quickly staked out his own innovation focus.

As D.C.'s CTO, Kundra has emphazied what he calls a stock-market approach to IT project management and the adoption of consumer technologies in business. Both approaches come from the same epiphany he recalls having: The technology most users employ at work is kludgy compared to what they use in their daily routines, even though consumer technologies are often less expensive or even free. "For some weird reason I cannot understand, the way we organize ourselves at work is so much less agile than what we do in our personal lives," Kundra said. "Why not use consumer technology at work?"

The IT "stock market"As D.C.'s CTO, Kundra hired a team of analysts to track projects -- in the style of a financial analyst -- on a daily basis. Smaller projects get bundled into "funds" of related efforts. Pretty quickly, the successes and failures were obvious. For example, the analysts discovered that a three-year enterprise content management project had made little progress and was run by project managers who had four previous failures. "It was not going anywhere. So I decided to 'sell' the stock -- I killed the project -- and put that capital elsewhere," Kundra recalls. In this case, he redirected the money to add mobile laptops to police cars.

The stock metaphor made sense to more business-minded leaders at the district, but Kundra admits he had to really sell the concept to most employees and the 87 agency heads served by his team. "It was an education," he notes drily. What really sold the concept was the result: lower cost due to fewer long-burning misfires.

The stock approach also supplanted the traditional project management mentality of creating specifications and periodically assessing progress against them subjectively. "I wanted a more data-driven model -- after all, the data is the data. If you're over budget for two or three quarters, you can't avoid being exposed," Kundra says. "People don't make tough decisions easily, so you have to show them the data. [As government leaders,] it's our duty to make sure they're not failing," he adds. Objective measurements make that assessment easier.

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