Does Kundra have an impossible job as Obama's federal CIO?

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama named Vivek Kundra as the CIO of the federal government. Learn what responsibilities the federal CIO will have and why Kundra is well-respected in the IT community.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama named Vivek Kundra as the CIO of the federal government. Kunda (below) is a 34 year-old IT leader with a strong reputation in the tech community. He has track record for driving efficiency and transparency, and has shown a penchant for bold actions such as deploying Web-based applications in government infrastructure known more for its legacy apps than its use of cutting edge software.

Credit: District of Columbia

Credit: District of Columbia

In a statement, Obama said, "Vivek Kundra will bring a depth of experience in the technology arena and a commitment to lowering the cost of government operations to this position. I have directed him to work to ensure that we are using the spirit of American innovation and the power of technology to improve performance and lower the cost of government operations. As Chief Information Officer, he will play a key role in making sure our government is running in the most secure, open, and efficient way possible."

And here's how the White House described the federal CIO's mission and job description (Techmeme):

The Federal Chief Information Officer directs the policy and strategic planning of federal information technology investments and is responsible for oversight of federal technology spending. The Federal CIO establishes and oversees enterprise architecture to ensure system interoperability and information sharing and ensure information security and privacy across the federal government. The CIO will also work closely with the Chief Technology Officer to advance the President's technology agenda.

The Washington Post reported:

Kundra will have budgetary authority to launch entirely new systems within government departments, or kill existing multimillion-dollar IT projects. His decisions could have a large impact on government contractors, such as SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton, that have come to provide the bulk of IT services to agencies.

Kundra has been serving as the Chief Technology Officer of Washington, DC, where he led a staff of over 600 IT workers who served 86 agencies and 38,000 employees. Kundra produced results in DC by pushing for transparency for citizens, utilizing commercial solutions and cloud computing, and making sure IT compliance wasn't the tail that wagged the dog. Kundra also opened up government systems and data for external software developers to use for creating online applications that citizens could use to improve accessd

For the past several months, Kundra has served as an informal technology advisor to Obama, both during the transition and since Obama took office. During that time, Kundra remarked, "One of the biggest problems in the federal government is that process has trumped outcome, and the biggest reason for that is that everybody is focused on compliance and nobody is thinking about innovation and how to drive change within the government...

"When you look at how we lower the cost of government operations, the federal government budget of 70 billion dollars representing approximately 20% of the tech economy why is it that we can't innovate and find better ways of bringing services lowering the cost of government operations and driving transparency and those are the things you are going to see in this administration."

There's no doubt that Kundra is also well regarded in the tech community. In January, Bob Gourley, CTO of Crucial Point LLC, did an interview with Kundra for CTOvision.com. Gourley wrote:

Every CTO I know has heard of Vivek Kundra, CTO of the District of Columbia. We have all been following his accomplishments in transforming the technology program in DC and have watched in excitement as more and more capabilities have been rolled out to serve the city and its citizens. We have followed reports of bold moves he put in place to ensure technology programs deliver. We have read about his new approaches to technology portfolio management and watched as he discussed the leap ahead he delivered to his enterprise by his audacious, courageous use of Google Apps and other cloud-based solutions.

Here are some additional facts about Kundra:

  • Named one of InfoWorld's top 25 CTOs of 2008
  • His DC government mashup project was called Apps for Democracy
  • Launch an internal Wiki for DC government called DCpedia
  • Before working for DC, he served as Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia
  • Served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland; taught courses on emerging and disruptive technologies
  • Worked in the private sector as the vice president of marketing for Evincible Software, a startup working on trusted transactions for government and the finance organizations
  • Served as IT director for Arlington, Virginia
  • Holds an MS in Information Technology from the University of Maryland
  • Holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and biology from the University of Maryland
  • A graduate of the University of Virginia's Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership
  • Uses an iPhone

Here's a short video clip where Kundra talks about his philosophy and his IT work in Washington DC:


Also watch Kundra discuss how he used a mashup of Google Apps to enable faster collaboration among agencies in the DC government:


It's difficult to think of many people who would be better than Kundra as federal CIO. Obama made a solid choice here. If there's any knock against Kundra, it might be that he's fairly young for a CIO and he doesn't have any experience in the tangled Web of the federal government's existing technology infrastructure. That means it will take him a little longer to get up to speed on the current state of the federal government's vast systems and its IT personnel.

There are lots of CIOs running around the federal government, heading up various divisions, departments, and agencies. It's unclear whether all of these IT leaders will now report up through Kundra or if they will continue to report to their respective department heads and simply collaborate with Kundra. Either way, uniting and leading all of them will be as formidable of a task as consolidating and transforming the federal technology infrastructure.

Pulling this off will be an almost impossible task, even for creative leader like Kundra. This might be, arguably, be the worst CIO job in the world. But, he will also have a lot of resources at his disposal and a strong mandate from his new chief executive, so the technology world will certainly be watching to see if Kundra can make true progress.

Obama also noted that he still intends to hire the long-anticipated CTO that he promised during the campaign, and that the CTO will work closely with Kundra, who will handle more of the IT operations while the CTO focuses on technology strategy and policy. For information on the difference between the CIO and CTO roles, see this video.

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