Farewell Kundra, We Hardly Knew Ya


By Tony Kontzer

The announcement last week that Vivek Kundra would leave his post as the nation's first CIO this August to accept a fellowship at Harvard has spurred gratuitous analysis of his all-too-brief tenure. He's being credited by everyone from Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark for bringing a new level of IT efficiency to the federal government and saving the country $3 billion.

But Kundra also has his critics. They argue that his main impact was as a communicator and image reformer who worked to repair the reputation of federal IT, but who didn't spend enough time in the trenches working with federal agencies to understand their particular IT challenges.

I can't argue with his supporters or detractors--I don't know Kundra, and have only surface knowledge of the IT issues facing federal agency CIOs. But I believe I have enough of a perspective to reach one conclusion: Kundra is leaving his post way too early.

It's certainly a safe bet to say that President Barack Obama had a longer stint in mind when he appointed Kundra, and I'm guessing he's probably pretty frustrated at having to find another CIO to lead the nation so soon. It's also safe to say that most of the folks who answered to Kundra are probably feeling a bit deserted at this point--they've had hardly any time to get to know the man and comprehend his big-picture objectives, and now they'll have to start the process all over again.

I may be a bit old-fashioned, but when the President asks you to lead the nation's IT into the 21st century, you don't leave for greener pastures two-and-a-half-years later. Instead, you remind yourself that those greener pastures aren't going anywhere, that plum jobs will await you whenever you decide to make a move, but that you've got a bigger job to do first.

And Kundra came in with appropriately big plans to slash all the wasteful IT spending that had become part of the federal government's DNA, transition federal agencies to cloud computing, and beef up the nation's cybersecurity. None of that is easy stuff that can be achieved in two-and-a-half years; collectively, it would require years of dedication and tenacity to bring an IT strategy to fruition on such a large scale.

Unfortunately, now it will all be inherited by a new CIO, one who may not have the same mindset as Kundra, and who might steer the nation's IT in a different direction. Several names have been floated--names like Veteran Affairs CIO Roger Baker, General Services Administration Associate Administrator Dave McClure, and Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires.

My guess is that whoever President Obama chooses to succeed Kundra will be a proven federal IT lifer, someone he can count on to stick around through his second term, should he be re-elected in 2012.

It's the least he can expect.


10 Comments for "Farewell Kundra, We Hardly Knew Ya"

  • Anastasia August 26, 2013 10:18 pm

    Very good article, and take on what a CIO can save. My first year at our local shoocl district I found 14% in cuts inside the IT budget. Amazing what a line item assessment can find.

  • Skeptic September 08, 2011 7:54 pm

    Sounds suspiciously like the hit-and-run type, especially given his short tenure in previous jobs. Adults stay and cope with problems, especially when (as mentioned above) it is a Presidential assignment. His previous resume always looked a little sketchy to me, so too his conviction for misdemeanor theft, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was out of his depth. His replacement is more impressive - coming in, anyway.

  • Tony Kontzer June 29, 2011 8:27 pm

    Paul, you make an excellent point that I wish I'd have though of first. And if Kundra's legacy shines brighter over time, I'll be among the first to acknowledge that. But you summed up my point perfectly: "results in the public sector take time." Kundra didn't give himself enough time on the job to accomplish more than effectively nudging the country down the cloud computing path--an important accomplishment, admittedly, but only a small part of what he was hired to do.

  • Paul Calento June 29, 2011 5:49 pm

    Kundra's legacy may be his impact on the private sector, over what he accomplished (or attempted to accomplish) in government. Cloud's acceptance as an inevitability is due in some small part to Kundra committing Federal IT to a Cloud First program. A Judy Redman blog points to several applications to private IT and the business-sector CIO (through methodology, case studies, etc.). Criticism goes with the job and results in the public sector take time. Kundra's legacy has yet to be determined. --Paul Calento

  • Tony Kontzer June 27, 2011 3:29 pm

    Ellen: At the risk of alienating you as a reader, I'm pretty appalled that you would cast Kundra's hiring as a racial decision. Not only is the implication mean-spirited and unfounded, it's also irrelevant to the situation. The story here is that Obama (and many other IT leaders, btw) were taken with a young-ish CIO who impressed them with his vision, but who maybe lacked the necessary seasoning to deal with the real, in-the-trenches issues that come with such ambitious changes to how the nation manages its IT. If moving beyond the myopic perspectives of racism makes us a global joke, then I'm proud to be the punch line. Tony Kontzer

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