VanRoekel: Tech Veteran is a Rookie in the Federal CIO Role
By Tony Kontzer I have nothing against Steven VanRoekel. At the age of 41, he has logged 15 years with Microsoft and served as managing director of the Federal Communications Commission--an impressive career arc. He's developed a reputation for innovation, both at Microsoft and the FCC, where he led the effort to refresh the agency's sprawling web site, a relaunch he chatted up in a recent post on the FCC blog.
But in naming VanRoekel to be the nation's second CIO--replacing Vivek Kundra, who's leaving to accept a fellowship at Harvard University--President Barack Obama and the rest of the White House brain trust opted to overlook what I believe to be one glaring red flag on VanRoekel's resume: He's never been a CIO. And not even a glowing endorsement from Craig Newmark can gloss over that fact.
Consider that Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, in a blog post welcoming VanRoekel, wrote that the new CIO is the right choice because "He brings a lifelong passion for technology to the position, having spent his entire career in technology in both the public and private sectors."
Stop me if I'm wrong, but that sounds suspiciously like an NFL owner trying to justify the decision to hire some collegiate assistant coach to run his team. In fact, if I were defining job requirements for the nation's CIO, "passion for technology" and "having spent one's entire career in technology" would qualify as baseline assumptions that don't need to be stated. Instead, I'd be more interested in finding someone who has experience with things such as running IT operations for a complex enterprise with global reach, a track record of balancing the demands of users with the need to adhere to strict security and compliance policies, and a demonstrated understanding of the intersection of business and technology in an increasingly challenging economic environment.
Then again, all indications are that the White House wasn't looking for someone with those kinds of leadership qualities. Rather, President Obama and his lieutenants appear to have been looking for someone who could step in and finish Kundra's numerous incomplete initiatives, all of which are outlined in the ambitious 25-point IT reform plan he didn't stick around long enough to see to fruition.
"This is not a situation where we're asking someone to come in and make radical changes to priorities or to the strategic agenda," Jeffrey Zients, the nation's chief performance officer (can't say I even knew we had one of those), acknowledged to reporters last Thursday.
Let's face it--there are a lot of terrific CIOs out there with applicable experience who would have seemed to be ideal choices to succeed Kundra. Maybe they were considered, and maybe President Obama knows exactly what he's doing. Maybe he didn't want to run the risk of an experienced CIO coming in and opting to put his or her own fingerprints on the job by rethinking Kundra's strategy. If so, that instinct better prove to be right, or there will be a lot of answering to do if the job proves too much for VanRoekel. The man is stepping into a pressure cooker of a job, with sky-high expectations. Let's see if he's up to the task.