Vivek Kundra: The Alpha CTO

vivekkundra2Every 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.

If you are not one of those familiar with Vivek, here is a short bio: Vivek Kundra is the CTO for the District of Columbia where he leads an organization of over 600 staff that provides technology services and leadership for 86 agencies, 38,000 employees, residents, businesses, and 14 million annual visitors. He brings to the role of CTO a diverse record that combines technology and public policy experience in government, private industry, and academia. Previously, Vivek served as Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia, the first dual cabinet role in the state’s history.  In the private sector, Vivek led technology companies serving national and international customers. Earlier he served as Director of Infrastructure Technology for Arlington, Virginia. He also taught classes on emerging and disruptive technologies at the University of Maryland. Since Vivek became District CTO, he has been honored with major IT awards. In 2008, the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium recognized him among outstanding IT innovators. In addition, InfoWorld Magazine named Vivek among its “CTO 25″.

I recently saw Vivek at a meeting of the Washington Area CTO Roundtable, an informal collective of area CTOs led by Yuvi Kochar, CTO of the Washington Post Company. Before the meeting we chatted about mashup technologies (including his Apps for Democracy  contest and also JackBe).  During the meeting Vivek discussed several aspects of his innovative efforts to transform the District’s information technology infrastructure.   A point that struck me was his leadership through principles.  Three key ones he articulated were: 1) Leveraging commercial technology, 2) Driving transparency, and 3) Rethinking notions of IT governance.

Vivek and I just finished a phone call where we discussed these and other items in more detail.  Here is a bit more on his approach.

1) Leveraging commercial technology: Commercial radios and cell phones allowed a rapid enhancement of the tactical communications infrastructure of the DC workforce, including the police workforce.  Police squad cars are also now equipped with commercial, but toughened, laptops.  Commercial web technology has been leveraged in ways that leaped ahead of old clunky office automation and also enable rapid development and mashups.

2) Driving transparency and engaging citizens: Technology impediments to information access and information sharing were eliminated in ways that enable citizens to see how government decisions are being made. Data was also exposed in ways that enabled mashups and agile programing/development.  Examples include DCs digital public square and Apps for Democracy efforts.

3) Rethinking notions of IT governance: Totally new, innovative ways to manage IT portfolios were created and used to ensure all stakeholders could evaluate the technology program and better make informed decisions on when to terminate programs and where to invest more money.  Chief among these innovations was an approach to portfolio management that replicates a stock market trading floor.  More important, however is the relentless focus on performance and innovation to support performance.  Beside rethinking these notions of governance Vivek also took measures to smartly watch/reduce/reprioritize IT costs.

I asked Vivek for thoughts that might be relevant to technologists who have set their sites on careers where they can deliver results.  Many of us would like to follow in his footsteps.  I wondered, if there is a particular computer programing language we should all be learning now?  Should we be diving into Python?  That’s hot now.  And what about databases? MySQL and Hadoop are all the rage.  The thoughts I got back from Vivek were incredibly insightful and far more relevant than the simplistic question I asked.

V:  Technology is important, and we do need to know technology.  But in these very exciting times where Moore’s law pushes us all forward it is actually more important to be able to quickly learn new technology rather than focus on one and only one.  This is the beauty of the new world of technology. There is always something to learn.  We should also always remember that the reason to learn is the mission.  To an enterprise CTO, technology by itself is worthless.  Technology only has value if it addresses business problems and drives business success. Therefore technologists must have an ability to translate between the worlds of mission needs and technology and need an ability to rapidly learn and deeply understand both.

I asked Vivek for his intention for sharing his models and methods, since they have clearly delivered success in DC.  He is doing quite a bit there so all of us who would like more info have plenty of ways to learn more:

V: The DC CTO site at http://octo.dc.gov provides links to many of the ongoing activities of the office and for those who would like more on the models that produce the results we link to policies, guidelines and procedures.  We also provide information on how our governance process works.   But additionally we host visits to our office by interested parties and have begun blogging about them.  In another effort we hope will help move the models forward we are pressing ahead with plans to turn our stock market approach to portfolio management into an open model and will open source the code that makes it work, which should help drive more innovation there.

Speaking of innovation, Vivek seems to have found a way to accelerate innovation, which is something all CTOs are interested in doing.  I asked him for his thoughts on where to look for innovation.  Another interesting reply:

V:  You can look for innovation many places, but remembering that necessity is the mother of invention you should keep an eye open for places that innovate because they really need to.  I always keep an eye on the developing world and am so incredibly amazed at the tech innovation there.  Enterprise IT does not mean that every program and project must be delivered with huge budgets and huge staffs and the incredible innovations coming out of the developing world prove that time and time again.  I’m excited and enthused about developments like cell phone voting in Estonia, electronic census that works in Chili, fishing villages around the world using instant direct data to plan movement.  Innovation occurs many places, but some of the greatest lessons for innovation are coming from the developing world.

I asked Vivek about how to find balance between setting standards and enabling innovation:

V:  Standards are important, but if a standard gets in the way of innovation kill it.   Use standards that enable innovation. This is the role of the CTO.

Vivek also offered thoughts on social networks.

V:  In seeking ways to make your cycles of innovation move faster, never underestimate the power of social networking tools and the networks you can build with them.  Facebook is the example most talked about but there are many others including networks built around ecommerce like eBay and Amazon.  I believe we should not only embrace them to enable the power of social networking but to help us leverage, in a large way, the IT infrastructure of these platforms.   The new generations today are making maximum use of these platforms and I view this as a very optimistic point.

As for me, I view the results of Vivek Kundra and his models as optimistic points.  The great thing about being a CTO is the learning never stops in this field and Vivek is a great teacher we should all be learning from.For more on Vivek and the way hew views technology, including some of his inputs to the Obama adminstration, see: http://www.ctovision.com/2009/01/federal-government-technology-directions-and-the-fed-cto.html

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About Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley is the publisher of CTOvision.com and DelphiBrief.com and the new analysis focused Analyst One Bob's background is as an all source intelligence analyst and an enterprise CTO. Find him on Twitter at @BobGourley

  • Deepak Marwah

    Great synopsis – I had to read the whole post just now. I've met Vivek on a couple of occassions, and it is not just his ideas that set him apart but also his communication style, which is something all CTOs can learn from. He is able to take great technical ideas, communicate them effectively, and motivate his workforce around him to conquer tactical, business oriented solutions. This is no small feat.
    The Apps for Democracy is a great example of an idea that has led to clear solutions for DC residents. I think one additional point is that there is room to even create jobs by opening up public data. Vivek's push for an open government may mean more than just transparency – it may open doors for business. I am looking forward to seeing more over the coming years.

  • Bryson Bort

    Great summary (as always)– it's amazing how quickly Vivek was able to establish governance across such a broad portfolio. Do you know where there is more information on the stock market approach? The key seems to be the mix of quantitative and qualitative metrics that synthesizes into a buy/hold/sell.

  • http://bobgourley.com Bob

    Thanks for the comments. I do know Vivek is continuing to move info out to others on his approaches. I heard he will be opening up more info on the stock market approach soon. As soon as I hear of that I'll report here.

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