CIOs will need new skill sets, new priorities, says Hall

Friday - 9/10/2010, 5:39pm EDT

Woody Hall

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Some Federal CIOs have been asking for a larger role in their agencies for a long time. And smart agency leaders outside the IT shop recognize that having their technology team involved in making decisions is saving the agency money and easing transitions to new processes and technologies.

One former Federal CIO is on board with that vision for a new breed of technology leader. Woody Hall is now vice president of IT Strategy and CIO for General Dynamics Information Technology. His experience as CIO at the US Customs Service and the Energy Department, and the connections he maintains with his former colleagues, are telling him Federal CIOs are ready to take on this new responsibility.

"The biggest challenge for most of my colleagues who are still in government service is trying to find ways to leverage the resources they have, and to keep up with the constantly evolving technology," Woody told me. "Second to that would be staying on top of security issues. I think security is a challenge for everyone, both in and out of government. I think the biggest challenge there is the threat is constantly changing, and the threat is very sophisticated."

That sophistication suggests a budget rewrite. "You have to be very thoughtful about how you invest in your security portfolio going forward, because it's a very complex balancing act," Woody told me. "It's about people - you've got to have trained, skilled people who know how to detect a threat, how to contain it once it's detected, how to correct the system so it's not vulnerable in that way again."

The power curve at agencies will change when CIOs are empowered with more abilities - and more responsibilities. "It starts to sound like [the knowledge associated with] an MBA. The role of CIO is becoming more businesslike and more operational. Successful CIOs going forward are going to have to adapt," Woody suggested.

But getting that recognition - and power - may be more difficult at some agencies than others, and Woody had some advice for CIOs that have to be more proactive to get their due. "You've got to make yourself relevant. No one else can do that for you. It helps when the head of the agency comes equipped with a value for IT, but where that doesn't happen, you've got to make the case for why you've got to be part of the decision-making process," Woody recommended. "The reason I think that's so important is there are so many competing demands for your time and your resources, that you've got to make the right tradeoffs as you go."

All of this is important because Woody believes the CIO is a critical component of every agency's C-suite. "You've really got to have a very good sense of what your organization's operational goals are, and there's no real way to do that unless you're part of the conversation. I don't think it's so much about status. It's about understanding where the organization is headed, and what the evolving requirements are, that you can then enable with new applications of technology."

How do you get that knowledge? "Try to have a good sense of what the priorities are, and what the timing is, and then you build that into your own planning, so that the way you deliver new technology aligns closely with the needs of the organization. So you really do need to be heavily involved in the operational part of the organization," Woody says.

We also talked about how the role of the CIO may change in the future ("the role of a CIO will evolve much like you see technology evolve...it moves through time, plateaus, moves through time, plateaus, much like technology"); the advantages of cloud computing, and why government adaption has taken so long ("[the name] cloud computing has probably done more disservice to the concept than anything; we spent two years arguing about what it was instead of how to use it"); internal vs. external cybersecurity threats; and demonstrating ROI for training resources to keep your non-IT users up to date on network hygiene. He also updated his five steps of successful IT project management, originally written about 18 months ago.

You can hear the entire conversation with Woody Hall by clicking on the audio link.