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12/29/2004
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The Toughest CIO Job In The World

Imagine being the CIO of a newly created company with 180,000 employees and an annual budget topping $40 billion, including $226 million earmarked for enterprise technology investments. Task One: combine 22 diverse companies of size into a single enterprise with a unified architecture. Task Two: Help create imaginative use of technology to thwart terrorism.

Imagine being the CIO of a newly created company with 180,000 employees and an annual budget topping $40 billion, including $226 million earmarked for enterprise technology investments. Task One: combine 22 diverse companies of size into a single enterprise with a unified architecture. Task Two: Help create imaginative use of technology to thwart terrorism.That's Steve Cooper, the CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, a post he has held for nearly two years. It's a job often described as the toughest CIO job in America-make that the world.

"A lot of people say that," Cooper says. "There are days I would absolutely not disagree with that at all. There's one day a year when I wouldn't agree. I just haven't run into that day yet."

That wry sense of humor likely helps Cooper keep his sanity.

* * *

A recent Homeland Security Inspector General's report strongly suggests that more can be done with IT at Homeland Security if the CIO post is elevated within the organization. Cooper also thinks the CIO post should be elevated-it's now three rungs below the secretary-but he contends he has significant influence in departmental policy as a member of the department's Investment Review Board, which decides how Homeland Security spends its money.

"What's more important than the actual reporting structure is the simple fact that the CIO is involved in key policies and decisions," Cooper says. "It doesn't matter to whom the CIO reports."

Still, perceptions in Washington often equates reality, a point in which Cooper is cognizant. "Because of the way things are done in the federal government, rank is so important, and reporting relationships then become very important." Yet, he points out, Homeland Security's CIO is a job of much clout; it's one of the relatively few posts in Washington requiring a presidential appointment. * * *

Obviously, being well organized is a requisite for the job. Cooper maintains a list of the top 200 out of nearly 500 tasks the IT staff needs to get done. During the first half-year of the department's existence, Cooper shared that list with his subordinates. He no longer does. "We'd make steady progress on the top 10 items but no progress on the last 100; it was discouraging people," Cooper says.

It's not that items on the bottom of the list aren't important-they are, Cooper maintains-but the department just lacks the resources to tackle all of them.

* * *

Cooper is inundated with E-mail, receiving some 600 messages a day [not including spam that's filtered out]. Much of the E-mail comes from vendors seeking contracts from the department, and filters direct those to messages to appropriate departmental officials who handle outside contractors.

The filters work well, at least from this reporter's perspective. Cooper received an E-mail requesting an interview sent at 3:11 p.m. on a recent Monday, and he responded 28 minutes later. Still, he says, since taking the job, he has 16,000 unread messages, many I assume from the early days of the department.

* * *

Cooper recognizes his job is tough, but he quickly points out he isn't the only one within the department who facing daunting challenges. "You don't read this in the papers," he says, "but the real tribute should go to the nearly 200,000 people of the departments who bust their butts everyday to ensure the safety of the U.S."

* * *

In an InformationWeek story, Cooper hints that his days as Homeland Security's CIO may be numbered. A former CIO at Eli Lilly and Corning, Cooper finds the challenge of the job as the most exhilarating one of his career. "It's also the most frustrating job that I've had," he says. We'll soon know whether he'll get to continue having these see-saw emotions.

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