Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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9/30/2009
11:48 PM
Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson
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Vivek Kundra: All Customers, All The Time

CIOs are an interesting lot, cast as both business and technology leaders. Get them talking about agile development, and the inner geek appears. Talk about net present value, and they grab their lapels and straighten their pocket squares. But today's CIO talks increasingly about the customer, and if our nation's CIO, Vivek Kundra is paid every time does, he might be able to help bail out both the banks and the car companies.

CIOs are an interesting lot, cast as both business and technology leaders. Get them talking about agile development, and the inner geek appears. Talk about net present value, and they grab their lapels and straighten their pocket squares. But today's CIO talks increasingly about the customer, and if our nation's CIO, Vivek Kundra is paid every time does, he might be able to help bail out both the banks and the car companies.You can watch Mr. Kundra's keynote at this year's InformationWeek 500 conference below (by the way, word was that he wouldn't stay at the posh seaside resort where we hosted the conference, appearances being what they are).

Kundra drove his message home pretty clear: 10,000 systems, 1.9 million federal employees, 23 data centers at the Department of Homeland Security alone, $600,000 in red tape and operating costs to run a blog, and it all adds up to $76b IT budget, and a system that, in his mind, wasn't working to serve 300 million customers.

Too much of that money is spent on infrastructure, on architecture, on networks that, while necessary, serve to keep things running and had not enabled innovation on behalf of customers. The government must change the flow of dollars from those projects, to projects that will enable an open and transparent government across every agency, that will re-think business processes.

The first step toward transparency was to create a dashboard that shows taxpayers where the money is spent and how projects performed. Surely, there was a great deal of internal angst from various IT sectors within the government; why wouldn't there be. But instead of storms of criticism, what they got, Kundra said, is conversations about how to turn around things that seemed to be failing. Instead of public outcry, they got public participation.

The Veterans Administration halted 45 projects immediately when they saw how they were performing, and then reached out to various stakeholders to figure out how to make things better.

When the administration launched Data.Gov, they began with only 47 data feeds. There are now 110,000, and by creating a platform upon which organizations can provide applications, they started to see a great deal of innovation, like FlyOnTime, where you can look at average delay times on a flight you're about to book.

Customers care about efficiency as well. Kundra likes to give the example of FASFA, the federal student loan application, which he says is more complicated than the 1040 tax form. They worked to take out 70 questions and more than 20 screens, and provide auto-fill for some information on the form. To make a difference, Kundra said, you have to "think from a citizen's perspective."

He also gave the example of Homeland Security's naturalization process, where you never have an idea of where you stand; and yet, when you buy a pair of shoes online, you know exactly where those shoes are in every step of the customer delivery chain.

There is something both refreshing and distressing about all of this. Transparency and customer centricity are fabulous goals, and they are, to hear Kundra speak, already starting to work. But if we plan to make our infrastructure secondary, forgettable, or toss it all to the cloud and trust it will all work out, then all of these wonderful application won't ever see the light of a customer's eyes.

As much as I delighted in hearing about Cincinnati Children's Hospital's Customer Care Portal, and Wells Fargo's mobile banking applications and paperless ATM system, I know that there are vast, complicated systems behind all of that. And while those may be boring to discuss on stage in front of hundreds of peers, or to divulge the details of to inquiring journalists, it's what enables those wonderful applications. Let's not forget our inner architect.

Even Mr. Kundra got a little bounce in his step talking about agile development . . . then he fixed his tie and pressed on.

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