Q & A: Gen. Colin Powell On Leadership In Times Of Change

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks with InformationWeek about "commander's risk," cybersecurity, H1-B visas, Facebook, and his most immediate concerns for the United States.

The real challenge is, how do you defend yourself against all that while putting security systems in that don't get in the way. To get just a little parochial, Fortify Software -- you know I'm a limited partner in Kleiner Perkins and we've invested in Fortify -- what they're trying to do is get into the heart of the source code and start the protection there, instead of putting barbed wire fences around everything. We've got to keep finding creative ways to protect our systems but not to the point where the systems lose their effectiveness of the very reason we have them.

There's a parallel here to how we make it hard for people to get visas. At some point you're paying too much for your protection. I faced this as Secretary of State because I owned the visa system. After 9/11 we had to shut it down. We started opening it up, but we're still not where we ought to be in terms of letting people into this country and getting them visas in a proper way. Not that I want terrorists to get in. I want people who want to come here to go to school, who want to work in our hospitals. After 9/11, we were protecting ourselves but at a tremendous cost, because these people we wanted in our schools were going to France and Britain and Australia, and we were not only losing them but losing their money and talents.

Look at the two guys who were just appointed to cyberbusiness here in Washington [Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra]. They're both of Indian descent. The technical infrastructure of this country has been enriched by the immigrants who have come here to study, picked up the skills, and have stayed to apply them here. Many of them are now going home.

InformationWeek: Have you changed your view at all given the scarcity of jobs in the U.S.?

Gen. Powell: No. Sometimes jobs are scarce and other times jobs are there. You go through these cycles. You've got to make sure that you do everything you can to hire qualified Americans for the jobs, but the fact of the matter is that some of the best technical abilities rest in other countries and we cannot afford to deny ourselves that opportunity. So let's have a sensible H-1B visa process that brings in what we need and gives them a chance for citizenship. I think it enriches our country and our economy.

InformationWeek: I assume you're an optimist about this country, but what's your single biggest concern for the future of the United States and future generations of citizens?

Gen. Powell: My immediate concern is the economy. We need to get the economy back on track. It's partly a matter of getting Wall Street back on track. We've got a lot of people in the countryside who are hurting, who have lost their homes, who have lost their jobs.

For the future of this country, longer term, we have to fix our education system. We have the greatest universities in the world -- seven of the top 10 are American. But a third of all of our kids don't finish high school. And if they're inner-city minority, Black or Hispanic, 50% don't finish high school. In some inner cities, 74% don't finish high school. That is a moral failure. It is an educational tragedy. These kids will then produce kids who are not achievers. It is an economic hit we cannot afford, especially when we're competing with hundreds of millions of people around the world who used to be our enemies but now are our trading partners.

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis on government IT priorities. Download the report here (registration required).