CIOs Uncensored: Homeland Security's First CIO Reflects On The Challenges - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
06:15 PM
John Soat
John Soat

CIOs Uncensored: Homeland Security's First CIO Reflects On The Challenges

Steve Cooper was also the CIO of the American Red Cross, which he says was actually more stressful.

Steve Cooper is a busy man.

Cooper is a founding partner of Strativest, a public-sector consulting firm. He's also president of Fortified Holdings, which, among other things, manufactures a "mobile deployable command platform"--an emergency communications device that incorporates satellite, Wi-Fi, WiMax, and Ethernet in a ruggedized case. Cooper is on the board of Comcare, a nonprofit organization focused on policy issues related to public safety and "first responders," and he's vice chairman of a nonprofit called NetHope, whose tagline is "wiring the global village."

But Steve Cooper is used to being busy. From 2005 to 2007, he was the CIO of the American Red Cross. And before that, he was the first CIO of the Department of Homeland Security. I had to ask him: Which of those two jobs was more stressful? The Red Cross, he answers, without hesitation.

"In Homeland, we had a lot of pressure, but it didn't feel stressful," he says. Cooper and his staff worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week, "driven by what was going on after 9/11." They knew what they wanted to do, and worked as rapidly and effectively as they could to take things off that list. "The stress was, if we don't get something done today, what happens then?" he says.

The stress at the Red Cross was of a different sort. "The Red Cross is a 126-year-old organization that is a phenomenal group of people with some challenges at the board and management level," Cooper says. For one thing, at the Red Cross, IT is looked on mainly as a cost rather than a benefit. "The first question I was asked when I met the board was, 'Are we spending too much money on IT?'" he says, adding, "I had limited success in changing that mind-set."

At Homeland, on the other hand, some agencies embrace the strategic benefits of IT, Cooper says, and leadership is key in that perception. "The Coast Guard gets it," he says, "the Secret Service gets it." However, there are still parts of the organization where IT has not made the leap from cost center to strategic enabler. For instance, "FEMA's somewhere wandering around, not sure if IT's a cost driver," he says.

While one might think the biggest headache of the Homeland assignment would have been the systems integration challenge, it wasn't. "Integration is what President Bush and Secretary Ridge set as the primary objective for the department," Cooper says, and he found the task "analogous" to mergers he'd worked through in the private sector. Before Homeland, Cooper was a CIO at Corning, and before that, director of IT at Eli Lilly.

More challenging was dealing with restraints imposed by working in government. For example, data center consolidation proved difficult because of vested interests. "When I briefed Congress, I didn't think about the location of the data centers," he says. "You have to build a hell of a business case to pull those jobs out of those data centers."

Cooper says he's part of a Homeland alumni group that meets to "reflect on how well we did--and a little bit of thinking about how we would have improved it." He looks back on that time with pride. "We all shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

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