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Dell World: Kundra Shares Federal CIO Lessons

Dell World attendees get an inside look at the challenges of being a federal CIO--and at the numbers involved.
"I want to say thanks to Michael Dell for the disruption he is driving in computing in the federal government," said Vivek Kundra, former CIO of the federal government, speaking Thursday at Dell World in Austin, Texas.

Kundra, who spoke right after Michael Dell rallied the enterprise IT troops, described the challenges and barriers to change as he took over as federal CIO at the start of the Obama administration.

He stayed late each night when he first took office, he said, to work on a dashboard displaying the status of federal IT projects. The dashboard was a personal goal that he wanted to establish as a sign of how IT was now more accountable, and Kundra said he worked with programmers from 7 p.m. to midnight each night, to get the project done in his first 60 days.

"People said, you don't understand. The government doesn't do anything in 60 days," he recalled. But the dashboard was his response to lagging or incomplete IT projects. "I vividly remember walking into my office the first day and being handed a stack of PDF documents that contained $27 billion in IT projects that were over budget and behind schedule," he said.

[What did Kundra leave unfinished? See Federal IT's Revolving-Door Problem. ]

Kundra did not discuss his current role as a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard. But he managed to share some examples of the budget battles that he faced inside Washington.

He reviewed a Department of Defense ERP system still under development at a cost of $850 million after 10 years. The new administration decided to discontinue the project and look for a packaged alternative "rather than continuing to throw good money after bad," he said.

The Department of Agriculture saved $45 million by moving its multiple email systems to the cloud, he said. "The Secretary to the Department of Interior couldn't send out a message to his whole staff because he had 13 different email systems," he recalled.

"Most CIOs were focused on building their next data center. Over the last ten years, the number of data centers went from 432 to 2,000. The average utilization rate of each data center was 27%," he said. Kundra issued a directive that federal agencies were to think of working with a government Infrastructure-as-a-Service center, to utilize cloud efficiencies, rather than build another data center.

"Our goal became to shut down 800 of them by 2015," a course that he thinks the government is still on, he said.

So many data centers are multiple points of exposure to attack and infiltration, as one site falls behind another in keeping its operating systems patched and up to date. In the long run, "the federal government should have three digital Fort Knoxes," where all government processing takes place within secure facilities, he said.

Kundra still urges greater transparency in government operations and in access to government data. After the Consumer Product Safety Commission released the right data, an iPhone developer was able to produce an app that checked whether a crib you were considering buying had ever been recalled. The app was later extended, to allow parents to scan cribs already in use in the home, to see if they had undergone any product recalls, he said.

Our annual Federal Government IT Priorities Survey shows how agencies are managing the many mandates competing for their limited resources. Also in the new issue of InformationWeek Government: NASA veterans launch cloud startups, and U.S. Marshals Service completes tech revamp. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)