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The CIO-CTO Connection

Federal systems chiefs begin to realize the benefits of relying on chief technology officers to help them deliver the goods for IT projects.

Photography by Cameron Davidson
Interior CIO W. Hord Tipton, right, says the chief reason he hired CTO Daud Santosa is that "it's just too dangerous to let technology happen, if you will, in an unplanned, unorganized, unintegrated manner."

Anyone who thinks a CIO spends part of the day poring over the specs for the latest technologies or doodling on blueprints for a new system needs to chat with Interior Department CIO W. Hord Tipton for a reality check.

When Tipton joined Interior in late 2002, his initial tasks included responding to a lawsuit over the department's lack of adequate Web security, convincing the Office of Management and Budget and Congress of the need for more technology funding, and working with vendors to establish enterprise software contracts to help eliminate redundant systems.

While the individual schedules of other top CIOs in government might vary from Tipton's to some degree, the mix of work is heavy with administrative and management initiatives. A federal CIO barely has enough time during the day to deal with the political, policy and business demands associated with translating mission objectives into information technology support, he says. That's why, Tipton says, he decided to invest some of his sparse personnel resources at Interior in a chief technology officer.

CTOs aren't common across government, but they aren't unheard of either. They can be found at different levels in agencies' command chains. They focus on the nuts and bolts of technology, relative to an agency's mission, enterprise architecture and investment plans. And CIOs say they offer an invaluable service: peace of mind that the technology an agency is pursuing aligns with these overarching strategies.

Tipton says he "wanted someone who could look after technology as a full-time job, both to evaluate new emerging technologies and to help us produce the best technical architecture we could get. To me, it's just too dangerous to let technology happen, if you will, in an unplanned, unorganized, unintegrated manner."

In April 2004, Tipton hired Daud Santosa, a certified IT architecture planner and former CTO at the Patent and Trademark Office. As a result, Interior last summer received an enterprise architecture score of 4.06 (out of 5) from OMB, the highest of 26 agencies rated.

"The fast pace of technology today requires a dedicated individual who can focus on it," Santosa says. "Without a CTO, a CIO has to rely on marketing from the vendor."

New, Sort of

Although they've been around in industry for some time, CTOs are a relatively new phenomenon in the federal government. Of the Cabinet agencies, nine besides Interior have CTOs: the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, State, Transportation and Veterans Affairs, and the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Management and Budget. Many independent agencies also now have tech chiefs, including the Defense Information Systems Agency, General Services Administration, FBI and Postal Service.

"The CTO has become much more common in government, though it's still not as common as a CIO," says Fred Thompson, vice president of management and technology for the Council on Excellence in Government in Washington. A chief reason, Thompson notes, is that no law or OMB policy mandates the hiring of CTOs, as is the case with the CIO, deputy CIO and chief architect — as well as CFOs.

For that same reason, the CTO's role also varies from agency to agency. Some CTOs are considered the No. 2 IT executive; others are further down the food chain. In some cases, the CTO is a part-time position, with one person also responsible for deputy CIO tasks.

The CTO can wear multiple hats, often acting as a primary adviser to the CIO and other senior officials on the IT staff, but also sometimes splitting the workday with a second role, such as being the deputy CIO or an associate CIO, says Transportation's Tim Schmidt. Schmidt does just that, serving as both the CTO and as associate CIO for IT services at his department.

However things shake out bureaucratically, the job description of the work done by federal CTOs tends to be fairly similar across agencies. They generally are responsible for technology evaluation and provide advice on implementing the most appropriate systems and applications in support of the business planning requirements and the enterprise architecture.

At the purchasing stage, a CTO will get involved in looking at what products are being considered and separating sales hype from reality. As a project gets close to implementation, the task switches to looking at whether the selected hardware and software align to the current enterprise architecture and support the agency's long-term vision.

"The CTO position is very much driven by the technology perspective," says John McManus, CTO and deputy CIO for NASA. "How are technologies emerging? How are they evolving? How do they fit in with what's already out there? Then it's a matter of bringing that information in so the CIO side can make decisions about what makes the most sense for the core IT services we provide and for the critical needs of the agency. It's a neat blend."

Mix It Up

It's also a blend that is increasingly critical for effective and efficient IT operations in the government, Thompson says. A driving factor in the move to hire CTOs has been the Federal Enterprise Architecture, which requires agencies to coordinate their systems with governmentwide activities.

"The fact that it focuses on business missions and relates technical performance on shared services at the federal level and within each agency requires somebody to be at the wheel there and really understand how all those things relate," Thompson says.

For agencies, the benefits of having a CTO working alongside a CIO can be tremendous. At Interior, for example, Santosa took it upon himself to develop centers of excellence on common technology approaches that could eliminate the need for multiple subject matter experts across the department. And with Tipton's support, Santosa has created an Interior CTO Council so all of his fellow CTOs within the department's bureaus can work together to leverage their joint knowledge and coordinate programs based on the departmentwide architecture.

"It takes a great load off of me as a CIO to not have to make uncomfortable decisions about technology in a vacuum," Tipton says. "I've got someone who can research it, who knows more about it than me and who can give solid advice that I can act on. Having a CTO adds tremendous value to any organization."

And while CTOs are technology hawks, NASA's McManus says, they're not techno geeks, so don't be surprised to see them in business suits and even carrying briefcases. "We don't show up in black jeans, black T-shirts and tennis shoes."

Dec 31 2009

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