Former IBM executive Gloria Parker has the kind of resumÃ© that
quickens the pulse of federal headhunters.
Parker, now chief technology officer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development
(HUD), began at IBM as a systems engineer overseeing customers' technology
implementations. She spent 17 years guiding corporate customers in finding the right
technology to meet their business needs, and she left the company as a high-level marketing
executive. The IBM experience taught Parker the strong technical and management skills
required to run IT operations for a federal agency, as well as the marketing skills needed to
persuade government officials to support technology initiatives.
"One of the things I brought that has
been extremely helpful is marketing and
being able to convince the executive level,
in plain English, why IT is important," she
says. "You just can't talk to them in
technical terms and say, 'Let's move on
these bells and whistles.' You have to
explain the impact the technology will
have on the business you're trying to run."
Parker is one of many top federal IT
officers who have extensive private sector
experience, particularly in IT. Of the 15
cabinet-level agencies' chief information
officers, 11 have had long careers in the
private sector, ranging from senior
positions at Fortune 500 technology,
consulting and pharmaceutical companies
to partners in law and venture capital firms.
Federal CIOs, whose budgets range
from hundreds of millions to several
billions of dollars, have historically
worked behind the scenes. However,
they've taken a more active role in recent
years as e-government and cybersecurity
have increased in importance. As federal
requirements to justify spending become
more stringent, private sector executives
who understand technology and have
proved their ability to run successful
businesses while staying on budget are
valuable assets in government offices.
"When someone like me comes to the
government, I'm different by virtue of
my experience in the private sector,"
says former AT&T executive Daniel
Mehan, who is now CIO of the Federal
Aviation Administration. "It's helpful to
get a mix of executives who have long-time government experience and some
with long-time private experience. You
get the best of both worlds. The diversity
and melding of them gives you a better
Leaving the Private Sector
Former executives often switch to the
public lifeÂmany sacrificing higher-paying jobsÂbecause of the challenge
that the position of a public sector CIO
brings and because of an altruistic desire
to do something good for the country.
For example, former Dell Computer
executive Robert McFarland became the
assistant secretary for information and
technology, as well as the CIO, of the
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
earlier this year to repay a debt he feels he's
owed the government for four decades.
The Texas native says that when he was
18, he was an at-risk youth with no future.
But the Army straightened him out.
"I was a restless, listless kid who
probably could have wound up in serious
trouble," says McFarland, who was
drafted by the Army and fought in
Vietnam. "The military taught me
responsibility, teamwork, respect for
authorityÂall those fundamental things.
It allowed me to come out a bona fide
citizen and stay out of trouble. It gave me
a basis on which I could develop a career
and my life in a proper fashion."
On McFarland's return from Vietnam,
he earned a business management degree
and subsequently spent 33 years in
technology companies. The last seven of
those years were spent at Dell where he
held several senior positions, including
vice president of government relations,
as well as vice president and general
manager of several business units. As
soon as he retired last year, he received a
recruiting call from the VA. Forty years
after starting his career in the military,
McFarland is back in government.
"My retirement wasn't as long as I had
anticipated," he recalls, "but my mission
here is an important one. It's a unique
opportunity to repay my debt."
A New Environment
Parker didn't expect to stay in the public
sector for a decade. In 1994, a former
IBM colleague called to tell her that the
U.S. Education Department's director of
information resources management had
recently died, and a replacement was
The job piqued her interest, Parker
says. After years of selling technology to
customers, she wanted to see what the
other side was like, so she promised to
stay two years. Once at Education, she
quickly led efforts to upgrade the
department's technology, improve the
reliability of computing systems, move
business tasks such as human resources
applications online, and make student
financial aid forms available on the Web.
"For the first time, I was in a position
where I could put a vision in place and
watch that vision unfold," says Parker,
who was promoted to deputy CIO at
Education before she moved to HUD.
Now, 10 years later, she remains in the
public sector, intoxicated by her ability to
make a difference both technologically
and sociologically. An African American,
she excelled in math as a student but was
discouraged by teachers who told her that
black women didn't enter that field. As she
rose in the ranks at IBM, the naysayers
continued. In fact, a colleague once told
her to stop worrying about her career and
focus on being a good wife and mother.
Their words served to strengthen her
resolve to succeed and prove them wrong.
Today, Parker's position of prominence
allows her to serve as a role model for
other African Americans, particularly
those who want to enter IT.
"When I was a little girl, I wanted to be
in a position to truly have an impact," says
Parker, who has a bachelor's degree in
mathematics. "Now I see that I do make a
positive difference in people's lives.
"I've mentored a lot of young black
twenty-somethings. They see me in
magazines and newspapers, and they get
bold, call me up and say, 'Can I just
come and meet you?' I talk to them, and
they say, 'When I saw you, I knew that I
could do this.' It paints a picture to them
that it's doable."
At FedEx, Douglas Bourgeois walked
away from his job as managing director of
global customer service technology to
become CIO at the U.S. Patent and
Trademark Office for two main reasons:
a patriotic duty to serve the government
and the job's challenges.
Three years ago, the agency needed
a CIO to create an online registration
system and to migrate millions of
paper-based patent and trademark
applications to the Web.
"When I interviewed, I saw the
challenge of an organization that wanted to
go from a 200-year-old paper-based model
to something completely electronic," says
Bourgeois, whose three-year e-government
project is near completion.
A fascination with intellectual property
issues also lured him to the job, says
Bourgeois, who has written software for
an aerospace company and a financial
institution. "I've come to realize, from a
financial and corporate standpoint, the
broader [issues] and macroeconomics of
patents and trademarks and how they
help fuel technology innovation," he says.
Transitioning to Public Life
CIOs say the government's reputation for
being slow and bureaucratic is true, but
that it's not necessarily a bad thing.
In the fast pace of the private sector,
companies tend to make snap decisions in
an effort to stay competitive. In the public
sector, government must take time to
ensure that it makes the right decisions.
One of the toughest parts of the transition
from private sector to public sector life is
the change in expectations, say CIOs who
have made the transition.
In the private sector, the bottom line
represents profits and the company's
financial health. At IBM, Parker says, her
job performance was measured by how
well she did in five areas: customer
satisfaction, employee morale, revenue,
administrative metrics and profits.
Mehan, of the FAA, describes the
private sector as focused on the short
term, while the federal government is
focused on the long term. "In the private
sector, there are quarterly results that
shareholders and the board look at," he
says. "The government works toward a
longer-term gain and wants to look at
things over several years."
Both sectors take different approaches
to survive, he points out. The private
sector, particularly technology companies,
must continually invent new products to
stay competitive, and firms must answer
to their stockholders. The government, in
contrast, competes primarily against its
own record. But it must make decisions
methodically and deliberately because it
has to make the right decisions for the
entire nation, he says.
"The government has to move slower
because it has a bigger impact," Mehan
points out. "In the private sector, it's
important to be faster and bolder. It's
survival of the fittest. But the checks and
balances are the hundreds of players [in
the industry]. If one company makes a
mistake or goes out of business, it isn't
catastrophic, because others will quickly
take its place in the market."
Mehan, who spent 31 years at AT&T,
marketing telephone systems and serving
as CIO for the company's international
businesses, says that neither the short-term outlook of the private sector nor the
long-term view of the public sector is by
itself the right answer.
"The truth is in the middle," Mehan
says. "That's why hiring a person with a
private sector perspective is good. You
start to have those debates, such as
'Aren't there some things that could be
Parker agrees. When she first arrived in
the public sector, federal agencies were
more concerned with processesÂhow
things are runÂthan with performance
and results. But that's changing, she says.
At HUD, she's instituted a policy
of measuring technology performance.
Previously, the agency measured only
whether technology remained up and
running. Now, however, it also measures
technology's impact on solving a
business problem, she says.
Some years ago, the agency provided
benefits to people who turned out to be
unqualified citizens. HUD implemented a
new policy and new technology to remedy
the problem. Now that HUD measures
performance and results, the agency can
tell whether a technology is doing its job.
"We would just say, 'That system was
built, and it's running 99 percent of the
time,'" she says. "But today, we see that
technology has drastically reduced the
occurrence of giving benefits to the
At Patent and Trademark, Bourgeois
cautions that the slow and bureaucratic
label slapped on the federal government
doesn't apply to government IT workers.
"What I've found in the Patent and
Trademark Office is that it's staffed by a
talented, extremely hardworking group of
people," he says. "It's every bit the same
level of dedication I saw at FedEx."
Viewing the Job From Both Sides
CIOs who have worked both sides say
that another difference in government
lies in answering not only to the agency's
leaders, but also to politicians and
industry groups, as well as to the citizens
that a particular agency serves.
"You put all those interests together,
and in order to influence and effect
change in a positive way, you're required
to consider a lot of viewpoints," says
Bourgeois. "It takes a lot of effort
and communication to avoid
misunderstandings. In the private sector,
there's much more need for speed that
doesn't allow for interacting all the time."
But private sector experience can
prepare federal CIOs to cater to different
parties, the FAA's Mehan points out. He
says that managing some of AT&T's
international businesses in the 1990s
required him to understand and forge
partnerships with many different cultures.
At the FAA, says Mehan, "I report to
my administrator. That's my primary
relationship. But I also have to be aware of
the Office of Management and Budget, the
air travelers, the airlines, the pilots. I have
to be sensitive to a lot of customers. It's
very similar to AT&T, where I had to
deal with a lot of stakeholders and
In the Works
The federal CIOs say they're happy with
their current jobs, but some might
consider a return to the private sector.
Mehan joined the FAA five years ago
after retiring from AT&T and
considering a new private sector job. He
plans to stay put, he says, and will
continue to work with other federal
agencies, such as the National Science
Foundation, and with security companies
in order to better protect the nation's
aviation computing infrastructure.
Several months into his job at the VA,
McFarland is busy meeting with agency
leaders and his staff, trying to get a handle
on the organization's IT needs. After
spending seven years at Dell where
he spent much of his time supplying
computers and services to the
government, McFarland believes he knows
the inner workings of governmentÂand
its oversight and regulationsÂwell
enough to do a good job.
"It's too early to tell what my specific
goals are," McFarland says. "In general, it's
to make sure the information technology
we have is being used to make sure that
the department is as veteran-centric as
possibleÂthat we make it easier for them
to access services."
Parker and Bourgeois say they have no
plans to leave the public sector, but they
wouldn't rule out a return to the private
sector sometime in the future.
"I don't have a big game plan," says
Bourgeois of the Patent and Trademark
Office. "I'm having a lot of fun and enjoy
being a senior IT executive. I don't see
why I couldn't go back to the private
sector in a similar kind of role. The CEOs
and CFOs of the future need a good
understanding of information technology.
I would hope that some day those
opportunities would be available."
HUD's Parker says the money and
administrative freedom offered by the
private sector are certainly factors. "I miss
the ability to make the money and truly
run my business as I see fit," she says. She
adds that her government experience has
fostered new skills, which would be
valuable to companies that sell technology
to the government.
"The government is a bureaucratic and
strange place if you're not in it," Parker
says. "You might think you can just breeze
in and tell people what to do. But there's
an awful lot of process."
However, private sector possibilities
must wait, Parker says, until she
finishes her projects at HUD, which
could take time. Her projects focus on
improving security and implementing
her enterprise architecture plans in
order to ensure interoperability among
"I thoroughly enjoy what I do, and
that's what keeps me here," she says.
FAA's Mehan says that he respects
colleagues who remain in government
despite the impact on their bank accounts.
"I seriously admire the folks who have
spent their livesÂor large portions of itÂ
in public service," he says. "In many cases,
they have foregone more lucrative jobs.
But it's exciting and very rewarding work
because it's an important thing to do."
CIOs SWITCH FROM PRIVATE
TO PUBLIC SECTOR
Title: CIO, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Previous job: Managing director of global customer service
Â Developed software for aerospace and financial institutions.
Â Upgraded call centers at FedEx using computer telephony
Â Moved patent and trademark applications from paper to the Web.
Title: CIO, Department of Veterans Affairs
Previous job: Vice president of government relations, Dell Computer
Â Helped launch Auto-trol Technology, a software start-up that later
Â Turned an unprofitable AST Japanese subsidiary into a profitable
business within a year's time.
Â Helped Dell become a major supplier of computers to government.
Title: CIO, Federal Aviation Administration
Previous job: International vice president for quality and process
Â Managed several AT&T phone product lines.
Â Served as CIO for AT&T's international businesses.
Â Improved FAA's cybersecurity.
Title: CTO, Department of Housing and Urban Development
Previous jobs: Marketing executive, IBM and Tandem Computer
Â Received the IBM Golden Circle recognition award, given to the top
1 percent of IBM's sales and marketing force.
Â Revamped IT at the Department of Education.
Â Introduced e-government and enterprise architecture initiatives
at HUD, which became the second agency to become year