Dec 31 2009

Exit Interview: Michael C. Daconta

The former Homeland Security official talks about finding and keeping IT talent in government.

Photo: Forrest MacCormack

Q: Looking at your career — in and out of government — what do you consider the key factors in identifying IT talent? In my experience, the keys to IT excellence are passion and drive. I look for passion that is so uncontrollable it leaks out of a person like a broken spigot. That's the type of passion that pushes a programmer to code personal applications at home on the weekends; it moves a technical manager to keep his hands dirty any chance he or she gets, and it compels a great architect to read every book on the subject. With such passion, I look for a powerful drive to overcome obstacles and roadblocks. I want bulldogs and pit bulls that attack problems and don't let go.

Q: Are recruiting and retaining technically skilled employees different in the public and private sectors? If so, how? Yes, but the gap is closing. On recruiting, the biggest difference is the speed of execution. Corporate human resources departments can move out very fast. For example, a skilled person can be given a contingent offer letter within hours after an interview.

At Oberon, we track time-to-fill a position on a weekly basis. In the government sector, the only equivalent to this is quickly detailing a person from another government organization. The government hiring process can take months.

Q: What does the government do right when it comes to attracting, hiring and keeping IT staff? Are there opportunities it should exploit? Government does a great job of recognizing the strategic role of IT as a catalyst for change and innovation. The government truly drives and leverages the use of technology across all of its departments.

Additionally, government does a fantastic job of piloting and prototyping new ideas and giving small businesses an opportunity to shine. I am proud to say that I have been part of several envelope-pushing projects where a daring civil servant or military officer made a difference.

Q: Do incentives work in the federal arena, where a chief motivator is public service in and of itself? What about the government being a less volatile IT arena than industry — is that a fair statement, a selling point? For top IT talent, less volatility is a non-issue. Public service is the primary motivator and good people are less interested in incentives and more interested in getting things done. Given that, the chief incentive the government can provide is streamlined processes that reduce bureaucratic red tape.

Q: Are there any tricks you've learned to figure out whether someone has the right mix of base talents to succeed and adapt with a team — even become a leader? Yes, value good referrals over resumes. Resumes exaggerate, and superstar employees don't. Hard workers tend to want to associate with other hard workers. The most valuable referral is one where the person has worked directly with the candidate.

Q: Do you have a management motto? I have a few principles that I've written down; you can find them at

My personal favorite is embodied in the column I write for Oberon, which is titled "Program Boldly." By program, I mean programming or software development, so this principle mostly pertains to developers and embodies the idea of taking smart, calculated risks for your customers. In other words, you have to strive, stretch yourself to design and build great products — products your customers brag about.

Q: Why did you leave and what could the government have done to keep you? There were three reasons I left:

  • First, I realized I could accomplish more outside of government than inside.
  • Second, I received a really good offer from people I respected and with whom I had worked for almost a decade.
  • Third, it was a chance for me to get back (at least part-time) to software development on a biometrics system called the Biometrics Automated Toolkit (BAT).

This combined into a personal and professional must-do.

Q: What does industry do differently that might make sense for agencies to mimic when it comes to hiring and recruiting? I discussed this question with someone better qualified to answer, my CEO and a former HR director, Jodi Johnson. She told me that successful private-sector organizations employ multiple recruiting means, including, for example, employment networks, military bases, job fairs and conferences to recruit talented individuals. Also key to success is the pace at which the recruiting and staffing activities are performed.

Q: Do you consider mentoring a useful technique for recruiting and creating a strong IT bench? I know from direct, personal experience that mentoring is a definite competitive advantage that every organization — government and commercial — should nurture. At Oberon, this is one of my chief responsibilities. I fulfill it with a column in our newsletter, brown-bag training sessions and one-on-one discussions with developers.

But mentoring is much more than a duty; it is the best part of my job. It is truly TLC of a different sort. By TLC, I mean: Teaching on steroids, Leadership by example and Counseling for catharsis — all rolled into one. My goal is to instill a culture of mentoring that moves us beyond guru-mentoring to peer-mentoring.

Q: Your area of expertise in data sharing and eXtensible Markup Language can seem arcane to a layperson. How can techies help senior executives at an agency understand a technology without making it too dry or too simple? To avoid pigeonholing myself, my areas of expertise actually go beyond data to include systems development and architecture.

While those also may seem arcane, I take great pains to explain technology from senior management's point of view.

In fact, my last book on the Semantic Web takes a very difficult subject like knowledge representation and explains it from a business person's perspective. And it is that understanding of how to switch your perspective that is crucial to effective technical presentations. Really it is just implementing the old adage to "walk a mile in their shoes."