CIOs for federal contractors have found themselves out in front of transformations in IT, business and government. What drove the change? The need to serve a unique client as fully, efficiently and securely as possible.
To find some of the most forward- looking CIOs in the country, check the government contracting world first. In contracting companies, you’ll find CIOs working at a strategic level in areas from budgeting to business development. They’re fully owning the “chief” title—and their places at the executive table.
What’s special about the government contracting CIO that made this leap forward possible? The answer lies in a government contractor’s unique position as both enterprise and client-service provider. The CIO holds the key to valuable resources: IT functions critical not only to the company itself but highly in demand from contracting clients.
This is in contrast to many commercial corporations, where IT is largely seen as an internal service and CIOs are still struggling to get out of the “support function” role. As recently as this autumn, an essay in Forbes magazine itemized reasons why the decades-old call for CIOs to move from “back room utility” to the business strategy table couldn’t get any traction.
But in the contracting world, wearing two hats—company support and client service—benefits the CIO as well as the company itself.
“The CIO in federal contracting has a good perspective on multiple parts of the business and how they come together,” said John Lambeth, chief information officer at QinetiQ North America. “I would say it’s a general trend that CIOs are being looked at to extend beyond the CIO role into operations and revenue-generating roles.
In federal contracting firms, people with advanced degrees and unique skills reside at a level government agencies can’t often afford to cultivate internally. Because it doesn’t pay off to have experts on staff full time if they might be used only occasionally for individual projects, the solution is to tap the IT expertise of federal contractors.
For instance, information security is a field that moves so fast that it can be tough for an agency to keep up with the research, the conferences and the
training. The federal agency can’t make that kind of investment; but the federal contracting company already has, and the company’s CIO can set up a channel to deliver the service. In effect, the agency can temporarily buy itself a few FTEs worth of expert assistance.
“Cybersecurity is one of those areas where, because of its sophistication and the amount of ongoing research, you really need a certain minimum critical mass of employees to be effective,” Lambeth said. “As QinetiQ North America expands its cyber practice, I see opportunities for IT to partner with externally focused practitioners in a variety of ways.”
Keeping track of what are essentially two markets is a complex management and strategy puzzle for the government contracting CIO. He or she must manage a portfolio of projects both for internal IT and for the variable needs of key contract awards. The CIO must be involved in business development
functions, for instance, so he or she will know what kinds of needs might be coming down the pipeline and balance accordingly. A surge in resource demands from clients could leave the company’s own IT resources at risk.
“IT leaders tend to have lots of practical experience in both managing concurrent projects and process development,” Lambeth pointed out. This eases the task of managing multiple sets of portfolios for both internal and government client needs.
A Tough Balancing Act
Freed from pushing for a place at the table, federal contracting CIOs regularly tackle other high-level issues unique to their world. Geographic workforce dispersal in wartime zones, secure mobile workforce support and compliance and alignment for government clients top most lists.
“Today, the CIO in firms working with government clients is mission critical,” said Mark Vallaster, federal technology director at Accenture. “The CIO provides the tools and systems that allow the workforce to integrate in a compliant and secure way with the government community, as well as with other consulting firms when work is integrated or subcontracted. This is a level of complexity and responsibility that sets the government services industry apart from other businesses.”
“Compliance has taken a ‘front and center’ position in the leadership of government firms, moving from a back office, largely audit-driven structure,” Vallaster said. “With the move of the role from back office to the front line, all CIO’s challenges are challenges of the business.”
The level of compliance is unlike that faced in commercial businesses, pointed out Bob Fecteau, chief information officer, information solutions at BAE
Systems. While auditing requirements for commercial businesses may be largely confined to meeting Sarbanes- Oxley standards, government contractor IT organizations must be equipped to respond to extensive Federal Acquisition Regulations and may require special certifications and varying levels of security clearances.
Federal budget cutbacks have affected the contractor CIO role as well, especially in their traditional responsibility of budgeting. For Barbie Bigelow, chief information officer at TASC, it means looking into the future: “The role of CIO has always been about balancing between greater cost efficiencies and investments in future capabilities to gain competitive advantage,” and maintain security.
This is where cloud efficiencies may come in. “Cloud services offer CIOs an opportunity to focus agency resources on mission systems while relying on provider partners to deliver other essential technologies as a service,” Lambeth said. “It’s just right-sizing.”
Responding to calls to increase efficiencies, federal agencies are pushing more and more of their IT needs, even internal ones, toward contractors; cloud computing makes this managed-service delivery more possible. Federal contracting CIOs are looking at this trend from the client perspective and trying to forecast how they can respond to the coming demand.
“CIOs must provide flexible and scalable sources of technology for both their companies and customers. Much of that [capacity] will be provided by the cloud,” says Rory Job, vice president of information technology at USIS.
But in this world, no one can say “cloud” without following with “cybersecurity.” In fact, cybersecurity, along with enterprise architecture, was the only area projected to see gains through September 2012, according to a recent federal CIO survey by trade organization TechAmerica and Grant Thornton.
Because security concerns extend not only to federal compliance within the United States but also internationally, a federal contracting CIO often must understand multiple layers of compliance.
Positioned for the Future
The balancing act between efficiency and security presents one of the toughest challenges for the CIOs of government contractors. Yet mastering it leaves a federal contractor CIO in a uniquely qualified position to lead.
James Zarnick, director, Deloitte Services LP and national director of technology, Federal Government Services, offered in an email interview an intriguing
glimpse at the future: “Our current generation has grown up in a connected world that we may have never envisioned when we started down this career path. They expect the same of their work environment. Our ability to recruit and retain this generation of workers while affording them the opportunity to interact and work in a manner they’ve grown up with is dependent upon our ability to evolve our strategies and approaches to the virtual and extended work environment: to empower our teams but protect the data.”