D.C.'s Kinetic Tech Czar
Mixing a Start-Up Mentality With a Whirlwind Approach

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 5, 2009

In his first meeting of a recent day, Vivek Kundra stood in front of a large monitor, grilling employees about the status of projects to revamp technology in Washington's schools, police cars, jails and health clinics.

Kundra, the chief technology officer for the District, begins most of his days this way to keep close tabs on his department's progress. Looking at a pie chart on the screen, he questioned how $39,000 of the budget was spent to rewire the health department's network. The money was used to reconfigure the network's Internet addresses, a project manager told him.

"Why would that take $40,000?" he snapped. "This project seems like a sham right now. We need to take the happiness level down for this one."

The "happiness level," a measure of a project's success, is just one of the tools Kundra, 34, has developed in his quest to improve the way the District's 86 agencies use technology. In the 18 months since joining Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration, Kundra has gotten attention for taking an unconventional approach to government, which is not typically first to adopt the latest computing trends.

Kundra has introduced popular consumer tools to bureaucratic processes, runs his office like a tech start-up and works by the mantra that citizens are "co-creators rather than subjects."

His ideas have caught the eye of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team and landed him a role as a tech policy adviser to the new administration. His approach could serve as a model for how a federal chief technology officer, a new position Obama has pledged to appoint, might operate. Kundra has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the job.

The bidding process for city contracts is posted on YouTube, for example, and his employees use versions of Wikipedia and Twitter in the office. He wants to let drivers pay parking tickets and renew driver's licenses on Facebook.

In October, he launched a contest called "Apps for Democracy" to encourage developers to create applications for the Web and cellphones to give District residents access to city data such as crime reports and pothole repair schedules.

"I expected to get maybe 10 entries, but we got 47 apps in 30 days," Kundra said. He said he spent $50,000 for the contest and prize money, and estimates he saved $2.6 million over what it would have cost to hire contract developers.

"I don't want to buy technology the old way," he said. "Three years ago, D.C. schools spent $25 million to deploy a human resources software program. It failed, and not a single person was fired," Kundra said as he rushed between meetings. "And they had the audacity to ask for more money. How is that an intelligent use of taxpayer money?"

Fenty credits Kundra with digitizing personnel files for the school system, a project, the mayor said, that "saves us a lot of money and got us into compliance with auditors." Fenty said Kundra is also trying to put more computers in schools and give students an electronic identification card to track how they are responding to after-school programs, libraries and technology labs.

Kundra has frustrated some schools advocates. One duty of his office is to plan the technology infrastructure for new and renovated schools in the District. Terry Lynch, a parent and member of a school improvement team, said there have been glitches in the implementation at several schools, including Emory Elementary, Hardy Middle and Phelps High schools.

"The weakest link in this construction process, of which there have been many, has been the office of the technology officer," Lynch said. "We've had to go back and reorder everything from security wiring to Internet contracts. It's supposed to be a 21st-century campus, and it's nowhere near it."

Kundra argues that significant progress has been made, including installing new equipment in several schools in time for the first day of fall classes and a new technology wing at Jefferson Middle School. He secured a million dollars in donations from companies such as Microsoft, Dell and Intel to build a technology classroom. About a dozen of Kundra's staff work on the site and occasionally hold technology demonstrations for students.

Some corners of the District bureaucracy have not welcomed some of Kundra's initiatives. For example, not all of the District's agencies are eager to make city data about health care, crime rates and police response times available to residents and Web developers.

Kundra said he's learned to move more slowly. He starts small, implementing a project with one agency to see whether it works before expanding it to others. "Sure, it's sometimes hard to get people on board. But I keep pushing."

Kundra generally arrives at his office before the sun comes up and doesn't head back to his Penn Quarter home and wife of six months until it is dark again. His colleagues say he packs his day so full with meetings and brainstorming sessions that he usually skips lunch and makes calls on his BlackBerry while e-mailing on his iPhone as he dashes between appointments.

He speaks quickly and decisively, and politely interrupts when a conversation veers off course. People in his office are used to getting e-mails at 3 a.m. and on weekends. He treats technology projects like stock portfolios -- if a project is not succeeding, he cancels, or "sells" it, and invests in another area. He has ditched $25 million in failing projects and redirected that money elsewhere.

A few times a week, he joins Obama transition advisers on conference calls that go late into the night. He regularly consults venture capitalists and computer science professors and spends at least one week a year visiting the research labs of such firms as Google, Apple and Cisco.

"He exhibits a passion one would expect when you really love what you're doing," said Aneesh Chopra, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's secretary of technology, who met Kundra about eight years ago in Northern Virginia's growing Indian American community. At the time, Kundra was an entrepreneur, having started two companies. Chopra, also an Obama tech adviser, recommended Kundra for Virginia's assistant secretary of commerce and trade, and later as the assistant secretary of technology.

"I find myself checking my BlackBerry at odd hours of the night, which makes it so much fun to work with him," Chopra said. "You don't think about the fact that it's 2 a.m. and you're having a policy discussion."

Arun Gupta, a partner at venture capital firm Columbia Capital who often joins Kundra's brainstorming sessions with District employees, said "there's normally a dividing line between the public and private sectors -- a different culture and mindset." A government agency could take years to make changes a start-up would do in weeks, Gupta said. "Vivek is someone who can bridge those sectors to really unleash innovation."

That strategy is likely what Obama is trying to replicate in the federal government, Gupta said. Giving citizens access to government data and letting entrepreneurs and other firms develop new technologies are considered cornerstones of Obama's agenda.

"You have to have the confidence to say, 'I don't need to control everything,' " Gupta said. "That's very much a Web 2.0 mentality. Is that the panacea to everything? Probably not. But it's a step in the right direction."

On a recent day, Kundra visited the District's information control center for first-responders to check on the status of plans to allow officers to receive and file real-time reports from the field on mobile devices. Kundra's next project is to let officers receive text and video messages and 911 call audio. He then darted back to his office for a meeting with his staff about keeping all of the District's communications systems running during Obama's inauguration.

In the span of the next two hours, Kundra visited the Washington, D.C., Economic Partnership to discuss plans to create a start-up incubator in the city, drilled his employees about the challenges with expanding WiFi to more areas, met with a middle school robotics team and had to be convinced that he did not have time to coach them this year. Before a budget meeting, he swapped ideas with Princeton University professor Edward Felten.

In November, Kundra was criticized for spending $23,000 to take 46 employees on a leadership retreat at a Shenandoah National Park resort. Fenty said he hadn't signed off on the retreat but that he was supportive.

"This is a director that saves us millions of dollars," Fenty said. "To hire the best people, you have to give them the flexibility to run their agencies. He knows how to motivate employees."

Kundra was born in India and moved to Tanzania at a young age. His family came to Gaithersburg when he was 11. His first language is Swahili.

One of his earliest memories after moving to Maryland is seeing a TV commercial for dog food. "I was shocked," he said. "I was used to seeing people starve in Africa. It was mind-boggling to me that people could afford to feed their dogs!"

His frugal upbringing may contribute to his eye for economical solutions. The project managers on the "stock floor" he set up say he bases every decision on reams of data. If a project is losing money, he and his team go to the "Oxford-Union debate room," where the employees are tasked with convincing him why a venture should be saved.

"It's his creativity," Chopra said when asked why he chose Kundra for Kaine's administration. "One might typically approach a problem a certain way, but Vivek produces a second, third and fourth alternative, and it's usually one of those alternatives that ends up being the solution."

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