There was no honeymoon period for Vivek Kundra. On his first day as federal chief information officer in 2009, he was handed a stack of documents detailing $27 billion in behind-schedule, over-budget federal information technology projects.
He wasn’t the first government official to take a stab at fixing troubled programs, but as the nation’s inaugural federal CIO, he was the first to have the imprimatur of the White House. Kundra has used that clout to quickly set in motion a succession of changes — from launching a “cloud-first” policy that requires agencies to make Web-based applications a priority to his plan of closing about 800 data centers in less than five years.
He plans to announce this week that the administration is ahead of schedule in achieving these reforms and will detail 100 data centers to be closed by the end of the year as well as the government’s progress on implementing cloud computing.
The 36-year-old has also made a point of trying to transform the market of vendors who sell to the government, particularly pursuing a far broader set of players.
The failures of the past helped shape Kundra’s new priorities. He has tried to make the murky world of information technology more transparent, creating a Web site called the IT Dashboard that details all of the government’s $80 billion in tech spending, and taking a more active, focused approach to managing federal programs and tackling specific goals.
“I will go out of my way not to have meetings or spend time if they don’t really tie to [my] key priorities,” he said. “There’s finite time, and the problems are huge.”
Last year, Kundra released a 25-point implementation plan on his reforms, which particularly called for widely increased use of cloud computing as a tool to improve efficiency. The technology is intended to reduce costs by allowing users to share a common infrastructure.
Kundra saw cloud computing as a chance to “hit the reset switch” on the way the government buys IT.
“What we had never done before as a government is ask a very simple question: . . . If we’re spending $80 billion and we have a set of problems, why can’t we create the market of the future by signaling the demand?” Kundra said.
“I made it a mission to really try to get some of the most innovative companies around the country, whether it’s Silicon Valley or what’s happening in Boston, New York, Austin, to come in and compete for federal business, so what we don’t end up with is the same three bids from the same three vendors,” he added.
Since then, cloud has become the buzzword of the industry. And some of the biggest players aren’t whom you would expect. Amazon Web Services, for instance, is doggedly pursuing government work and fighting off Google and Microsoft, which touts a cloud-focused platform called Azure.
Government contractors aren’t rolling over either. Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, for instance, has a designated executive responsible for developing and implementing the company’s cloud computing strategy.
“There’s no portion of our company that isn’t really focused on the cloud computing strategy,” said Melvin Greer, an eight-year Lockheed employee who has taken on the role.
Likewise, in federal IT, companies are touting their ability to produce projects using Kundra’s modular approach, through which projects are completed in smaller bites.
Hemant Sharma, vice president at Fairfax-based IT contractor CGI, said the company had already applied this incremental strategy to some government projects but has now found a more interested audience in federal agencies.
“As this becomes a broader agenda . . . there is a definite focus on how do you do incremental,” he said. “We are ready, we have a response.”
As a teenager in Gaithersburg, Kundra grew up building his own computers. He headed to college at the University of Maryland, where he learned HTML. One day, Kundra spent more than 24 hours holed up in a computer lab putting together a Web site.
“I was blown away by how you could set up . . . a Web site that the rest of the world could see,” he said.
After graduation, he did public sector consulting at McLean-based Science Applications International Corp. and in 2001 landed the job of Arlington County director of infrastructure technology.
Kundra showed up for his Arlington interview on Sept. 11, but the meeting was interrupted as the county staff received word that the World Trade Center had been attacked. The day made its mark on Kundra.
He realized “you can’t count on platforms or technology that’s dependent on a single point of failure, whether that’s a single data center or a single location,” he said. The experience set up “my early thinking on why cloud computing is so important.”
In 2006, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine appointed Kundra to a dual cabinet role overseeing Virginia’s commerce and technology departments, and in 2007, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty picked him to serve as the city’s chief technology officer. Less than two years later, President Obama announced he had selected Kundra for the nation’s top IT position — and a new one for the White House.
He and Aneesh Chopra, tapped to serve as the first federal chief technology officer, are spearheading the Obama administration’s effort to harness technology to improve government. The pair have been friends for years, both active in the Indian community in Arlington and both former members of the Kaine administration in Virginia. Their wives are friends and both have young children.
To deliver on Obama administration priorities, Kundra said he’s taking a different approach to ensure his policies actually stick.
For instance, in the case of improving federal IT, Kundra tried to show, not tell. OMB targeted federal IT programs and particularly troubled IT projects for review last year, ultimately terminating and restructuring many of them through sessions called TechStat reviews.
He advocated an incremental approach, under which programs are developed in smaller pieces.
“I didn’t go out there and tell agency CIOs, ‘Here’s a memo. Thou shalt terminate projects and do modular development,’ ” said Kundra. “I actually proved it out.”
Now, Kundra said, every agency is running its own TechStat sessions, applying OMB-provided training and guides.
In the case of cloud, Kundra issued a report on 30 public sector case studies in which agencies had successfully moved to the cloud.
The idea was “to say, ‘Look, these agencies have done it. Why can’t we go out there and scale it across the federal government?’ ”
Analysts and contractors credit Kundra with taking a more aggressive approach than usual.
“We haven’t had an executive like Vivek pushing as hard,” said David A. Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office.
The government has never shown as much transparency in federal IT — as provided by the IT Dashboard — or had a better implementation plan, said Powner.
“This is exactly what the federal government needs,” he said.
Yet there remain questions about whether this kind of strategy can stick. Detractors worry about making such a big bet on cloud computing. They argue that the technology comes with its own risks, particularly in security, and may not work well for defense and intelligence agencies.
Kundra himself acknowledges the challenges of a relatively short-term post. He said he has actively gone to the agencies so that career workers understand and adopt the initiatives and has handed off some of the heavy lifting to agency chief information officers.
“We need to be able to drive a transformation that’s going to sustain over time,” Kundra said. “We’re hard-wiring it into the DNA of the government.”
Thus far, Kundra’s policy changes seem to be making an impact. Frank Muehleman, vice president and general manager of Dell’s public sector, said he carries with him a copy of Kundra’s 25-point plan. When he meets with agencies, he asks how the agency plans to implement it and how Dell can assist.
“What’s written in this document is very consistent with what commercial industry has seen for the past several years,” he said. “For anyone who needs the reduced cost, this is a proven way to do it.”