Career is not Over

May 4 2018

This week I had the opportunity to give a speech on behalf of my IT Leaders class at the Partnership for Public Service. A central theme of the IT Leaders program was to develop leaders who can “show folks the possibility of what they previously thought to be impossible.” For more information about the Partnership or the IT Leaders program, you can find them at

It is a common joke amongst current and former CIO’s that their title does not stand for Chief Information Officer but Career is Over. The first time I heard this, I laughed it off- I mean, it’s a tough job, I can only imagine the stresses that come with it. However, the joke continued from one conference to another and CIO after CIO made the comment. For some time, the Career is Over title really rubbed me the wrong way — how can we as future leaders aspire to careers in IT when the message is so dire? Is our future a modern reincarnation of Sisyphus pushing a boulder uphill again and again?

I certainly hope not. Instead, I think CIO’s are using the Career is Over title as a call for help- IT is more integral than ever in the mission of our agencies and the pressure on the IT organization increases every day. For too long, our agencies have treated IT as a commodity, an organization which is a service provider rather than a true part of the business. While being viewed as a commodity service, our roles focus on the administration of contracts, the collection of system documentation, and supporting data call needs within the offices we serve. This must change.

So, what can we do? How do we shift the paradigm that is federal IT?

In our position, we have the ability to reach across departments and divisions, change policies, and reimagine ways to satisfy the bureaucratic documentation needs of our organization. Such activities MUST be a part of our modus operandi as IT leaders- if not, we are simply checking boxes- ensuring that our systems and organizations fall into entropy.

While we can reach across departments and attempt to shift the bureaucratic machinery, there is more we can do. First, the government needs more technically skilled individuals. Folks that can read code, enforce standards, and identify bad practices before the changes are promoted to production. Too many of our systems are held together with spaghetti code which is is prone to break and is only understandable by an entrenched vendor. Technical skills and experience can reduce the chance that this happens and save money.

Second, we need to embrace new types of documentation for our systems. The status quo too often fails to serve an active purpose and instead results in shelfware which hangs out on a network share drive for years- unknown to many and unread by all. Instead, our systems should be self documenting- either through coding practices or by automation.

Third, we need to go out into our organizations, beyond the walls of the CIO kingdom and support offices directly. Yes, that means some of us take jobs that do not fall under the CIO. Offices within the federal government lack product management experience and the apps they build reflect that. Rather than apps being built for all users, a majority of features are built for program managers to satisfy their back-office needs. These features do not align with the needs of the folks entering or consuming data be it citizens, grant recipients, or your fellow fed. Our program managers don’t realize how much of a negative impact this has. For those of you that are frustrated with the office that you support, I challenge you to move into that group share your expertise..

While today, the mantra is Career is Over, that has the ability to change- we can improve our processes, take on the difficult problems, and transform offices from the inside out. While Sisyphus was punished and forced to push the boulder uphill for eternity, that does not have to be our fate. In this room, we have dozens of leaders who collectively can throw their weight behind the rock that is IT, guiding others along the way, and pursuing a future in which IT is central to the mission of our agencies.