What's a chief transition officer?

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Microsoft Federal has named a new kind of CTO. Carolyn Brubaker, chief transition officer, tells Nextgov how the company is preparing for the Obama administration and what it's hearing about how the incoming team might use technology to transform government.

Just as federal agencies are preparing for the transition to an Obama administration, so too are federal information technology contractors. Microsoft Federal, for example, went as far as to create a top-level post, a chief transition officer who will track the transition for the next six months or so and determine how the company can position itself to take advantage of any new technology business. Carolyn Brubaker, director of business development for Microsoft Federal, took on the temporary title in November.

Nextgov Executive Editor Allan Holmes sat down with Brubaker on Friday to talk about her new position and how the Obama administration might use IT to accomplish some of its policy goals.

Nextgov: What is a chief transition officer?

Brubaker: It's a good question. I have to give credit to Teresa Carlson. She's the vice president of federal for Microsoft. This is really her idea. She saw a tremendous opportunity because of all the change that already is taking place with the transition activities and all the change that is to come with the new administration. She thought we needed one point to gather all the information to assess and analyze all the new priorities and align the Microsoft capabilities to those, as well as to participate as much as we can in terms of supporting what transition teams are looking for and supporting the new appointees as they come in.

I have been in this role now for about a month. It is a temporary assignment. This is now my day job, but I do have another job. I am the director of business development for Microsoft Federal. So, it's kind of a good place to have this type of position.

Nextgov: What does this job look like on the ground? What do you do day to day?

Brubaker: What we've done is set up working groups. Through a lot of analysis and talking to folks who are close to the activities, we came up with these working groups that are buckets for key priorities that the transition teams are closely watching and where we anticipate the most change in terms of technology.

The way we are seeing it, there's a lot of opportunity in which technology can enable this change. It's really not about technology per se, but opportunities where technology can really help advance certain areas in policy and in government. We have a total of 12 working groups that we have encapsulated around these different categories -- things like health IT, that's a very active one for us. The energy economy is another one. That's looking at energy, energy savings and the environment, and aspects of transportation, where those three intersect.

Nextgov: Where's the information technology in the energy economy and how does that pertain to Microsoft?

Brubaker: Things are being looked at in a very different way now. If you want to look specifically at the energy economy, things that Microsoft can do, going from broad to narrow, we're doing an immediate assessment of what do we have now that can help with these goals and challenges -- say, energy savings for example. We've got a couple of different solutions that we are already starting to deploy in the federal government that the administration can say, "OK, these are really good standards; these are really good practices. This is something we can do right now to help."

Taking a snapshot in the world of Microsoft where we are today, we have things like Windows Vista that can be deployed that have energy savings once fully deployed across the enterprise. [Vista can save] about 40 percent to 60 percent on energy, depending how the desktop grid looks.

And then there's another solution, the systems management center, and that's basically a product that controls when the machines are on or off. So, if you walk away from your machine, and you really don't need the power on, it will turn it down and then turn it back on for you.

Nextgov: What are the other buckets?

Brubaker: We have one on homeland defense, and we've got one called defense and service to the vets because we have seen a lot of information come from the transition staff as well as from Michelle Obama's office on trying to provide better service to the vets and vets' families. Education is very busy. The education team is being led by someone from our education team, but we also have [people] from federal and from corporate from all over the company who are working on that particular one because it's a national issue and one very important to Microsoft.

Nextgov: What's the ultimate goal for the transition teams?

Brubaker: The ultimate goal of setting up these teams is to gather intelligence and help the transition, but also to help prepare the next wave of people who are coming in. So, we want to learn all we can about what's coming out with the transition and mapping it to Microsoft businesses. Then preparing briefing decks and guides for the new appointees coming in. Saying these are some ideas, this is what we've worked on to really get some early traction.

The teams are thinking through solutions and doing a gap analysis of solutions that we already have and what needs to be developed. It potentially may affect some product development if that's what we think is needed.

Nextgov: One of the criticisms of IT in the federal government is that it hasn't been strategic, in that it informs business processes and can affect policy. This sounds like IT is becoming more strategic, helping form the way agencies meet their missions and maybe even affecting policy. Would that be accurate to say?

Brubaker: I would say currently no, not now. But what we are seeing and sensing from these government transition teams, yes, it could be. [Members of the Obama administration] have top leaders who are advising them, and it's a core part of what they are planning and what they're doing. The technologists have a key seat at the table. There's no question.

Nextgov: What have you heard about what the role of the chief technology officer might be?

Brubaker: We're not quite sure what that's going to look like now, but from some of the information we are getting it looks like it's going to be an external adviser, someone who's really advising on national technology issues, with the primary goal of citizen outreach and engagement. That's a big objective of President-elect Obama's.

They have an intense group of leaders who are looking at technology. We have received some inquiries, and from what I can tell they're just not only looking at technology, they're looking at reforming the process. It is important to not only look at the goals and objectives of the mission, but to look at the process that will support the mission in modern day standards and then what technology needs to enable that.

Nextgov: Are you saying the CTO will be more involved in using social networking technologies to engage the public rather than getting into the weeds of government to use IT to improve operations?

Brubaker: From some of the thoughts that have been shared [with us], it seems like that's probably the way it will be shaped. The CTO would really focus on citizen engagement and participation in government. I speculate that there will be a fairly structured group [in the Office of Management and Budget] that's really going to pay close attention to the inner workings of government and use technology to guide that. The CTO will really have more of a national perspective on goals.