A Tech Evolutionary

James Kegley

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel is remapping IT strategy for a government on the go.

One of the formative moments of federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel’s life was watching Star Wars in the movie theater as a child. 


That might not be surprising for a man who describes himself as “the tech geek” and who spent 15 years working his way up the Microsoft ladder from technical adviser to senior director before joining government during the early days of the Obama administration.  

The depth of VanRoekel’s connection to the 1977 science-fiction epic, however, is unusual. 

Like Tatooine, the lonely desert planet where Luke Skywalker begins the first Star Wars movie, the northwest Iowa farm where VanRoekel grew up was only lightly touched by technological advances found elsewhere in the country. As with Skywalker, technology invaded VanRoekel’s sleepy world when he was a young man and took him places he never expected. 

  “I hang a Star Wars clock in my office very deliberately,” VanRoekel says, pointing to a wall clock opposite his desk in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington featuring the star-studded cast brandishing light sabers and ray gun blasters. “I really took the journey that was represented in that first movie . . . It all lined up in such a wonderful way for a guy who loves technology.” VanRoekel’s journey started with a seventh and eighth grade teacher who put together an at-home course for students to qualify in BASIC computer language. 

“It was intended to be a semester course,” he says. “I locked myself in my room . . . and literally finished it in about a week and a half. There were these little Apple-shaped certificates that listed your completion date for the different qualifications and mine were nearly on successive days.”

By the time VanRoekel completed a bachelor’s degree in business and information systems from Iowa State University in 1994, the era of personal computing had begun in earnest. Within months of graduation, he was working for Microsoft Corp. and by 1999 he was a strategy assistant to Microsoft founder Bill Gates. After 10 years at the company, VanRoekel had worked his way up to senior director of Microsoft’s Windows server division. 

VanRoekel’s formative years in the private sector have left him impatient at the slow evolution of government technology. He jokes that he participated in the launch of the Windows XP operating system in 2001 and was shocked to see that some divisions of the Federal Communications Commission were still using that version when he arrived there as managing director eight
years later.

Those years at Microsoft taught VanRoekel that big problems are best attacked piecemeal and to not get bogged down in technical details even if a problem seems fundamentally technical.

“Bill [Gates] had an ability to address different groups of people at very different levels,” he says, “to dive in with someone who’s very new to technology or with someone who’s the pre-eminent expert in computer sciences. [He was also] able to look at complex situations and boil those down to actionable things you could do to address them. Both of those things are very applicable here. Because of the sheer size and scale of the federal technology portfolio, there are a lot of complex things where you need to jump out from the tactical level to the strategic level and look at your objectives.”

Winding Path 

VanRoekel was involved in progressive politics at a young age, but he didn’t consider a career in government until later.  

“Growing up in Iowa, politics kind of comes in every four years,” he says, referencing the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. “My favorite Iowa line is someone asks, ‘What do you think of this or that candidate,’ and you say, ‘I don’t know, I’ve only met him twice.’ ”

In 1988, his freshman year at Iowa State University, VanRoekel was a state convention delegate for then-Massachusetts Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Four years later, he knocked on doors in a get-out-the-vote effort for that year’s nominee, Bill Clinton. 

In December 2007, he was struck by Atlantic writer Andrew Sullivan’s cover article “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” which argued the young Illinois senator could transcend the era’s bitter divisions in a way his baby boomer competitors Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and their Republican opponents could not. By that time a high-paid Microsoft executive, VanRoekel donated nearly $5,000 to the Obama campaign during the course of 2008 and urged friends and family in his hometown to turn out for the candidate in the Iowa caucuses. 

After Obama’s election, VanRoekel donated another $50,000 to the president-elect’s inaugural celebration. There is no legal limit on donations to an inauguration, but Obama requested that donations be capped at $50,000. VanRoekel was one of about 450 donors who met the limit, including some luminaries such as actors Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, director Robert Zemeckis and business magnate and Democratic activist George Soros.

Despite his largesse, VanRoekel says, the idea of working in government didn’t occur to him until he came to Washington to attend the inauguration.

By then he had entered a period of professional reflection. Bill Gates had passed off his day-to-day duties at the software company the year before to focus full-time on his charitable Gates Foundation, and VanRoekel found himself reassessing his future.

“I had set a life goal for myself to leave Microsoft before I turned 40,” VanRoekel says. “I was 39 when I went to the inauguration, so I was sort of doing this soul searching and thinking about what to do next. I came out to D.C. and had lunch with a friend. I told him this story and he said you’ve got to join public service . . . This is how naïve I was, I said, ‘How do I do it? Do I call my governor?’ ”

VanRoekel’s friend apparently made some calls on his behalf. Within an hour, he was sitting with Julius Genachowski, chairman of the presidential transition team’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications Policy Working Group, talking about how the incoming administration could leverage technology lessons from the private sector. 

Obama nominated Genachowski to head the FCC in March 2009. Soon after, Genachowski asked VanRoekel to be the FCC’s managing director. His priority assignments were to revamp the agency’s flagship website, FCC.gov, and to help develop a national broadband map. 

Less than 30 months later, President Obama appointed VanRoekel as the nation’s second chief information officer. 

Shifting Savings

VanRoekel’s chief aim as CIO has been to close the productivity gap between government and private enterprise with new high-speed and mobile technologies. His chief barrier has been the federal IT budget, which has been held flat at about $80 billion by a series of down-to-the-wire deals between Congress and the Obama administration to rein in the federal deficit. 

This bind often is described as “doing more with less,” a phrase that pervades nearly every speech, discussion, conference, PowerPoint presentation or casual conversation across the federal IT community. 

VanRoekel has attacked the problem by paring back operations and maintenance spending to reinvest that money in new initiatives. 

“In government, there is this very strong reliance on sunk costs: ‘Things I’ve done in the past I will embrace in the future,’ ” he says. “That notion of ‘How do I create new value? How do I stop doing the things I’ve done in the past in order to bring new things online?’ that’s not as natural a motion in government as it is in the private sector. That’s part of what I bring to this role . . . starting to drive that cultural shift to smart risk-taking like you see in the private sector, culling the old in order to pour that [saved money] into new services.”

 The proof of concept for the plans came with the fiscal 2013 budget request, he says, which reduces overall IT spending. The budget just calls for a small dip of less than 1 percent in IT spending, but it is the first such dip since Obama took office and represents a major shift from the 10 years prior to his administration when IT spending grew about 7 percent annually.  

“That’s the most telling thing to me,” says Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights, an IT analysis firm. “That’s not a huge drop, but you can’t sneeze at it. [Reducing the budget] is like trying to turn a battleship, and Steven seems willing to get very involved in that process.”

Sharing Resources

VanRoekel spent his first few months on the job following through on a slate of cost-savings programs launched by his predecessor, Vivek Kundra. Those include cutting and consolidating federal data centers, shifting a large chunk of the federal IT budget to nimble cloud-based computing services, and replacing custom-built IT systems that frequently run past deadline and over budget with simpler, less expensive systems that leverage popular consumer technology. 

VanRoekel and Kundra clearly admire each other’s work, but their styles are markedly different. 

Kundra frequently gave multiple speeches each week to government and industry groups, especially during his last months in office. Those speeches tended to be broad and thematic, delivered with the hyper- enunciated cadence of a revivalist preacher. VanRoekel speaks publicly only about once a month, and his delivery is more reserved, reminiscent of a young professor still excited by his subject matter. Midway through a Government Executive interview he bounced out of his chair and began drawing figures on a dry erase board in his office.

Kundra tended to speak in big round numbers that told a clean but compelling story. VanRoekel delves deeper into the minutiae of a problem. 

One of his first major acts as CIO was to expand Kundra’s data center consolidation drive to include hundreds of smaller centers left out of the original count. Expanding the initiative meant stepping back from the original 2015 deadline, but it also raised the estimated savings from $3 billion to $5 billion.  

VanRoekel expanded Kundra’s TechStat program, a series of adapt-or-perish presentations managers of failing IT projects must give to agency officials and the CIO. Officials who can’t prove their programs are on the mend are forced to cancel or revamp them. VanRoekel has refocused the program to include TechStat sessions at the agency level and governmentwide. He also has launched PortfolioStat, a process for CIOs and chief operating officers to review IT spending across an entire agency. 

In addition, VanRoekel has developed initiatives of his own, such as a shared services strategy focused on reducing duplication within agencies, and a roadmap for mobile devices aimed at consolidating agency contracts and allowing employees to do more of their work on smartphones, tablets and personal laptops.

“Kundra was very out in front in his style,” says Darrell West, director of the Brookings Institution think tank’s Center for Technology Innovation. “He gave a lot of talks and was very visible. VanRoekel has been operating more from behind the scenes . . . Kundra laid out a very broad agenda for change in a lot of ways, and VanRoekel is trying to put that vision into action.”

‘The Places You Go’

VanRoekel divides his tenure as CIO into three phases. The first was focused on the less side of doing more with less, he says, ensuring Kundra’s cost-savings programs were on track and launching his own. The second phase was making sure the 2013 budget reflected the leaner, more aggressive outlook both information chiefs had worked to put in place. 

The third phase, which VanRoekel is just getting started, is the more part of the doing more with less equation, or what he calls 21st century government. 

That includes building internal government mobile apps so that federal workers at animal inspection lots along the U.S.-Mexico border, for example, or at a river contamination site can file reports on their smartphones or tablet instead of trudging back to a field office at the end of each day. It also includes using technology to wrap the complexity of federal government into a cleaner citizen interface. VanRoekel calls this an “outside looking in” perspective. 

An early example is the BusinessUSA website, which the federal government launched in a beta testing version in January. The site aims to pull all the forms and information that a small business entrepreneur needs from the government onto a single site so that the government rather than the citizen worries about which form goes where. 

VanRoekel’s long-term vision, he says, is for government to function more like a platform than an institution, allowing people to find information where they need it rather than having to search for it in a particular building or on a specific website.

“It will just be in the places you go,” he says, “in any place on any device.” An early example is the iPhone weather application, which relies on raw data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, though many iPhone users don’t know that. Over time, VanRoekel imagines government data on health, taxes and regulations will be integrated just as seamlessly into citizens’ everyday lives. 

“It’s going to take an evolution in technology and new thinking to get us there,” he says, “[but] to invoke JFK, we do things because they’re hard.”