Can a Hollywood techie grow government's innovation shop?

The software whiz behind Pixar's movies Rob Cook surprised even himself by coming out of a "failed retirement" to take a top technology job at the General Services Administration.

Rob Cook, Technology Transformation Service

Rob Cook

By his own admission, Rob Cook was "failing at semi-retirement" when he was offered the top job at the Technology Transformation Service, the government innovation shop based at the General Services Administration that includes 18F. Cook, 63, left his California home behind – as well as the Oscar statuette he keeps dressed in GI Joe clothes – and moved to a rented apartment in Washington, D.C., for a three-year term appointment in the Senior Executive Service as TTS commissioner.

Cook won his Academy Award for work developing RenderMan, the 3D animation software that gives Pixar films their particular look and feel. Cook said he was drawn to government services for some of the same reasons he was drawn to the world of entertainment – to "have an impact on people's lives."

"When I walk through an airport and I see a kid holding a Pixar toy or doll, every time I see it, it just moves me," he said. "I'm happy to have been a part of something that touches people's lives."

TTS was launched administratively, and while the innovation effort has some high-profile support, its future remains uncertain in the coming Trump administration. Many of its staff, particularly within 18F, are on two-year term appointments that are renewable for an additional two years, so a hiring freeze or outright neglect of the organization could cause it to wither, even if it isn't abolished outright. GSA is using the last days of the Obama administration to make a bipartisan, dollars-and-cents case for keeping TTS as a way to help the whole of government become a smarter and more efficient buyer of technology from industry.

Cook spoke with FCW in a telephone interview on Dec. 1. The remarks below have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe your first impressions of your first government job?

There's just a lot of things in government you've got to consider that the private sector doesn't, that make sense but you've got to get used to. The other thing is just the scope of impact you can have is just really amazing, which is part of the reason I came here. I came here because of the quality of the people I saw here completely blew me away. It's as good as anything I've seen in the best tech companies in the private sector. And then the chance to do something to improve government and to reach people on that scale was too good to pass up.

What are you seeing so far?

I think the thing that impressed me the most is the way – we're a fairly small group, we're not going to do everything ourselves. We see ourselves as trying to get as much leverage as we can. There are a few things that make sense for us to do in a centralized way, but there aren't many of those. A lot of work is done with the agencies on their projects. But ultimately if we're going to have an impact it's going to be by making government a better buyer of technology from industry.

What's the culture like at 18F and TTS?

It's got the same feel of energy and optimism and ability to dive in and tackle thorny problems. It's the best of the private sector that I found, to my surprise, in the middle of the General Services Administration. The challenge I see for myself is how do you take that and keep it with that energy and yet connect it to the rest of government where it has an impact on a broader scale. It's got to be adapted to government, but there's a lot of things that could be learned from the private sector about agility, and that's why I think it's going to be good for the services that government delivers to citizens. They work this way in the private sector a lot already but the government's way of approach it has been for the most part pretty slow and difficult.

Some of its major old-line contractors do business the way the government does business.

It is much more about government being a bad buyer. We're forcing industry to work this way; I don't believe they want to work that way necessarily. They don't work that way with contracts in the private sector. But the government has required it.

What can TTS do to disrupt that phenomenon?

The thing is, I step back and ask, what's good for the American people? The way we develop software has changed a lot in the last 30 to 40 years. It is much more an approach where you have a target of what you're trying to accomplish and using that as a homing beacon with user feedback and iteration to constantly course correct in the process of building it. That just works a lot better.

The old approach, which I knew well, a few decades ago, was the Waterfall approach where you try to specify everything ahead of time. Instead of a homing beacon to try to sail to your destination, you're trying to predict it all before you start out. There's not that feedback into the way you work. It ends up being difficult, expensive, and when you're done it often doesn't even solve the problem you were after, or it doesn't work. It's just an older way of working.

I've made that transition. I think other people can make that transition. And a lot of the companies we're talking about should be able to make that transition, and if they're doing business in the private sector, they've already done it.

One of the metrics that the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general don’t measure against is savings over doing things the same-old way. How are you trying to tell that story?

I view it through three lenses, what we do. First, do we have our operations down well, are we doing what we're saying on our budget and so on? That's a central thing to do. The second is: What's the savings we're having for the agencies that we're working with, at least in a ballpark way? Because you can't necessarily get that down to the penny. It's hard to capture that, but we can get a ballpark. I'm trying now to start and going forward to collect credible ballpark estimates of how much we are saving the taxpayer.

The third is the improved quality of service, and the improved experience of someone interacting with the government. There are plenty of examples there. The cost to the economy in general, and the frustration and the lack of confidence in government that that feeds. Those things it's harder to put dollars and cents on, but they are important. So those are told more through stories that we can get of that kind of impact.

On Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer recently tweeted support for keeping 18F around. Are you hopeful that the organization will be allowed to grow and become permanent?

We were thrilled with that. We've done what I thought was impossible, which was to have this level of tech talent coming in on a regular basis and connecting with agencies to do things that make a tangible difference in people's lives. That's amazing. Now that we know how to do it, that's something that should get support from people on both sides of the aisle.

What are you saying to staff who have qualms about working in the next administration?

It sounds a little optimistic, most of the people who are here could make a lot more money in the private sector and have a lot easier life, and they're here because they want to make a difference in people's lives. And they see the ability to do that here as part of the government and that's not partisan, and that doesn't change.

If you're in the Department of Veterans Affairs, you don't change your job because the administration changes. The work you're doing is still super important. We feel the work we're doing is super important.

I don't know if it will be unanimous, probably not, people come and go for all kinds of reasons, but the predominant sense is to recognize the work we're doing is important and we believe in it, or we wouldn't have been here in the first place.

Are you staying?

If I can make a difference I'm here. I believe in this. I'm sticking around.