Gonzalez brings life lessons to IRS

New deputy CIO's role: Keep agency's modernization on track.

Art Gonzalez is a self-made man, but he doesn't like dwelling on it. When asked about his past, the new deputy chief information officer at the Internal Revenue Service speaks hesitantly, not wanting to trumpet about the obstacles he has overcome. "I've talked too much already," he said, when the conversation is about him.

He brightens up when the topic turns to cultural changes that he is helping the IRS make. He said it's a task for which he has prepared for 25 years in a career of managing information technology.

"We're so focused within our divisions that sometimes we lose sight of the fact that, if we worked more closely, we could become more efficient," Gonzalez said. He is speaking of the IRS' Modernization and IT Services (MITS). Gonzalez recently participated in a complete restructuring of that organization.

Gonzalez's life story begins in inner-city Los Angeles, near Dodger Stadium. And it is important because it provides a context for his approach to organizational change.

He did not go to college. Instead, Gonzalez, who grew up two blocks from Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles, began working for Occidental Life Insurance in the late 1960s. He was an electronic data-processing clerk, and every morning he used to check the accuracy of the green-bar printouts from the previous night's batch processing cycle.

"I started digging into it, I started reading the job control language," Gonzalez said. Little by little, the data-processing staff started sending more work his way. "They kept asking me, 'Well, since you checked that, can you check this?'" That led to Gonzalez enrolling in a Cobol training course.

"That may be what started it, but the thing that truly got me to where I am today is that I learned from every job I had," Gonzalez said. He began climbing the career leader, ending up at Oxford Health Plans, where he was CIO.

He joined the IRS in September 2004 as one of about a half-dozen business executives recruited into the agency on nonrenewable, four-year contracts. He became the deputy CIO in August.

"I am fortunate to have him in that job," said W. Todd Grams, the IRS' CIO. "I can be extremely comfortable that when Art is acting on my behalf, he's making the same kind of decision that I would be making."

Grams and Gonzalez divide responsibility for tasks while also delving "back and forth into each other's stuff as we think we can contribute," Grams said.

Gonzalez's rise through the IT ranks has taught him a couple of lessons. He has a good sense of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of management decisions.

"I remember what it was like sitting in the cubicle, watching the [vice president of data processing] or the director of applications walk down the hall," he said.

"And I would sit and say, 'Why don't they see what a waste this is? There's a better way, why don't they see it?'"

Based on those experiences, Gonzalez adopted a way of managing that includes working as much as possible with employees on the front line. "I've never forgotten that there are people out there who might know a better way."

Gonzalez is leading three IRS projects -- server consolidation, asset management and printer consolidation -- through their initial phases. "If I had more time, I would do more of them," he said. "My hope would be that as [others] see that I'm doing it, they'll start to do the same thing."

Gonzalez's experience in different industries, including the airline and retail industries, keeps him focused on the purpose of IT. "In a lot of cases, people within IT lose sight of the fact that they are service providers," he said.

In the past, technology was so esoteric that organizations' business people wouldn't go near it, Gonzalez said. Isolated in their back offices, the IT staff often thought that they owned the technology, he said. Now, that mistaken sense of ownership is coming back to haunt IT workers.

The IRS has many big tasks ahead, but Gonzalez thinks he can contribute. "Just like I haven't forgotten where I've been and what I've done, I also don't lose sight of where I am," he said.

Perera is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

The Art Gonzalez file

Place of birth: Los Angeles.

Position: Gonzalez is deputy chief information officer at the Internal Revenue Service.

Education: Cathedral High School in Los Angeles.

Career highlights: He has worked as a Cobol programmer at Occidental Life Insurance, director of applications at Western Airlines, divisional vice president of financial and administrative services at K-Mart, and CIO at Oxford Health Plans.

Family: He has been married to Gloria for 34 years. They have two children: Michael, 29, and David, 24. Both sons live near Philadelphia, where Gonzalez said he often visits on weekends.

Typical breakfast: Low-fat blueberry muffin. "I rely on that blueberry muffin to sometimes get me through the day."