The former top tech official at the Department of Commerce looks back on a career in federal IT and previews where he thinks the AI and quantum revolutions will take us.
André Mendes, who retired as Commerce Department chief information officer at the end of 2023, emigrated to the U.S. from Portugal at age 17 with $300 to his name. His plan was to study biology and genetics but he ran out of money, so turned to technology for a career. A scholarship to the now-defunct Control Data Institute got him up to speed in mainframe computer languages but his tech career launched during the microcomputer revolution of the 1980s and took him all the way to the era of cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
He started his new post as CIO of Tarrant County, Texas on Jan. 2. For years, Mendes has been commuting from his home near Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C. on a weekly basis and he's looking forward to working on government tech in his home community. He spoke with Nextgov/FCW in late December, as he was finishing up his time as the top tech official at the Commerce Department.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov/FCW: How did you get interested in technology management as a career?
Mendes: My first job in computers was teaching two-year-olds with their mothers how to program in a language called BOGO in the original Apple IIe, computer back in 1981. My first real tech job was with an organization called Disclosure Inc. They kept all of the records for the Securities and Exchange Commission. By virtue of that job, I learned both the mainframe world and the microcomputer world.
Nextgov/FCW: What was your introduction to government?
Mendes: The job was with the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Now it's called the United States Agency for Global Media. But it's best known for being the mothership for Voice of America, and all of the civilian broadcasters abroad, under the aegis of promoting freedom of speech abroad.
Nextgov/FCW: At the Commerce Department, you made some noise by making the International Trade Administration the first federal agency to have all its tech in the cloud.
Mendes: When I came to ITA, there was already a very robust process in place for migrating to the cloud. My predecessor had started that process. Some of his methods for going to the cloud were a bit unorthodox: He believed that you were better off doing the lifting and shifting rather than waiting for everything to develop. So he was using infrastructure-as-a-service, and some of that migration was kind of tough, very tough at first with a lot of downtime. But during the 18 months that I was there, we finished it and we also dramatically stabilized it. But once you get there, and you go through the pain, you're there, and you can start reaping the benefits.
Nextgov/FCW: Your career spans pre-FITARA and post-FITARA. That compliance regime now defines a lot of what federal agency CIOs have to do in their jobs. Now that you're exiting federal government service, can you share your thoughts on FITARA? Does it make sense? What would you do differently?
Mendes: So, first of all, I believe that FITARA is an extremely valuable concept, because one of the biggest problems that we have with the federal government is a total and complete balkanization at the agency and department level, with both organizational units and bureau[s] having complete control over their IT. And that makes it a lot more difficult to coordinate, especially when it comes to, you know, overall agency implementation, such as your zero trust architecture, for example, or even cloud migration. So the lack of standards within departments, I believe, is costing the taxpayers probably billions of dollars.
Nextgov/FCW: Can you expand on the rogue IT problem a little bit? Are you talking about individuals using unauthorized apps or whole departments going their own way despite official CIO policy?
Mendes: There's all kinds of systems throughout the government, where organizations have bureaus within departments [that] are running their own systems with varying degrees of reliability and security. There are also, within those bureaus, departmental units that run systems that by and large are legacy, that were built under the radar and that sometimes costs tens of millions of dollars — and that do not fall under the same oversight as the centralized IT.
In addition to oversight difficulties, these kinds of contracts are negotiated on a piecemeal basis. They cannot effectively generate scale. I'll give you an example: With our migration to zero trust architecture, we secured a contract with an [endpoint and detection and response] provider for the entire Commerce Department at a price that was 70% off what people were paying previously. And so you can imagine when you scale that up across governments, millions and millions of billions of dollars that could be saved by virtue of those negotiations. So that's something that needs to take place.
Nextgov/FCW: Looking at Commerce components like [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and Census which have their own congressional oversight and funding streams, how do you get those big organizations to work cooperatively toward a departmentwide IT strategy?
Mendes: Well, it's a matter of being pragmatic and leading them through that change. But there is a point [where there’s] still going to be some people that will still be reluctant, and then you have to be imbued with not only regulatory authority under FITARA but also political authority. That comes from the leadership of the department. And I will tell you that historically, that has not been an easy proposition.
Nextgov/FCW: When you're dealing with an agency like NOAA that has satellites and supercomputing operations as well as IT, is there a clear line between what is under your control, and what is more operational technology? And how do you navigate that for budgetary and regulatory purposes?
Mendes: Well, the reality is that under FITARA, the operational environment has IT components that fall under that oversight, because they are regulated by FISMA, the [Technology Business Management] framework, the [Capital Planning and Investment Control] framework and all of that. These are organizations that have been historically independent, but as their systems become more and more dependent on information technology, they also need to become more dependent on a security and operational framework that ensures their viability, their reliability and their cybersecurity. And so little by little, we have been bringing those into the same [governance] framework as traditional IT systems. So when you look at the new satellite NOAA will be launching in 2024, all of the IT systems onboard fall under the regulatory framework that we've talked about, and we made sure to coordinate with them in order to ensure that that was the case.
Nextgov/FCW: Shifting gears a bit, how much do you see AI changing the way people interact with government and how government employees do their jobs?
Mendes: That will be a relatively slow change in the near term, because a lot of the hype around generative AI is geared toward document creation, process optimization, data analysis and summarization and visualization, which will bring great benefits in the long run. But we should not lose sight of the fact that regular artificial intelligence is already being leveraged in a variety of arenas, and has been for a long time, including at Commerce. It is mostly driven by machine learning processes in place that encompass millions upon millions of data points. It is getting better over time, but we are still, to a certain degree, encumbered by computing capacity. That obstacle is going to disappear, both because computing capacity keeps getting much, much higher and cheaper with supercomputers and because [of] the introduction of quantum computing and its application in a variety of areas that will be absolutely life-changing and culture-changing.
Nextgov/FCW: What do you tell people who are considering a career in government technology? What are the benefits? What are the pitfalls?
Mendes: I think that the main selling point is there's tremendous potential for impact. So if you are driven by the desire to have impact, the federal government is a place where you can have that. It is amazing how quickly somebody competent and hardworking can become extremely influential, especially as new technologies come to the forefront.