Vivek Kundra: Cloud computing is the ‘past’
He likens the discussions on the cloud today to those which occurred in the mid-90s, when boardrooms and governments around the world were debating on whether to use email or customer self service and websites.
“There was so much resistance,” says Kundra, as he lists some of the questions raised by the departments involved. “What if we don’t have the right person to actually write it in English so people can understand it? What if we put out this information and are liable for its accuracy? What about national security if there are diagrams the US government has that are put out there by accident?”
Email also had its share of sceptics. He says there were questions around what to do about storage and how to train the staff to use it.
The worst part, he says, was the “raging debate” on customer self service. At that time, he says, products were ordered through a catalogue, by calling the company, and documenting the information on paper. The entire organisation was engineered around these processes.
It was a huge struggle, he says, but the breakthrough came from “leapfrog” companies like Amazon and Southwest Airlines. The two companies said they were going to “dis-intermediate” all people that were answering phone calls or going through paper work, and allowed customers to order their book online and have it shipped to them the next day, or book their own airline tickets.
“If you think about cloud, my view is that is exactly where we are today,” says Kundra, who was US CIO for more than two-and-a-half years, and before that, was chief technology officer at the District of Columbia. He joined Salesforce in January after completing a fellowship at Harvard University.
Creative destruction in government
He calls on ICT leaders in government to rethink how they deliver services and put “customer experience” as a key focus.
“Ask yourself, if you had that opportunity today, without any constraint to create a government of the 21st century, what would it look like? What does a mobile government look like? What does a government that actually serves the interests of its citizens look like?
“Think about how you actually re-engineer the entire processes to provide that customer service for your citizens,” says Kundra. “What does that mother or that high school graduate applying for college need? Or somebody who may be on welfare need in terms of service delivery?”
He says during the Gulf Oil spill, the families affected had to deal with local, state and federal government agencies, and filled up several forms. He says the model should be flipped so that citizens can have one interface. “It is the responsibility of the government to bend itself to provide the services rather than having them navigate the bureaucracy around their needs which is the default setting of most government services.” he says.
In a recent meeting with government CIOs, he says a member of the audience challenged him on this view. “We made the investments that we need at the infrastructure level, why are you so obsessed with the customer experience?” Kundra quoted the CIO as saying. “I realised he was absolutely right from his perspective because his perspective was around running an IT shop.”
And this, he says, is the problem with most public sector technology around the world. “The CIOs and CTOs in government offices around the world are essentially in dereliction of their duty and have forgotten who they actually work for,” says Kundra. “They have become puppets of IT organisations rather than realising that the purpose of their existence is to serve the citizens and the community in which they operate.”
“What happens with too many government agencies is they get stuck in a national monopoly position,” he says.
He compares the public sector to the human body, where the default setting is to attack change. “You have in the human body white blood cells and if these white blood cells perceive there is a virus, they will just attack it. And in government, change, whether good or bad is perceived as a virus, always.”
The challenge is to “fundamentally rethink how you approach the public sector services in this whole open, social and mobile world with a beginner’s mind.”
To execute meaningful change, he says one of his strategies was cultivate “a network of employees”, numbering around 146 who have just started in government.
“They had a beginner’s mind” and he spent a lot of time with them and talked to them about transformation, so they could drive this change.
Darwinian pressure to innovate in the public sector
At the same time, he says, entrepreneurs should be ready and willing to “disrupt the sector of the economy that is in great need of disruption.”
He cites two companies that have done this: Amazon which created disruption in how books are being sold and has “pretty much destroyed” Borders. In the movie rental business, he says Netflix is now dominating while Blockbuster is struggling.
This “creative call to action” is needed for public services, he says.
“We don’t have that Darwinian pressure to innovate and disrupt in the public sector. For too long you have these IT cartels which have a PhD in the procurement system,” he says. “Now all of a sudden you have the ability to open up this chain of innovation and this ecosystem.”
Asked what lesson he can share to CIOs, he replies, “My single piece of advice is to look at the public sector and approach it with creative destruction of how government services are actually delivered because technology has changed yet most governments operate with the mentality of the 1960s.
“What if there are intelligent transportation systems, sensors that are constantly figuring out the most optimal route for you to take? What if you could actually customise government services to your unique needs and not fall into the trap of the CIO who does not believe there is a place for customers, who believes his role is just to run an IT organisation?”
He recalls his experience during the first federal CIO meeting attended by the CIOs of the different departments including defence, education, health and environment. He talked about his vision for the public sector.
A senator asked him what he would do differently now that he was responsible for managing US$80 billion in IT spending. Kundra replied he will launch an IT dashboard so people will see how public money is being spent. “Part of what we were trying to do in terms of reforms was make sure that we would halt and terminate any IT project that didn’t deliver value to citizens or government employees within six months.”
Kundra says he was told it would take him years to launch the website but he was “execution focused” and went on. He took a photo of every CIO and put their project right next to it and showed figures on how the project is performing across cost, schedule and performance. On the first day, 45 projects were halted, four were terminated, saving the government US$3 billion.
The lesson from this?
“Anyone can have a vision. It is the ability to execute that really, really matters," he says. “You have finite time, you have got to pick big problems to solve and just be ruthless when it comes to execution.”
Killing IT projects that were not delivering value was “ruthless execution”.
“You had an ecosystem that favoured perverse incentives,” he says. Rather than admit failure, and kill the project, they just throw good money after bad money. “That is why you ended up with IT projects that went on for a decade and billions dollars that didn’t work and we had to terminate them.”
When Intel’s memory business was being hammered by Japan, he says then CEO Andy Grove stepped back and asked, if they were venture capitalists, would they fund this memory business?
“And the answer was, ‘hell no, we will not invest in this business’. So they said, ‘why are we in
He says Intel literally “pivoted overnight” to the microprocessor chip sets business. “Intel exists today because they made the strategic shift…that was necessary for their survival,” he says.
“I wish every government agency would think this way.”
Divina Paredes (@divinap) is editor of CIO New Zealand.
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