Unplugged: FBI CIO Darwin John

What does it take to be the CIO of the Federal Bureau of Investigation? In this in-depth interview, newly appointed FBI CIO Darwin John discusses the challenges that lie before this gargantuan government agency.

By Dan Farber

Darwin John decided to make a major change in his life. At an age when most people are contemplating retirement, the 64-year old managing director of information and communications systems of the Church of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City decided to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On July 12, 2002, he was sworn in as the new CIO of the FBI.

After 12 years at the Church and previous stints at Scott Paper and General Mills, John has established credentials as CIO, but transforming the FBI's antiquated technology infrastructure is a Sisyphean challenge. Compared to his previous employer, the FBI has a substantially larger budget and staff; a complex structure that involves collaborating with dozens of other agencies; a culture that has more in common with J. Edgar Hoover's time than the present; and the added dimension of being a highly scrutinized government agency.

In conversation, John gives the impression that he looks upon his new job as an opportunity to contribute his skills and experience to the country after 9/11. It will take more than good intentions to be successful in this hot seat. John might be going in with both eyes open, but he won't have a detailed roadmap, and many of the roads are not well paved.

John recently spoke about the challenges of his new job with ZDNet Tech Update Today editor in chief Dan Farber.

Tech Update: You have spent the last 12 years at Church of Latter Day Saints and lived much of your life in Utah. What compelled you to go from the relative security and obscurity of Salt Lake City to the big stage working for the FBI and Washington?
John: As a practical matter at this stage of life, my choice is to retire or take on a significant new challenge. I decided to take the challenge. I can't relate to the concept of retirement, and in this window of history, we feel some need to help and make a difference. Beyond that, I also resonated with [FBI] Director Mueller, who strikes me as an inherently powerful leader.

Tech Update: Do you feel this is a kind of missionary work?
John: I wouldn't use that word, but at a personal level, I feel it's something I need to do, so it's more of an internal issue. We [John and his wife] stepped back and said it feels like the right thing to do.

Tech Update: What are your specific responsibilities as CIO of the FBI?
John: The role of CIO is still evolving a bit, but I look at it in three dimensions of focus. First is to look to the future and formulate strategic directions. This involves thinking about the evolving technology and defining an architecture so we can anticipate the future and avoid playing catch up and prevent a recurrence of the current situation. It also includes understanding what information technology makes possible in terms of the mission set by the Bureau and Director. Second is bringing to bear the development work, creating new software tools and hardware that can enable more immediate response to make a difference. I will be less close to but interested in the day-to-day development. If we get it right from the architectural planning stage, the chances for success are higher. The product development environment is just a financial manifestation of the architecture. Third is the operational theme of managing information around individuals, making sure we have the right information accessible to the right people.

Tech Update: What kind of due diligence were you able to do during the hiring process?
John: I met with Director Mueller three times in person in May and communicated by phone with him. I did a lot of reading and talking with people, but wasn't able to go as deep as I would like due to the nature of the work and need for security clearance. I still have a lot to learn, but I did get deep enough that I have sense of the challenge, the degree of difficulty, and the political dynamics.

Tech Update: You are coming into this position with substantial IT experience, but not in working within a government agency in a highly political environment. How are you going to deal with the learning curve?
John: I am a novice at government procurement process. I hear the stories, but at the same time, we can work within the policies that exist to get the job done. Anytime you go into a new experience, there is a significant learning curve, and I have a lot of curve left to learn. The keys are to understand the initiatives underway and make sure they are appropriately resourced. Then you take time to frame the directions and priorities and work to realize them. You have to assess the capabilities needed to do the work and determine how much resident capability exists and how much can be built or outsourced. Then you look at the whole and optimize in terms of two simple principles: delivering the result and the cost structure.

Optimize collaboration
Tech Update: The FBI and other agencies have been pilloried for being way behind the technology curve. Director Mueller says it will take another 18 months to bring the agency into the 21st century with technology. What are the steps you need to take to make that happen?
John: My sense is to ensure that initiatives under way continue on their path, and in parallel, assess the capabilities for the future beyond the current initiatives that Bob Dies [former FBI CIO] put in motion. In this business, anticipation is most important in looking out as far as you can so you can position for the future. We need to figure out how to optimize collaboration within the Bureau and with other agencies. In addition, I will be helping individuals in terms of leadership and with developing processes and models for meeting the deliverables.

Tech Update: What kind of team do you need to be successful?
John: In today's world and in the information technology world, there is enough complexity that one mind cannot get around it all. You need teams with complementary strengths and a holistic approach. First, individuals are members of leadership teams, and secondly they look after particular pieces. With that mindset, you get the unity and focus that will help teams to succeed.

Tech Update: One of the main criticisms of the FBI and its technology is the lack of adequate tools to sift through data and get useful results. How do you plan to address that problem?
John: We need to see what is underneath the covers and if there is a quick way to make it better. On the other hand, you have to look at the whole and get at the systemic issues or you'll be fighting fires your entire life. My basic approach won't be spending a lot of time looking back. I will be looking at the current state and seeing what we can do, as well as to the future.

Tech Update: What do you foresee as challenges as you take on your new responsibilities?
John: Just doing basic work that needs to be done and at the same time dealing with the other dynamics, such as the [formation of the] homeland security department and the high interest of public and Congressional oversight committees as to what is going on. The level of interest is a positive because the folks in Congress are feeling a sense of accountability, so there is a lot of consciousness-raising that will be healthy for every stakeholder.

Tech Update: You are reporting to Director Mueller. How will you two work together on aligning the FBI goals and technology?
John: As I understand it, I will be involved in leadership team meetings, and beyond that, the director has a personal interest [in information technology]. I anticipate he will be as accessible to me as he needs to be. I have always believed that an IT plan is not standalone but a plank in the larger plan for the enterprise, which ties it in with the direction, mission, and vision of the Bureau.

Tech Update: How has your previous experience given you confidence that you can do this job?
John: As I said, this is a unique and large challenge, and a major opportunity toward the end of my career to make a difference. I have a proven track record in the for-profit and nonprofit segments that gives me confidence I can do this job.

Tech Update: You are reporting directly to FBI Director Mueller. What will be your relationship to Wilson Lowery, who just came to the agency from IBM to head up the reorganization effort?
John: Wilson Lowery also reports to the director. We have spent time together, and I have high respect for his capabilities. I will be arm-locked with him in formulating how information technology can make it possible to support the choices made.

Tech Update: How much interaction will you have with CIOs of other leading government agencies, such as Mark Forman at the Office of Management and Budget?
John: Collaboration across agencies will be extremely important, but I have not had an opportunity to connect with them as I am still in the discovery mode. Clearly, I have a desire to work those relationships.

Tech Update: What are the top three technologies that will have an impact on the FBI over the next year or two?
John: There are two key dimensions. Number one is communications capabilities. We have to take the cycle time out of the information flow, which includes installing broadband connections and providing the appropriate security for everyone who needs access to that information. Close behind and almost in parallel is information management technology, like getting the data warehouse in place more completely. At the end of the day, it's about ordering information and making it accessible—the data warehouse provides order, and the network makes it accessible. The other practicality is you want to deal with proven tech in both dimensions.

Tech Update: You are inheriting the Trilogy program, which is a $400 million project to upgrade systems at the FBI. What is the status of that effort?
John: We are early in the curve. It's a critical project that is on track, and I believe it will deliver.

Tech Update: How does the Internet play into your thinking?
John: There is still much to discover there. I sense that as we anticipate the future, the Internet will be part of the network architecture, but we need to think about security and other issues.

Tech Update: How do you measure success and failure as a CIO?
John: My belief is that metrics are extremely important, so you know how you are doing and have a feedback loop. Basically, you look at the core processes by which work is accomplished and design the appropriate metrics, and then track investment in IT in whatever form it takes and how it moves the metric. The metrics need to be systemically designed into the system; otherwise, you'll never have an accurate picture of the whole. You have to look at all the pieces, but also at the whole and interrelationships of the pieces.

Tech Update: Do you have any religion about technology? Are you in the Microsoft or Open Source camp?
John: I often tell a story to address this point. I grew up on a farm in Utah. Some farmers drove a Ford pickup truck and some a Chevy, and they had a passion about one or the other. In many settings, I have said, "Is this a pickup truck issue?" It's extremely important that you get the IT architecture set, but I want to be open and listen to all the voices.

Tech Update: How long do you anticipate holding this job?
John: I said to Director Mueller when he invited me to come [to Washington] that my mindset is to be with him through his tenure at the FBI.

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