As part of our interviews for “Conversations With CXOs: Your Crash Course on the Future of Gov,” we asked C-level execs what they wish they had known when they started their careers in government. Here is a sampling of what they said.
The Human Factor
Sometimes it’s not easy for experts to look beyond their own expertise.
Chezian Sivagnanam, Chief Architect at the U.S. National Science Foundation, originally studied electrical engineering before going into IT. He said he has come to appreciate the extent to which technology issues are interwoven with people issues. He didn’t understand that early in his career.
“I would just go build out a system, implement it and go for lunch,” Sivagnanam said. “I never worried about bringing people alongside with it.”
The problem with that approach is that if a new system or process doesn’t reflect how people work or what they need, they are likely to see it as something optional.
“If it’s optional,” Sivagnanam said, “people might not use it, even though I have created some wonderful thing.”
He learned that the hard way about 10 years ago. His team at the time had been given a mandate to develop a particular system. After working on it for several years and spending several million dollars, they ended up with something that nobody was using. If he could do it all over again, he would take the people-centric approach that NSF uses now (read more here), getting end users involved from the start and eventually turning them into champions for change.
Communication Is Paramount
Every field has its technical terms, acronyms and lingo that make it easy for experts to talk to one another. The only problem is that when one of those experts needs to talk to non-experts – when they need to educate or persuade those non-experts – things can go amiss.
Jeff Brown, Chief Information Security Officer for Connecticut, has seen that firsthand during his career. When he got started in cybersecurity 25 years ago, it was a much more specialized field that rewarded people for their technical expertise. That specialist mindset doesn’t work so well now that cybersecurity is something that touches every aspect of organizations.
“A real industry problem is that you now have people who’ve come up through the technology ranks and they can speak technical very well, but they just can’t communicate with people,” Brown said. “You can have a chief information security officer who’s just dynamite from a technical perspective, but you put them in front of the board of directors and sometimes it falls apart.”
As cyberattacks become more prevalent and more of an enterprise risk, cybersecurity experts need the ability to speak in terms everyone – not just the specialists – can understand, he said.
The Value of the Gut Check
When people are still early in their careers, they tend to lean on the insights and expertise of others. That’s how we all learn. But it’s also possible to rely too much on others, even reputed experts who you pay to offer advice, said Taka Ariga, Chief Data Scientist, Director of Innovation Lab at the Government Accountability Office.
“A lot of issues that we tackle are so complicated, it’s very easy to get swayed by someone with a louder megaphone – perhaps someone with a sexier trifold brochure who convinces you otherwise,” he said. “But over my career, I have learned that my instincts were correct in many instances, and I should trust them more. More often than not, they have served and guided me well.”