Life on the IT Frontier

For Steven VanRoekel, the former Microsoft whiz kid who was recently named chief information officer (CIO) of the U.S. Government, happiness is using his high-tech Internet skills to help streamline federal information processing.  His “wonderfully challenging” goal during the next few years: to dramatically improve the speed and efficiency of federal information management – while at the same time saving billions of dollars in operating costs.

When Steven VanRoekel (’94 management information systems) was growing up in small-town Iowa back in the 1970s, he drove his parents crazy by constantly disassembling the family’s kitchen appliances . . . and then hoping he could figure out how to put them back together again.

“I grew up in Cherokee, way up in northwest Iowa [population: 5,369],” says
the former Microsoft wunderkind, who last August was tapped by President Barack Obama to become America’s chief information officer. “Looking back, it was pretty much an idyllic childhood . . . except for those times when I took apart the toaster and left my parents feeling pretty frustrated the next morning at breakfast!”

itfrontierFor the technologically gifted VanRoekel (pronounced Van-ROE-kel), reducing the family vacuum cleaner to a pile of useless metal parts and plastic hoses was simply doing what came naturally. By the time he was 12 years old, in fact, the ardent electronics buff was already noodling around with the first, primitive versions of the “personal computer” – a futuristic, technologically daring device that was still in its infancy three decades ago.

“I can still remember the joy I felt one Christmas morning,” recalls the 41-year-old VanRoekel, “when I looked under the tree and saw that my parents had gotten me a Commodore 64 – which was one of the first-ever PCs, along with the early Apple II.

“The Commodore 64 was an extremely basic, extremely limited computer device, but I was thrilled to have one – and I soon learned how to make it do things that weren’t in the instruction booklet!”

That thrilling Christmas morning took place nearly 30 years ago, but the techno-savvy Internet guru still remembers it vividly. “My mom took a picture of me under the tree with the Commodore,” he recalls, “and that photo is now hanging on the wall of my office, here at OMB [the federal Office of Management and Budget].”

As VanRoekel loves to tell visitors to his fourth-floor digs at the venerable old Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, that aging Christmas photo speaks volumes about his rise from adolescent computer geek to America’s top-ranked cyberspace executive.

A 15-year veteran of mighty Microsoft (where he directed the Windows Server and Tool Division for five years and then was the “speech and strategy assistant” to famed CEO Bill Gates from 1999-2002), VanRoekel departed the private sector three years ago in order to serve newly elected President Obama as managing director of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

There he distinguished himself by using his high-octane techno skills to quickly improve the agency’s IT operations – while reducing costs and helping to tighten cyber-security throughout large areas of the federal government.

Describing his meteoric career during a recent Washington interview, VanRoekel said, “I like to think of myself as being broader than just a ‘Microsoft guy.’ I’m a proud father and husband, first of all – and I’m also a proud public servant. And third, I’m a ‘technologist’ through and through.

“I’ve always been an embracer of new technology, starting way back in eighth grade . . . and now I’m determined to help make that technology serve our country by improving our ability to process and share information, while at the same time cutting back on future costs.”

While he’s understandably proud of having goosed up the FCC’s ability to talk to itself and others, the social media-minded VanRoekel is especially happy about having made the giant agency accessible to youthful, Internet-savvy citizens all across the country.

Ask him if he’s pleased that the FCC now has more than 400,000 Twitter followers, and he’ll nod enthusiastically. “Actually, it’s now 450,000 followers,” he says with a proud parent’s beaming smile. “And I think that’s a good sign that the agency has been getting into closer touch with the public. We pushed hard for more effective use of social media at the FCC, and those efforts seem to be paying off.”

Feeling energized by the challenge ahead
When the youthful VanRoekel landed on the ISU campus back in 1990, the personal computer was still a struggling new technology, and the Internet as we know it today hadn’t been born yet.

But that didn’t slow him down. After being appointed yearbook editor, VanRoekel quickly began using his exotic skills to transform the production process. “The year before I was editor, we’d done the usual ‘wax paste-up,’” he says with smile of nostalgia, “and then we sent the pages off to have the [printing] plates made.

“That was old-school stuff. But it didn’t take us long to convert to Macintosh. We had an old Mac ‘single-box’ with a little screen on it . . . and I soon figured out how to link it to several other word processors, and that changed everything.

“That was an exciting time for all of us at the yearbook. All at once, the potential of the computer seemed obvious, and we realized that it could really do things for you.”

After earning his B.A. in management information systems (he minored in journalism) at ISU, VanRoekel signed on as a techno-manager at Microsoft, then spent 15 years helping Bill Gates build the computing giant into the cyber-behemoth it is today.

An easygoing executive with an affable exterior, the laid-back VanRoekel got on well with the equally unflappable Gates. “One of the first things I told him was that I was extremely proud of having come to Microsoft from the place where the digital electronic computer was invented – at Iowa State University [by physicist John Vincent Atanasoff and electrical engineer Clifford E. Berry], back around 1940.”

Although VanRoekel had a proven track record of success at streamlining cyber-operations at the FCC, his task as CIO will not be easily accomplished. In addition to blunting the ever-escalating national security threats posed by hackers, he’ll have to deal with deficit-inspired budget cuts that seem certain to take a major-league bite out of his $80 billion yearly operating budget.

Unfazed, however, the relentlessly confident Internet wizard says he’s actually looking forward to the challenge of doing more with less.

“It won’t be easy, but I think it’s doable,” VanRoekel says, relaxing for a moment in an elegant conference room at the graceful old Eisenhower complex not far from the White House. “For starters, we know that the technology is out there, ready to answer the call. And we also know that we’ve got some powerfully effective managers and staffers out there at the federal agencies and that they’re eager to improve their IT systems in any way they can.

“This is a very exciting time to be working on information systems at the federal government – and I think all of us are feeling energized by the prospect of making IT much more effective and efficient in the days ahead.”

Call him whatever you like — but please don’t call him czar!

Ask Barack Obama’s newly appointed chief information officer if he wants to be known as the “IT Czar,” and he’ll respond to the question with an unhappy frown.

“Really, I do think I would resist that terminology,” says Steve VanRoekel, who currently oversees an $80 billion annual budget and is responsible for making sure the federal government implements and then uses state-of-the-art Internet technology with maximum efficiency.

“I realize that the term ‘czar’ has been used in the past to describe people who direct federal programs of one kind or another . . . but I prefer to think of myself as a partner who seeks to inspire innovation and efficiency at the various government agencies where we’re working to improve IT operations day in and day out.”

Although the former Microsoft executive now commands a vast technological enterprise that’s charged with teaching 2.1 million federal employees how to use cutting-edge Internet tools as effectively as possible, he insists that his role is to “inspire learning and innovation,” rather than serving as the traditional bureaucratic boss.

While taking several history and political science courses at Iowa State in the early 1990s, VanRoekel gained a keen awareness of the fate that is so often reserved for “the czar” – typically an all-powerful tyrant (as in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia) whose career ends suddenly and violently, after his subjects grow disenchanted with his leadership. But the cyber-guru is also quick to point out that his function as IT chief is “much more about teaching and helping our agency partners implement powerful new communications tools” than it is about giving orders from on high.

Unlike the federal “drug czars” and “terrorism czars” and “intelligence czars” who’ve made headlines in recent years, VanRoekel won’t be running a war-fighting agency dedicated to shutting down international narcotics trafficking or preventing the next 9/11 terrorist attack. But the challenge he faces is every bit as urgent as theirs in one important way . . . since it will require him to design and then implement staggeringly complex IT technology aimed at saving several billion precious tax dollars during the next few years.

With the U.S. economy caught in a seemingly endless and brutal recession, finding ways to save taxpayer funds – while increasing productivity at the same time – is more important than ever before.

“The task ahead is going to be challenging, there’s no doubt about that,” says the cheerfully upbeat chief information officer. “To get it done, I don’t need to be a czar-like figure issuing commands from on high. What I will need, however, is the ability to inspire people at all levels of government to better understand and more efficiently use all of these marvelous new tools that information technology is creating every day.

“Maybe the right word for me is ‘evangelist’ – somebody who’s passionately determined to spread the gospel of improved productivity at lower cost, via better use of technology.”

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