Secrets of IT Leadership: A Conversation with Dr. David Bray, Senior Executive and CIO of The FCC


Marc: How do you see today’s overall tech landscape?

David: I think the big challenge is that things are moving at an accelerating clip. Things are not only moving fast, things are moving almost exponential in terms of things like the number of network devices on the face of the planet, and the amount of data. In 2015 there were 14 billion network devices on the face of the planet. By 2020 there are estimates of over 50 billion or more, just in four years. Data is also doubling every two years. This accelerating rate of change means even a startup that starts completely new today with the latest and greatest technology, in 4-5 years, will fall behind because of legacy technology.

So how do we refresh and keep up with the speed is the biggest challenge.

Now, the huge opportunities to keep up with that challenge are first and foremost modular reuse of cloud services. So instead of in the past we bought an entire application. It had its user interface, its code, and its security all wrapped around the application. We should much more think about re-mixing modular services in cloud.

So it’s almost like stitching together your quilt. You have one piece of your quilt that’s about authenticating the user. Another piece of it is about collecting data. Another is about mapping onto GIS. But you can change out those parts much quicker than you can change out an entire system, and that’s how you can keep up with the speed.

It also allows you to pivot from being application-centric to being data-centric. Because really the most important thing is the data. How it’s presented will come and go. Right now we’re doing things on mobile devices, but maybe in a year or two from now we’re operating on Occulus Rift or other 3D realities. Whatever it may be, that will come and go. The data is the most important part.

And the third thing that really fascinates me is we’re right now at a point where cyber-security is really, really, really hard. Partly because there are so many interfaces and exposures. And also the internet, TCP-IP was not initially built with security in mind. So how do we solve that? I think we need to think much more about a public health or resiliency approach (and I recognize my background at the CDC may be coming through).

If you think about it, there’s nothing in the real world where you can guarantee 100% security. When you go to a restaurant you hope nothing bad happens, but someone could show up and do something bad. But we have defense in depth, in that we have many different layers of detection, containment, and things like that in the real world.

We need the same thing that occurs in the digital world. A sub is not compromised if it springs a leak. It has containment, it closes it off, and addresses the problem. We need to have many more systems that are like that, that are resilient in nature, and aren’t as fragile, so if something happens it rapidly detects it, contains it, and responds to it. I think we have to do that because where we’re going with the Internet of Everything—your refrigerator, your car, possibly your clothes—will be connected to the internet. And while it’s less of an issue if your refrigerator or your clothes get compromised, if your car gets compromised that could be a life-or-death issue.

And so we need to rethink new ways of working together, different than we did before. And that’s going to require CIOs not to be focusing on the technology, but to be focusing on the people, the policy, and the different strategy levers they can pull to enact change.

Marc: What do you consider to be the most important skills for aspiring IT professionals today?

David: The first thing I would recommend is curiosity. If you don’t have curiosity then IT might not be the right field for you because the field is always changing. And if you’re not hungry for what’s next, but at the same time trying to figure out how to make things work, you’re going to fall behind. There is no textbook for the exciting projects that we’re trying to do today.

The second one, it really is about being willing to get outside of your comfort zone. If you sign up to be in the technology field, or any type of field that ties to technology, and not step out of your comfort zone, you’re going to be limited as to what you can do as a leader. I look back at my own experiences, and at least 60-70% of them have not been technology related. They brought technology in, but it was defintiely stepping outside of my comfort zone. And that’s key—we need many more CIOs and IT leaders that can reach across the non-IT side, the programatic side, and actually help drive the mission.

And the third is—find joy in the mission of whatever organization you sign up for. And it’s the mission, regardless of the technology, because really in my mind IT is there to enable the mission to occur. In the past it might have been talked about how IT supported the mission, I now think, especially in the digital age, IT and the mission are perhaps co-dependent, but you have to have that joy in the mission outcome because that’s what will make you an effective leader.

Marc: So I’m just wondering, what is your trick? There have been 9 CIOs at the FCC in the last 8 years. You’ve so far made 2.5 years. What do you think has been the trick?

David: As a CIO I think the best thing I do is listen, and learn, and try to build a case as far as what are the different things needed for the different offices.

The second thing is actually to be very open that you want people to give you feedback. In a changing environment the top is only a few people, whereas an organiation has many more people at the edge. And they’re actually going to know what best fits their context. So it’s much more about cultivating and raising their insights up, as opposed to just doing things from the top.

And the good thing is I’ve now been doing what my PhD showed now at the FCC, as well as with the defense and intelligence agencies, which is about championing change agents. Change agents, I give them autonomy, I give them a measurable sense of progress, and I give them a meaningful source of work, and that intrinsically motivates them to be much more doers and getting things done at the edge, than it would ever be possible if we tried to do it in terms of command and control from the top.

Marc: So here we have the CIO of a major government agency, and you’re advocating for a bottoms-up democratic oriented change, as opposed to top-down rule-based change.

That’s very unique, I think a lot of people in the private sector will be shocked to hear you’re pioneering this sort of thinking.

David: It’s what you have to do in rapidly changing or disruptive environments. And I can actually say the data supports it.

Another thing is you not only have to empower the edge, but you also have to encourage and cultivate a diversity of insights. I actually tell my team “I’m going to have blindspots”. I want them to be able to point them out. Bring data—so it’s not just your opinion—but I’m open at any given time. Come into my office, let’s have a conversation. And if you think there’s a better way we can go as an organization in terms of our strategy, please bring it.

I know I’m going to have blind spots, I’m only human, and we’re in an era of rapid, turbulent technology change, and so we all have to work together cultivating change agents.

Marc: Looking out at this landscape of technology and people, what advice would you give people who want to succeed in tech?

David: Look at whatever your current job is as the bare minimum of things you have to do.

I think a lot of people look at their job description and say that’s all I’m going to do. But I’m like no no no that’s just the common denominator. Go above and beyond that. Take on things that are outside of your job description. Look for opportunities to step outside of expectations.

If you accept the mantra of being a creative problem solver, and going above and beyond your job description, you’ll succeed beyond your wildest expectations.

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