Making the move to government IT

Public-sector positions are more stable than corporate jobs, but require patience. And then there's the pay issue

As wave after wave of corporate layoffs remake the American business landscape, IT managers find themselves wondering if they should consider a personal bailout strategy of their own -- a government IT job.

Is moving from corporate America to a government agency -- local, state or federal -- a good career move? According to a cadre of IT pros who've worked in both the private and public sectors, the answer is a resounding maybe.

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Although government jobs generally pay less money, they are typically safe, stable places where you can do a reasonable job, for reasonable pay and keep reasonable hours. Even if you don't plan to make a career in government, it can be a nice shelter during the economic storm, these professionals say.

But a move into government isn't necessarily easy. Aside from the pay scale, there are significant operational and cultural differences.

While public-sector IT managers say they are getting a breadth of experience that's hard to find in the private sector and that public service can be uniquely fulfilling, government IT also requires a patient, persistent and diplomatic temperament that's less in demand in the corporate world.

So should a government IT job be part of your personal rescue strategy? Read on for our experts' take on what to expect from the public sector.

Your stress level will go down, but so will your pay

Several IT managers who worked in the private sector for many years say they moved into government because they had grown tired of the long hours and constant travel of the corporate rat race. Another left government briefly for the corporate world but soon returned. It was all about a better quality of life and work-family balance.

After 10 years at General Motors Corp., the last 11 months of which he spent integrating the IT systems of six marketing divisions, "I was fried. Absolutely fried," says Ken Theis, now CIO for the state of Michigan. "GM was good to me, but like a lot of corporations, they'll take every ounce and then 10% more."

As a member of the sandwich generation, with young kids and elderly parents to care for, Theis needed a job that allowed more time for family. He joined the state's IT department in 1999 and was named CIO in 2007. He now oversees 1,700 people and has an annual budget of $433 million.

Steve Reneker had spent his entire career in government, but left his job as CIO of the California county of Riverside in 2003 to take a job with Dell Inc. as business development manager for public safety and criminal justice.

He thought experience in the private sector would round out his career, and the money was good. But the job required much more travel than he had expected -- about 90% of his time was on the road.

Which is why, less than two years later, Reneker returned to the public sector, accepting the CIO job in his hometown of Riverside, Calif. The pay was only 60% of what he'd made at Dell.

"It was a hard decision, but at that point, the money wasn't as important as quality of life," he says.

Indeed, most of the CIOs interviewed said they took substantial pay cuts when they moved to government, although few would share hard numbers. "Let's just say I didn't take this job for the money," says Brenda Orth, who joined Pennsylvania's IT department in 2003 after a 20-year career at ExxonMobil Corp. She was promoted to the position of CIO of the commonwealth in 2008.

Money likewise wasn't a driver for Bill Oates, Boston's CIO. What did interest him was the opportunity for public service. Before and during his 20 years in the hospitality industry, most recently as CIO at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc., Oates had served in local government posts. For example, he was a member of the school committee in his hometown of Watertown, Mass.

When Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was looking for a CIO for the city in 2006, Oates was drawn to the position because it would allow him to combine his technical skills with his avocation.

Unlike some of his public CIO counterparts, however, Oates' hours on the job weren't significantly reduced. Although he doesn't travel as much as he did when he worked at Starwood, Oates says he puts in just as many hours now as he did previously. "My wife says we now realize one thing: It's not the job. It's me."

You'll have many bosses and multiple missions

Regardless of what leads you to government work, once there you'll find major differences in pace, organizational structure and performance metrics, experienced IT managers say.

In the private sector, the focus is on speed and efficiency. The end goal -- making money -- is usually obvious, and you typically have clear metrics, such as revenue and market share, to help gauge your progress.

The drivers are different in government. The pace is slow and steady, partly because of the bureaucratic civil service culture and partly because of the nature of government process and procedures, according to Tom Jarrett, former CIO for the Delaware state government, who is now retired.

Even the most efficient managers can't rush a long governmental budgeting process or skip spending the time to forge good relations with legislators -- at least not if they want to stay in government, Jarrett says.

You may wonder why things must be done a certain way, but in some instances you just accept it. "Things have been that way for as long as anybody can remember, and you're not changing it," says Jarrett. "If you go into it thinking that you are, your frustration level will increase tenfold and you'll just go absolutely crazy."

That's not to say that major change isn't possible -- after all, Jarrett was brought in specifically to revamp the state's IT department, with the support of the governor and the legislature -- just that it takes time.

Moreover, goals and performance metrics aren't always clearly identified in government. That's because you may have multiple bosses and serve multiple stakeholders, often with different interests.

Theoretically, your goal is to improve government service to its citizens, and your boss is the taxpayer. In practice, however, you might report directly to the mayor, but you also have to please various city council members. Or you might sit in the governor's cabinet, but you still have to keep scores of state legislators happy. Or you might report to the director of a federal agency, but you must still comply with mandates on technology coming directly from the CEO of the country, President Barack Obama.

Bill Kirkendale, CIO of a little-known federal entity called the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency of the District of Columbia, finds himself in just such a position. He reports to an interim director because Obama has yet to appoint a new director of CSOSA, which was formed in the mid-1990s when the federal government took over some functions of District of Columbia's government.

Meanwhile, the new president has started issuing lots of new guidance through the Office of Management and Budget regarding transparency in government. "Those things are coming at us like wildfire right now," says Kirkendale. "It's very difficult to balance your internal operational plan while at the same time dealing with all these federal-government-wide directives."

Jarrett had an advantage going into state government from his corporate job. He'd worked in technical jobs at Bell Atlantic (now part of Verizon Communications Inc.) for about 20 years, but his last eight years were in the company's state government relations group. So he already had strong relationships with many state legislators when Gov. Ruth Ann Minner hired him as CIO with the mission of remaking Delaware's IT department.

Although he reported to Minner as a member of her cabinet, "I always said I had 62 additional individual bosses" in the legislature. Those relationships were key to achieving Jarrett's task of dissolving the state's existing civil-service-based IT department and building a new one based on private-sector pay scales.

To accommodate this complexity of government, technology professionals need a management style that's more consensus-based and diplomatic than the autocratic approach common in many corporations. "It's an aspect of government that doesn't always work for people," says Theis. "I've had to make very large adjustments in my management style."

It's not just the legislature that runs on consensus. Early in his government career, Theis was charged with improving Michigan's child support enforcement system. "I went to the director of the agency and said, 'Here's what I'm doing. Here's how we'll move forward and make this transition, and I need you to call these folks and get these people lined up politically,'" says Theis. "He literally almost laughed at me, and then he told me that it wasn't going to happen that way."

The problem: Improving the system depended on convincing 83 judges to change the way they were doing their jobs. And those judges, who were appointed for life, did not report to anybody. Theis ultimately tackled the problem by first convincing a well-respected chief justice for Michigan of the merits of the changes. She had the influence to bring the judges around.

You'll wrestle with antiquated processes and job functions

Another frustration: government has traditionally been function-oriented rather than process-oriented, says Theis, which can result in the it's-not-my-job phenomenon that citizens sometimes experience when trying to renew a driver's license or pay taxes.

Using the child support project as an example, Theis says the state might have six people whose sole job is to examine tax forms, wage records and other sources to determine if a deadbeat parent is not reporting income. Over time, new functions get added to the process, and new people are hired to do those jobs, but nobody ever re-examines the entire process to see if it can be made more efficient.

Theis recalls that when he suggested that Michigan re-engineer the processes in child support, "somebody looked at me and said, 'What's a process?'" he relates.

But those attitudes are starting to change, Theis adds, making it an exciting time to be working in government. He believes government organizations are just embarking on the path of transforming IT into a strategic advantage that industry went through a couple of decades ago. Government entities are looking to hire CIOs with private-industry experience, and CIOs are being elevated in government hierarchies, he says.

In fact, Jarrett, Theis and Oates were all the first CIOs to be elevated to the cabinet level in their respective states and city. And President Obama just recently named Vivek Kundra, former CTO of the District of Columbia, to be the first federal CIO.

But these higher profiles also mean that government CIO jobs are more subject to the winds of politics, with a capital "P." Jarrett is living proof of that. He was replaced in January when the new governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, took office and appointed James H. Sills III in his stead.

"I did a great job, and knew the incoming governor quite well," says Jarrett, who had been state treasurer and is a Democrat like both the incoming and previous governors. "Everybody thought I was staying. It came as a surprise to just about everyone in the state that I was moved out, including me." Jarrett is currently retired but says he's still looking at various job possibilities.

You'll feel good about what you do

The occasional bald political maneuver aside, government CIOs say they feel privileged to help improve government through the use of technology. Knowing you're helping improve citizens' lives is incredibly rewarding, they say.

They also appreciate the richness and variety of what they do. "Every day it's a different set of issues and challenges," says Orth.

"I come to work one day and I'm working with the state department of transportation on how to improve our driver's license system. The next day I'm talking to our emergency management people about how we can use technology to automate and locate snow plows when we're in the middle of a snowstorm. And right now we're working on how best to do economic stimulus reporting, so we can be accountable back to and the President."

And for the most part, government CIOs say they feel secure, at least more so than many IT managers in corporations these days. Kirkendale, who worked for a dot-com start-up that went bust and then as a consultant at BearingPoint Inc., a consulting firm that declared bankruptcy in February 2009, likes where he is now. "I have a job that, as long as I do it well, is probably not going away."

Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in technology, business and public policy.

This story, "Making the move to government IT" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.