2008 InfoWorld CTO 25: Vivek Kundra, District of Columbia

Managing IT as if it were a stock portfolio pushes useful technology to the fore while culling dead-end projects

When Vivek Kundra became the District of Columbia's CTO a year ago, he inherited an agency known for its prowess in mobile technology and its use of SOA to rework the federal district's basic infrastructure systems into modern versions. So you'd think he could just continue the status quo and relax.

But Kundra realized that building on the base left by his predecessor, especially in an emerging Web 2.0 world, would require a different approach to IT management that drove toward speed, efficiency, cost effectiveness -- and client satisfaction. "But I couldn't see the overall portfolio or the real-time ROI of projects," he recalls.

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"In my private life, I am in real time on my iPhone checking out the status of my stocks and the management team -- so why can't I do that in the D.C. government?" he asked one day. That's when it hit him: Manage IT as if it were a portfolio of stocks, with each project being a "company," its team being the management, its schedule and financial management being the quarterly reports, and the customer satisfaction to deliverables being the market reaction.

Kundra hired a team of analysts to track projects -- in the style of a financial analyst -- on a daily basis. Smaller projects get bundled into "funds" of related efforts.

Pretty quickly, the successes and failures were obvious. For example, the analysts discovered that a three-year enterprise content management project had made little progress and was run by project managers who had four previous failures. "It was not going anywhere. So I decided to 'sell' the stock -- I killed the project -- and put that capital elsewhere," Kundra recalls. In this case, he redirected the money to add mobile laptops to police cars.

The stock metaphor made sense to more business-minded leaders at the district, but Kundra admits he had to really sell the concept to most employees and the 87 agency heads served by his team. "It was an education," he notes drily. What really sold the concept was the result: lower cost due to fewer long-burning misfires.

The stock approach also supplanted the traditional project management mentality of creating specifications and periodically assessing progress against them subjectively. "I wanted a more data-driven model -- after all, the data is the data. If you're over budget for two or three quarters, you can't avoid being exposed," Kundra says. "People don't make tough decisions easily, so you have to show them the data. [As government leaders,] it's our duty to make sure they're not failing," he adds. Objective measurements make that assessment easier.

For Kundra, the stock market approach is really just a metaphor for a technique driven by ongoing analytics. "You can use a different metaphor if that works better in your industry," he says. But essential to success is a "ruthless discipline" in your data collection, analysis, and consequent management decisions.

Kundra's not focused solely on weeding out bad stocks. He also uses this approach to free up capital for innovative bets. For example, he's initiated a project that combines YouTube with Wikipedia to increase government's accountability to citizens. All requests for proposals (RFPs) for city contracts are posted on a Web site in a wiki, with all bids being available as PDF attachments. Attendee lists from public hearings are scanned and posted as well, as are videos of hearings and even RFP presentations. Also posted or linked are any district communications with the potential vendors on the RFPs. If this effort succeeds, "no one can say that there are deals done behind closed doors," he says.

"It's tough in tight budgets to find the innovative path," Kundra notes, which is why he is so focused on gaining stock market-like efficiencies in weeding out wasteful projects and identifying strong ones. Thanks to the savings already established from this approach, he's been able to set up an R&D lab to test new ideas. The two areas of his fancy are new-generation mobile devices -- "I believe the iPhone is the future for integrated voice, data and video" -- and Web 2.0 technologies.

With the stock market management approach and the new R&D lab, Kundra says he can marry his two core management approaches: "It takes both rigor and risk-taking."


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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