• United States

IT leaders go public

News Analysis
Dec 05, 20056 mins
Data Center

Seeking challenge, some go to government work from private sector.

IT leaders move from private sector to public, as challenges in government positions offer broader challenges.

Art Stephens began his career as a programmer at Accenture and worked his way up the ranks, eventually heading Deloitte Consulting’s office in Harrisburg, Pa. But when an opportunity arose to stray from his successful, private-sector career path and move into the commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s CIO position, Stephens jumped at the chance.

Part of the reason, Stephens felt, was that as he climbed the corporate ladder, he had been dragged increasingly away from the IT consulting work he loved into an administrative role where he dealt with sales and personnel management more than with networks and servers. He welcomed the chance to take on a more technology-focused responsibility.

In addition, Stephens had a growing desire to serve his community.

“I took a very significant pay cut to make this change,” says Stephens, who was appointed deputy secretary of IT by Pennsylvania’s Gov. Edward Rendell in 2003 and accepted an appointment as one of the governor’s deputy chiefs of staff last June. Stephens’ duties in his new position include the general oversight of IT.

Although one usually thinks of people moving from the public sector into better-paying corporate jobs, there also is significant movement in the other direction. Pennsylvania is just one of a handful of states – the others are Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland and Massachusetts – that have private-sector-professionals-turned-public-servants leading their IT divisions, according to the National Association of State CIOs.

“It feels good to give back … to know that you’re making a difference,” Stephens says.

It’s that type of altruism that is the primary motivator for many IT professionals who have given up lucrative private-sector positions for public-sector responsibilities. Robert McFarland, who heads up IT in the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., for example, had spent his entire career in the private sector, including a long stint at Dell. He came out of retirement last year to accept his appointment by President George Bush as the VA’s assistant secretary for IT.

“There are a couple stimulators that get people talking about working for … government. One is a sense of public service, not unlike a calling to be a priest,” says Peter Metzger, vice chairman of executive search firm Christian & Timbers in Washington, D.C. “The other piece, which is of equal importance, is the enormous responsibility that one gets.”

McFarland, for example, notes that there are 230,000 people working for the VA, with more than 6,000 IT employees and a $2 billion IT budget.

“No matter what I did in the private sector, there are very few places I could have been that would have been as large and as complex as this one,” he says.

Peter Quinn, CIO of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, agrees, saying that IT professionals likely will find more diversity in the types of projects they lead in the public sector, simply because of government’s broader focus.

“You deal with everything from state police to jails to collecting taxes to welfare, the whole gamut of services,” says Quinn, who had been CIO of Boston Financial Services before accepting the Massachusetts CIO position in 2002. “You get to work at the courts, Legislature – the variety of the job becomes very compelling.”

Getting projects completed, however, can be frustrating, because as a public official, government CIOs have to get through several levels of approval before an IT project even can be launched.

“The aspects of politics are completely different than in the private sector,” says the VA’s McFarland. “The private sector may have something it calls corporate politics, but that is miniscule compared to the politics associated with working for government.”

“There are all kinds of governing bodies that get involved in your activities that you’re not used to by any means in the private sector,” he says. “It’s a different way of dealing with your day-to-day business.”

Indeed, after spending time in government positions, some IT professionals decide the public service path is not for them.

“But I tell clients it’s not right to do it if you’ll be there for less than three years. Three to five years is a good length of time,” says Metzger. “Simply learning how the federal government works, aside from learning the skills you need [to be successful there] takes an enormous amount of time.”

Stephens says there is significant turnover among his state CIO peers and attributes it to a number of factors. For one, IT is taking on a higher profile in today’s digital world, and state and federal IT executives are increasingly often under the microscope.

“Legislators want to know [what we’re doing,] voters want to know, the media want to know,” Stephens says. “It’s definitely a challenge to balance that and keep the lights running. … It can become draining.”

Despite the political pressure and the wider variety of project goals, in the end public-sector IT leaders still are charged with the same mandates as their private-sector peers: provide the best, most efficient use of IT resources.

McFarland, for example, is in the process of centralizing and consolidating a dispersed Microsoft Exchange environment. Stephens streamlined the process of project proposals shortly after he took the IT helm in Pennsylvania, requiring that each agency prioritize its IT budget requests before submitting them to the budget office and the governor, with the hope of eliminating duplication across state agencies.

“That’s one of the misconceptions [about public-sector IT] that government is old-school technology,” Stephens says. “It’s just not true.”

Another misconception is that government IT work is easier than private-sector IT work.” I must be honest with you and tell that a move from the private sector to government is not for the faint of heart,” says McFarland. “It’s a very stressful move, a difficult transition and a big challenge.”

As for compensation, consider that top IT pay in the federal government is about $145,000, while a comparable position in the private sector would pay nearly half a million plus stock options and bonuses, says Metzger. Public IT officials advise those private-sector professionals considering a move to the public sector to think about things carefully and be sure that financial compensation will not be an issue.

“What I tell people when they ask about compensation packages is that a large part of the compensation is going to be the psychological reward, the satisfaction of knowing what you’re doing is benefiting society,” Metzger says. “It’s a nice way of saying, ‘You’re not going to like it.'”

At the same time, those willing to make the financial sacrifice will find they are in higher demand should they decide to return to corporate life, Metzger adds: “They’re exponentially more employable and more desirable then they were before they were in government, particularly for a company who targets government as a customer.”