The Most Inspiring Session at the 2012 Government IT Leadership Forum
Chris Willey of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on "Thinking Like a Startup"
Chris Willey, CIO of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau delivered session of the day at the Government IT Leadership Forum on May 3rd, 2012 at the Knight Conference Center in the Newseum in downtown Washington DC. Chris evangelized a focus on user-centric design-led software development and encouraged his peer technology leaders to embrace “the Cloud”, open source solutions, and shared services.
Many government agencies find themselves on the wrong side of the technology gap, running software and systems that are a generation behind what's available in the private sector. How might they do things differently if starting from scratch? The newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau did it and shares tips that apply to other agencies, too.
Now in its third year, the Government IT Leadership Forum is a day-long venue where senior IT leaders in government come together to discuss how they're using technology to drive change in federal departments and agencies. Top CIOs from civilian, defense, and intelligence agencies will engage an audience of their peers in an open discussion of strategies and best practices. This year's forum will include a deep dive into what government tech teams are doing to become more agile in responding to requirements and delivering IT services. Join this exclusive gathering of government technology executives to hear first-hand how they're driving change and innovation.
"Any agency can do what we've done"
Chris admitted that compared to his peers, his agency has enjoyed the relatively unique challenge of building an IT infrastructure from scratch. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a relatively new agency created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank Act). Chris was also quick to recognize the support and assistance of the Treasury Department in helping his team get started and achieve the early results the CFPB has achieved. His thank you to Treasury was very humble and seemed notably heartfelt.
Chris went on to assert his belief that without the use of innovative technology, the CFPB would not have achieved the level of success they have reached.
Chris moved directly into a list of lessons learned during his tenure:
- First he offered the encouraging statement that “Any agency can do what we’ve done”
- Chris suggested that user-centric design should be a core competency of an IT organization
- Chris recommended strategic outsourcing of particular functions allowing the core team to focus on design and software development
- He described himself as “blessed” to have a highly talented security design team
- He recommended creating a culture of innovation
- He talked about getting creative to attract the type of talent you don’t typically find in government
Chris described visiting college campuses and talking to students about the real world problems his agency is trying to solve. He gave a couple of examples of legacy processes still being dependent on paper and obscure forms. Chris asserted that young people are attracted to problems like these, and highly interested in building systems leveraging modern technologies to simplify and streamline process.
Chris talked about a number of achievements and policies that seemed to draw groans of envy or derision from the crowd. As an example, he talked about working to make iOS devices an approved option for new employees to choose as a standard option. With humility and confidence he asserted that “with commitment, leadership and patience, you can achieve anything you want to”.
Referring to the newness of the CFPB, Chris stated that “We were born in the cloud”. He acknowledged that his team had the advantage of not inheriting legacy IT infrastructure that pre-dated the cloud. Chris reported that one of the key benefits to cloud computing is a dramatic decrease in the time required to provision new servers. What used to take 2 months, can now be done in 2 weeks, or sometimes as little as 20 minutes.
Chris asserted that contrary to popular belief, open source solutions are absolutely viable components of federal IT infrastructure. Chris said that his team had asked the question, “Why don’t we make source code available to other agencies?” Chris stated that one of his core beliefs is that “any code we write is inherently public domain”. In fact, the CFPB publishes shareable code on github, a site dedicated to code sharing. To see examples of the source code shared by CFPB, check out github.com/cfpb
The part of Chris’s session that made the biggest impression on me, was his discussion of user-centric design. I basically started my professional career at AOL, an organization that also was able to attribute much of its success to a focus on usability (remember, “So easy to use, no wonder we’re #1”). Chris asked rhetorically, “What does this mean?” The answer, “understanding there’s a human being on the other end of the transaction”. Chris advanced the notion that many people’s negative feelings about the government in general, may be largely based on bad design of public facing technology, bad process, incoherent forms, etc. He talked about his own experience as a federal employee, admitting that activities like filling out time cards or selecting a benefit plan were incredibly painful. Chris stated he is very proud of his agency’s public facing Web site – Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. My quick visit to the site suggests Chris’ pride is well deserved. Navigation is intuitive and obvious, social media has been prominently integrated, and I see good use of video and multimedia. This definitely doesn’t look like a traditional government web site.
Chris offered several suggestions for organizations interested in improving their focus on user-centric design. Two key recommendations included:
- Socialize talented UX designers with key stakeholders and business owners. The notion is that the closer designers are to understanding the core need and the goals of the functionality, the better equipped they are to produce great designs that still fulfill core requirements.
- Let design decisions be made by designers. This was a hard lesson I learned in my time at AOL. As a business owner, it is very tempting to assert an opinion on design issues. As an author of functional requirements, it is sometimes extremely difficult to separate functional requirements from design preferences. When we imagine the system we need to build, it is very natural to start by sketching the interface. Letting go of pre-conceived notions about the UI, and entrusting these decisions to UX experts is difficult, but leads to world-class outcomes.
Chris also talked about his organization’s commitment to SCRUM and agile processes.
Finally Chris talked about the challenge of attracting and retaining the type of talent his agency needs to work the way they do. He discussed the CFPB Design + Technology Fellowship. This is a program announced in May that will provide a 2 year program for developers and designers to work with the agency. Participants can work from anywhere, but are invited to spend their first few months in DC learning the basics of the CFPB’s mission and technical infrastructure. After that period of immersion, fellows return home and work remotely with other team members. The program targets front-end and back-end web developers as well as UX designers and graphic designers. Based on what I saw and heard from Chris, I would strongly recommend this program to college graduates, and anyone interested in applying their skills to help the CFPB achieve their mission.
At the conclusion of his remarks, Chris took questions from the audience. Robert Simmon of NASA, who had just wowed the crowd with his presentation on high-definition photography of planet Earth raised his hand to ask for advice for someone who may find themselves in a less progressive-thinking agency. Chris laughingly assured Robert that NASA could not possibly be the agency he was referring to. Robert got a room full of chuckles when he admitted it was.
There were a lot of impressive presentations given at the 2012 Government IT Leadership Forum, but Chris stood out as a truly different type of animal. While he clearly enjoys many advantages that his peers at larger, less consumer-facing agencies do not, the success of this organization must in large part be attributed to Chris’ personality, expertise and courage.
On my way out of the event, I had the opportunity to meet Chris and thank him for his session. He was as approachable and personable one-on-one as he was on stage. I’d like to thank him again for his perspective. I found much of his advice just as relevant to me in my daily life in the private sector. Thanks Chris, we need more people like you working in federal government. I’ll be following your work with interest.