Literally and figuratively, IT departments have seen the light. They were once relegated to dark, out-of-the-way offices with a mission to preserve the status quo. Externally, new technology was rampant. Internally, however, legacy systems reigned supreme. In turn, IT leaders were medics; instead of architecting strategic solutions, they spent their days triaging complaints and applying operational band-aids to administrative cuts and scrapes. Their charge was to minimize IT spend, not to maximize IT potential.

But that was then. With technological change now coming in torrents instead of trickles, organizations are drowning in disruption. Because they’re holding the lifesavers, IT departments have been invited out of the basement and into the boardroom. Suddenly, IT professionals who once felt like hermits now feel like heroes.

As in private industry, leading change in the Intelligence Community (IC) are CIOs, whose evolving role was the subject of a panel discussion Monday at the the GEOINT Symposium. Titled “CIOs: Moving from Chief Information Officers to Chief Innovation Officers,” the discussion left no question: IT leaders don’t just support the mission; increasingly, they drive it.

“We’ve watched the role of CIOs change a lot over the past 10 years in government, in particular; inside the Intelligence Community; and also, across industry,” observed moderator Jill Singer, vice president of national security at AT&T Public Sector and Wholesale Solutions.

Singer kicked the session off by asking panelists—Annette Redmond, director, Technology and Innovation Office, Intelligence and Research Bureau, Department of State; La’Naia Jones, deputy chief information officer of the Intelligence Community, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI); Juliane Gallina, chief information officer, Central Intelligence Agency; and Mark Andress, chief information officer, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—to describe how their roles have changed.

“The chief information officer primarily started as more of a technology or technologist role, looking at information and data processes, but now the role of the CIO really encompasses everything that the agencies or organizations are providing,” said Jones, adding CIOs now oversee not only technology, but also disciplines as diverse as security, procurement, and human resources. “The role has morphed from what was more of a stovepipe to now being foundational and integrated into everything that we do.”

Part of what makes the modern CIO so foundational, Gallina proposed, is that they have become soothsayers. “There’s the keep-the-lights-on part of the CIO job, and then there’s the [part of the job that’s focused on] future investment in the portfolio,” she said. “This is the new issue for CIOs in our role: We need to be thinking ahead of our own agency about how will technology trends in industry disrupt the agency’s operations in the future.”

Personnel constitute a big part of the answer, panelists agreed. “A CIO today has to have an incredible wealth of talent working for them to ensure that they’re meeting [their objectives],” asserted Redmond, who said the State Department, for its part, has a number of programs designed to help it recruit and develop the IT talent necessary to address future challenges and opportunities.

One successful example is the IT Skills Incentive Program, which encourages employees to acquire new skills and education by giving them financial rewards in exchange for completing eligible training courses and certifications. The department also has an expansive IT internship program and is investing “aggressively” in hiring low-level IT employees—“digital natives” who will help the agency achieve and maintain a technological edge as they advance through its ranks.

Though attracting qualified IT talent can be difficult even in the private sector, the challenge is even more pronounced in the IC due to the security clearance process, according to Jones, who said a major focus at ODNI is its Right, Trusted, Agile Workforce initiative, for which the objective is partnering with industry to establish a trusted workforce that can easily flow between the IC and the private sector. “We’re looking at how we can leverage relationships and partnerships … to be able to bring people in more easily in order to help with innovation,” she said.

“Relationships and partnerships” were also a dominant theme when panelists turned their attention to the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise (IC ITE), which is now in the midst of its “second epoch.” While IC ITE’s first epoch was about establishing an IT foundation—a common IT architecture and a shared IT environment—its second epoch, panelists indicated, is about establishing functional partnerships through which to actually leverage it.

Continued Jones, “Epoch 2 is looking at: Yes, we have that foundation, but how can we actually use that? How can we partner with industry, academia, among ourselves to be able to leverage what we do well and to learn from each other?”

Though it’s not yet clear what they’ll look like or how they’ll function, the need for knowledge sharing via constructive and collaborative IT partnerships is undeniable in the face of emerging technologies, including 5G wireless networks for mobile intelligence, blockchains for supply chain security, and even Sci-Fi-sounding innovations like augmented reality goggles one can control with eye movements.

“It truly blew my mind,” Gallina said of the latter innovation, which she recently experienced firsthand at a technology summit.

Her sentiment—wonder, excitement, curiosity—perfectly captures the driving force behind the transition among IC CIOs: With the prospect of new technology, public and private enterprises need skilled IT departments to make strategic sense of it.

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Posted by Matt Alderton