The U.S. Homeland Security Department is actually a technology company that also has helicopters, guns, and security clearances. That’s how DHS CTO Michael Hermus described his department at the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC) Federal Cloud Computing Summit, held in Washington D.C. last month.
Hermus pointed out he intends for the agency to become a model for the rest of the federal government in terms of emulating the best practices of leading private sector IT companies. This is not just aspirational, but a matter of national security. As technology changes, private sector companies “can be disrupted out of business. Homeland Security can’t afford to be disrupted out of business.”
Smaller organizations, both inside and outside the government, have figured out how to deliver IT in a fast, effective way. “We want to find ways to bring that lean, flexible practice inside the agency and scale across the government,” he said.
Joe Kim, SVP and Global CTO of SolarWinds notes that Hermus came to DHS a little over a year ago after a successful career with tech companies in the private sector. “I should imagine that he found it a bit of culture shock to work within all the constraints that are built into government processes,” Kim continued. “It’s obvious why the checks and balances are in place, but it’s very different from the pace at which private sector organizations move. “
What has impressed Kim about Hermus’ tenure so far is how he has introduced a little bit of the private sector to DHS. To try to find the right balance between private sector flexibility and government focus on mission, Hermus has five agile IT acquisition pilots under way, all of them addressing real-world, high-profile challenges within four different agencies: Customs and Immigration Services; Transportation Security Administration; Immigration and customs Enforcement; and two for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
While it seems almost brash to take on five pilot programs simultaneously, Hermus said at the ATARC event that there are important things to be learned by tackling them all at once. For instance, it will give insight into all the parts of the programs’ life cycles in parallel, to identify where the process can be streamlined and take less bandwidth from stakeholders. It also provides reinforcement to DHS’s commitment to open source, as all four agencies make that commitment for the pilot programs.
“The technology is the hard part, but the people is the other hard part, and the procurement is the other hard, hard, hard part,” he said.
Based on his observations, Kim sees some clear indications that that DHS not only aspires to be the model agency for the rest of the federal government to emulate, but is coming close to meeting those aspirations. If federal IT leaders are going to accomplish the significant infrastructure overhaul and investment program that is required to drive the mission, then adopting and adapting some private sector best practices to federal needs should not be out of the question. “Why shouldn’t all DHS agencies aspire to be the best tech companies out there?” he said.