From Schwarzenegger to Trump: IT stays a Thriller

|March 20, 2017 0
Image courtesy of adamr at freedigitalphotos.net
He did not utter 'I will be back', but he certainly is. He changed the face of IT in California and eked out $60 mns in savings just by terminating consolidation issues with IT. What’s he peeling away next?

Pratima H

INDIA: When the world of technology resembles a Cheyenne Mountain, you can’t blame it all on the bad guys. So many new dilemmas have got the good guys wrapped around their tiny metal fingers that it’s all the more hard to steer the wheel out of these tunnels.

Whether it is the new amorphous face of cyber-wars, the conspicuous vacuum in CIO, CISO chairs when it comes to the new White House, the perceived and real threats whirring around immigration and the fourth revolution, or the skewed ways in which education is responding to see-saw jolts between demand and supply graphs – the current intersections of IT and business/politics/education are almost akin to a Genisys unfolding swiftly.

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And it is very hard to nab, not because it is hard to chase but because we still have to figure out who is the real antagonist and what to do with series 800, after all.

But conversing with P.K. Agarwal, CEO and Regional Dean at Northeastern University – Silicon Valley, lends a really fresh torrent of air in this seemingly-endless rabbit hole. Not just because he has been in various time-zones – from Sierra Ventures, TiE Global, ACS, NIC and the California state in itself; But because he has a good grip on using technology as a smart shape-changing weapon instead of judging it recklessly as another toy or gun.

You can feel it when he says: “The problem is that whenever we look at the future, our reference point is today.” Or how a good player, in Hockey-playgrounds, or elsewhere, looks for ‘where it is going’ instead of ‘where it is’.

He has quite an enviable depth and many formidable experiences behind such pithy thoughts. To his credit, when he served as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Chief Technology Officer between 2005 and 2010, he not only transformed the state government’s IT system, saved taxpayers $60 million through consolidation and streamlining, but also raised the state’s national Web ranking from #47 in 2006 to #1 in 2010.

Not just that, he has also helped in pioneering the use of the Internet in government and shaped the national and state policy in this area, something that dates back to Al Gore’s National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council in 1995. He also happens to have the distinction of having a U.S. national annual award named in his honor from 2000 to 2007: the ‘P.K. Agarwal Award for Leadership in Electronic Government’.

He also serves as the Chairman of Future 500, a Bay Area-based pioneer in the area of global sustainability. He has formerly been the CEO of TiE Global and has served as the president of the National Association of State CIOs and the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council (ec3).His career in high tech space clearly spans the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, and his latest anchor is at the helm of a University in Silicon Valley.

When he was in India recently, we had to ask him why words like re-invention, experiential learning, hubs, hybrid education etc. keep recurring in his plans and conversations. And of course, what he makes of the many conundrums that the tech world, in general, faces as the plot further thickens. He shares many insights and deconstructs many issues that CIOs grapple, whether they are steering states, countries, corporations, NPOs or e-governance.

If Arnold takes explosions and shots with a frosty, take-the-bruised-arm-off-without-a-blink face; Agarwal takes every shot with a wise swing, a candid voice and a cheerful disposition. Let’s deflect some doubts and terminate a few conjectures then, shall we?

Carving out huge savings as a State CTO must have been quite a high. What stands out for you when you reflect back?

Anyone who has a CIO, CXO role would know how thankless this job can get. It’s a technology industry footnote after all. When your phone rings and all is well, you never thank your phone company. But vice versa, ah! That’s the nature of core infrastructure management too. Expectations are fundamentally different when it comes to technology. Handling a $4 billion budget is a humungous risk and a reward too when you are taking care of IT at a state level.

But when you see the outcomes that can be as simple as experiencing public safety running smoothly or as high-range as getting services properly delivered; the sense of achievement and purpose differs too from what one gets in the private sector.

Also, CTOs and CIOs suffer from the ‘every new wave’ syndrome. They are supposed to just wave the wand and make magic happen. Suddenly Big Data is here, so make it work some magic. Next there’s IoT. Wave it too. Then there is ML and AI. The list is endless. CIOs need to pay attention to changes and move from the previous wave to the next one, but without the earlier baggage. How you think of life comes into play too. It’s complicated but worthwhile.

Talking of waves, shall we be apprehensive about the waves that the fourth industrial revolution might erupt with too? Specially since education sector has to watch out for the next set of skills and gaps?

Well, there would be a group of people who are not positive or are little skeptical. But look at it this way – we will not have a ‘no job’ scenario but a ‘different job’ one. If we go back to the early stages of first revolution and how it affected the hospitality industry, we would see that messenger boys, who used to be the communication infrastructure of this industry, suddenly faced the telephone. This machine disrupted what they did. In five years, these boys were gone? But where? The telephone increased the industry size multi-fold because it now allowed people to travel beyond their comfort territories.

The net job creation was hence, multiple. The problem is that whenever we look at the future, our reference point is today. We don’t know how things will look like tomorrow. The hotel industry did not know how the world will behave with a telephone in it. If someone could look at it that way and knew it would happen, they would not be worried. So, AI and bots etc. may actually be net job creators and good for predictable or for tasks at the low-end of cognitive spectrum. We have to be proactive and not reactive in capitalizing what the new world would be like.

It’s like working on the lines that famous Hockey player said: I don’t move to where the ball ‘is’, I move to where it is going ‘to be’.

What’s your take on large-scale and bold interventions like G-Cloud (UK), Obamacare (US) etc? Would you aver that the procurement landscape is changing? Does it need to?

I do not have a whole lot to add here but overall, I don’t think anyone has figured out an easy to public sector procurement. While everyone wants an elegant, simple and fast public procurement process, there is the need for full transparency, well-established agreed-upon common set of rules, level-playing field, and superimposition of social engineering agendas.

Every progressive government is experimenting with ideas but there are far too many contradictory goals.

How can e-government systems be proactive?

They need to realise the change and understand that what used to be a web-browser around which services were built could soon give way to new interfaces. So audio commands or interactions and bots may be the new clay to build new services from.

P K Agarwal

P K Agarwal

You, with your deep lineage in IT, engineering and operations research as well as state IT – are now leading change in education. We have also heard of Judd Nicholson, Deputy CIO at US Marshals Service leading George Town University as CIO. What makes education a ripe field for sowing hard-core IT experiences from before?

The University space in general, and fundamentally by nature of design, is a tad uniquely placed when it comes to technology. Here, you have to think in a long-term way and with not much room for ‘flashes in the pan’. One cannot be as market responsive as one may be in other sectors. There is a fine line between being responsive and avoiding fad-traps.

In my view, if you have to become relevant for the future, you have to become relevant today. You have to try new waves and be in the right context for industry partners. It’s a bit of a challenge from a change management angle. MBA may stay the same but adapting to FinTech etc. would be what the curriculum would also need to incorporate – an example.

Is that why you are putting a new thrust on experiential learning and industry hubs? How relevant is the bias for STEM in the future landscape?

It is both a challenge for the US as well as India. Fundamentally, we suffer from deficit of qualified people. The demand-supply gap in IT is tremendous. Each wave is adding to this burden of gap and demanding new talent. Interestingly, it’s not just an industry problem or solution anymore. The situation of people in Bay Area for instance puts pressure on traffic systems and congestion as well. If you pick people in the neighbouring community (like more Hispanics, more women) and skill them, you might find plenty of people who were sub-employed and can fill the gap. They can solve both the industry’s as well as the Mayor’s headaches.

I want to bring a different rigor and disruption to the way I approach things here. I want to approach professionals by offering more than a piece of paper, a certificate; because what you learn today may get obsolete in four to five years. I believe in the idea of life-long learning and the currency of knowledge. Experiential learning, building high-quality networks and soft-skills: That is what the future is about.

Those are the weapons that fundamentally save us from obsolescence. Northeastern is applying the experiential learning model and global industry network to the northern California market and has also ventured forth with hubs that will offer master’s degree and certificate programs which eventually align with the specific industry needs of those areas.

The US is in very interesting times, when we think of Technology. Heightened cyber-wars on one hand, the post Tony Scott/Greg Touhill void on the other hand, and visa debates running in the parallel. What’s your sense of what’s happening? Why is it hard to attract good guys in cyber-security while bad ones flock towards hacking so easily?

In this space, bad guys would be dominating anything that is of any value. It’s a challenge to make our homes secure and at least for the next ten to 15 years, with the advent of IoT, DoS etc. this would get amplified. But it’s a growth industry too. Exposure is getting expensive. Security can take a back seat with multiple technologies and multiple vendors. Everything changes so soon and when security is not built in, it becomes complicated. It’s a merciless and continuously-evolving process.

Should students be really worried in light of the new political climate in the US?

The last few couple of events and hate-crimes are indeed tragic and even more serious than one would have construed them to be in a pre-Trump era. I sincerely hope that political leadership will take note of such incidents and would not condone any activity that can clearly cause worry for students.

Education space and Technology are significant growth sectors where we are leaders and there’s no sense in treating the industry as some golden goose.

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