Coleman Takes Women and Technology Conference Audience "Back to the Future"

As prepared for delivery

Remarks by
Casey Coleman
Chief Information Officer
U.S. General Services Administration
Mid-Atlantic Women and Technology Conference
Washington, DC
June 11, 2009

Remember the movie “Back to the Future?” There’s a scene where the lead character Marty McFly, having put his parents back together at the 1955 dance, plays guitar and sings a rousing rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good.” In the moment, Marty plays licks from Van Halen, the Who and others to a stunned audience. Recognizing their shock, Marty says, “I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet.  But your kids or going to love it.”

I don’t know about you, but I sure wish I could step into a time machine and go back 25 or 30 years:

  • Think about the possibilities.
  • The ability to buy Apple Computer stock before the MacIntosh came out would alone be worth the investment!

Scientists continue to debate whether time travel is even possible.  But I like to believe that history can help point us in the right direction, even if society tells us, “Don’t Look Back.”

A case in point:

I was driving in my car the other day, listening to the classic rock station.

  • Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” came on.
  • I’m sure you remember the line, “I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, a little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back.”

Switching to the country station – After all I’m from Texas where we have both kinds of music … Country and Western – I heard Gary Allan sing:

  •  “I don’t look back, one foot in front of the other.  On this one-way track, I don’t look back. “

Was somebody trying to tell me something?

But in a world where everything is changing so quickly, especially in technology, it’s easy to lose sight of why innovation is important, and what brought us to where we are today.

That’s why we need to take a look back.

When I was asked to speak to you today, I welcomed the opportunity:

  • For one, to speak from the same rostrum as Katharine Weymouth (publisher of the Washington Post) is a unique honor.
  • Second, as I look at out at this audience comprised largely of women, I can hopefully impart a few pearls of wisdom.  I’ve benefitted from good life lessons that have guided me and abiding life principles that have informed me.
  • Third, I believe that we are in the midst of a sea change in information technology that holds great promise for all our futures.  It is a change that is as exciting as it is challenging, and I’m honored to be playing a key role in its implementation.

My ability to deliver on that promise is based on those lessons and principles. So if you’ll allow me, I’d like to take a short look back …

As Rebecca (Zimmerman) mentioned, I was raised on a farm in Texas where I was taught the value of hard work.  I also learned at an early age about the ability of technology to transform a process. 

These founding principles were reinforced in my early career:  I worked at four startups:

  • They were very small and agile.
  • I did everything.  Job descriptions were very broad.
  • I learned that bright people with good ideas could have a seat at the table.  Junior employees with key technology skills could succeed.
  • Rank wasn’t an issue. This was the perhaps my biggest shock when I came to government, where rank and seniority are important.  However, I think this is changing, albeit slowly.
  • I never lost sight of the need to reward those with good ideas and a willingness to work hard.  I’m constantly encouraging up-and-comers.

In the early 90s, I got “Potomac Fever” when I won a Congressional Legislative fellowship. 

  • It was here that I learned the importance of having a positive impact on people’s lives.
  • There is a vibe in Washington that is intoxicating.
  • 9/11 was a crystallizing event for me. I couldn’t shake the desire to do something good for other people, so I returned to Washington to join GSA.

One of the most important takeaways from all these experiences is that it is important to take risks. 

Let me give you a couple of examples …

Early in my career with GSA while with the Federal Technology Service, I was tasked with implementing an Enterprise Resource Planning system.

  • I inherited the project just as it was about to go live.
  • As soon as we went live with it, it was clear it wasn’t going to work.
  • We eventually shut it down, and everybody “in the foxhole” (who worked on the project) learned a lot about our business and how to roll-out such systems in the future.
  • The problem?  We were focused too much on the technology and not enough on the human element.

A couple of years later, we sought to implement an agencywide Customer Relationship Management system.

  •  It was a great idea, but again, the needs of all the different stakeholders hadn’t been fully addressed.

Two such disappointments might have caused me to shy away from taking-on such risky projects.

But instead, they brought me into contact with key leaders throughout the agency.  We learned our lesson:  engaging stakeholders and building trust is just as important – if not more important – than the technology.

As a result, GSA was able to successfully consolidate all agencywide infrastructure two years ago.

  • This was a controversial and not-very-popular move.
  • But, because we involved all stakeholders before implementation, it worked. For example, we visited each GSA office, in all 11 regions across the U.S., to hear firsthand the customer concerns and questions. We developed an action plan to address each issue, reported back as we made progress, and published our performance measures for the whole agency to review. Consequently, people began to trust that we would deliver the critical services they relied on, and now this program is a success.
  • We’ve saved 15 percent in costs, improved security and fully modernized the infrastructure.

The lessons learned from these projects paid off, big time.

  • For example, the needs of the customer must always come first.
  • The technology must support their requirements and the mission of the organization.

From these experiences I could have learned to “play it safe.”  But actually, there are risks in playing it safe.

You see, the actions you take today -- or fail to take -- have consequences tomorrow.

In government, we often don’t see the results of our actions for months or even years. It can seem unnecessary or even unwise to step out and take action now, but failing to do so will result in missed opportunities later.

Bottom line, safe is not risk-free.  Hockey legend Wayne Gretsky summed it up best when he said, “You’ll miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

These lessons are incredibly important today, as government embarks on one of its most ambitious IT undertakings yet.

I believe there is no better time to be in government, and there is certainly no better time to be in government IT!

The new administration is having a positive impact on what we in government IT are doing… and what we at GSA are doing.

GSA is a lead agency carrying out administration priorities.

New federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra noted in his first public speech last week that:

  • Technology innovation will be a key driver in improving the nation’s economy.
  • Innovation can be a game changer in meeting the administration’s priorities, not just with respect to the economy, but in such things as health care, the environment, energy, and education.
  • A reliable, secure technology infrastructure is critical.

There is a culture of velocity today; a culture focused on meeting mission and goal outcomes.  The culture of “not invented here” is going away. 

Transparency, collaboration, and participation are key watchwords of the administration.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra has consistently spoken to the value of transparency as a key tenet of the Obama administration.

  • It’s a way of allowing people to participate in the civic process.
  • Not just to see where their money is going and how it’s being spent … but to allow the public to truly participate in government.

Technology and innovation are key enablers to realizing these priorities of transparency, collaboration and participation.

That is why I think Cloud Computing will be a game changer. 

Cloud Computing will fundamentally change how government and industry IT not only operate, but think.

Implementing Cloud Computing is inherently challenging, and therefore, risky.  But it is truly the way forward.

The key concept to Cloud Computing is the decoupling of hardware and software and delivering IT capabilities as services.

Cloud Computing is:

  • Flexible – Services can be added or deleted quickly; often in real time.
  • Powerful – There’s an unlimited ability to scale up or down.
  • Potentially less expensive – No longer does an organization have to own all its  resources.

There are three basic service delivery models:

1. Software as a Service
• Applications, Internet Services
• Blogging, Surveys, Twitter, Social Networking
• WIKI, e-meetings and collaboration
• Communication (email)
• Productivity tools, Enterprise Resource Planning

2. Platform as a Service
• Application development, data, workflow
• Security services; single sign on, authentication
• Database management
• Directory services

3. Infrastructure as a Service
• Virtualized web hosting
• Networks, security, mainframes, servers, storage
• Telecom carrier services
• IT facilities, hosting services

Traditionally, IT does not have a reputation for being nimble or scalable.

What makes Cloud Computing better?

  • On the customer side, it means minimal upfront investment in servers and hardware, less time to deploy
  • On the provider side, standardized resources are much more scalable and less costly to maintain and upgrade
  • It is therefore easy to obtain services, in a simple, on-demand manner. If you have a web-based email account, like Yahoo or Gmail, you are using cloud computing so you already know what I mean!

For the federal government, ordering cloud services will shortly become almost this simple.  Agency employees can browse a catalog of services in a virtual storefront.

  • Order through a shopping cart
  • Once the purchase is approved, the cloud does the rest.
  • This reduces the delivery time to the customer from months to hours – and potentially, even minutes.
  • This is perfect for agencies that handle surges in traffic. For example GSA’s busy season is at the end of the fiscal year, when customers make more purchases than they normally would, creating a high demand for IT services.

This is a huge development, but when you think about it, it’s also a return to the past.

  • In some ways, cloud computing is similar to the mainframes with green screens of 30 years ago.
  • The mainframe served as the shared resource or the ‘cloud’ … users simply accessed the shared services. 
  • It was secure and orderly.

With Cloud Computing, we can deliver shared resources from a centralized delivery point.

The cloud charges you based only on the amount of computing resources you use. This pay-as -you-go feature is more efficient.


Think of it this way:

  • The typical data center business model today is like buying a premium sedan.  You pay a fixed price with the capital expense up front.  You pay for a warranty, whether you use it or not.
  • Software as a service is like leasing a car. Think of those “Zip Cars” you see around the city.  You only pay for the car when you need it.  You don’t pay for maintenance, gas, insurance or other costs– they’re included in the rental fee.  You pay based on the amount of time you’ll be using the car that day.  Reserving a car just requires a few keystrokes at a Web site.

The benefits of Cloud Computing are many:

  • Agility is first and foremost – giving organizations the ability to rapidly and inexpensively map resources to requirements.
  • Cost can be reduced.  Capital expenditures for IT resources are converted to operational expenses.  These expenses can be allocated quite granularly.
  • Location Independence – Since systems are accessed using a web browser, resources can be used anywhere.
  • Reliability improves through the use of multiple redundant highly available sites.
  • Environmentally sensitive – Today’s data centers account for 1 to 2 percent of the nation’s energy consumption.  Since cloud resources are utilized more efficiently, their impact on the environment is lessened.
  • Security – Cloud Computing offers the promise of improved, standardized levels of security for all tenants of the cloud.

When I try to think of the possibilities with Cloud Computing, I cannot imagine today what we will see tomorrow in terms of its applications.

Back in 1985 when “Back to the Future” premiered, we all laughed at how backward 1955 seemed in comparison to the technology of the day.  But let me ask you this:

  • How many of you had a cell phone in 1985? … Let me see a show of hands…
  • How many had a Plasma or LCD TV?
  • How many had a Blackberry, or other PDA?
  • Had access to the Internet?

Now, let me ask you this:

  • How many of you had a pager?  … How many still have it?
  • How many of you had a Sony walkman cassette player? … How many still have it?
  • How many of you had a VCR? … And still have it?
  • Still have dial-up?

For the most part, these things have gone the way of mullets and parachute pants.  And I say good riddance!

But this demonstrates how quickly the pace of technology is changing. 

The explosion in innovation in just the last few years is daunting to some, but reinforces the need for all of us to be quick and agile … to be able to change directions at a moment’s notice.

Cloud Computing gives us the capability to do that.

And yet …

The pace of change does not change the fundamental missions of our organizations.  Innovation should merely enable our ability to meet the needs of our customers.  That hasn’t changed.

No technology or innovation can replace the fundamental values of hard work, and of focusing on satisfying customer and stakeholder needs.  Technology and innovation must complement and enable those values.

From my position in government, this is critical.  At a time when our citizens need us most, government is proudly leading the way.  I believe that Cloud Computing is just one example of how government will better serve the people in the years to come.  After all, it is based on principles established more than 30 years ago with mainframe systems.

Trends in innovation – just like in fashion – reassert themselves.  We must look to the good ideas and principles of the past to help us determine how to move forward. 

I am confident that we are on the crest of a new wave of innovation that will truly transform not only government – but all of our organizations.  Cloud Computing is a game changer.  I firmly believe that continued innovation in IT will result from this model.

I know there will be those who aren’t ready for it, just like those in the late 1990s who said the Internet was a fad.

But trust me, like Marty McFly said, “Your kids are going to love it.”

Thank you.


Last Reviewed 2010-04-30