Tech, innovation and public service shine at FedTalks 2014

2014_11_FedTalksRoom (Credit: FedScoop)

From the deck of the Starship Enterprise to the front lines of the fight against Ebola in West Africa, the role of technology in public service has never been more diverse or more important.

That was the underlying theme of Thursday’s annual FedTalks event, sponsored by FedScoop and held at the palatial Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C. More than 1,000 attendees gathered from across government and the private sector to hear presentations covering everything from mobile communications to the cultural and organizational challenges posed by cloud computing.

2014_11_takei Star Trek legend George Takei provides the federal IT community an important lesson in the imperfect nature of democratic government during the 2014 FedTalks conference in Washington, D.C. (Credit: FedScoop)


What was arguably the most memorable presentation came at the end of the day with a chilling depiction of life as a Japanese American during World War II by Star Trek legend and social media powerhouse George Takei. The cavernous room of the Andrew Mellon Auditorium fell nearly silent as Takei described his personal experience as a 5-year-old watching his parents being forced from their home at gunpoint and sent to an internment camp for the duration of the war.

The story was designed to communicate an important lesson often overlooked in the technology community: Governments by the people and for the people can often be as fallible as people, but moving forward with positive change is the essence of public service.

“It’s an important story, and it’s a story that I am proud to tell,” Takei said in closing. “It’s a story of America.”

The event opened with Steven VanRoekel making his first major public appearance since leaving the U.S. chief information officer post to become chief innovation officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, where he is helping the agency fight Ebola in West Africa. Through a combination of video footage and photos from the front lines of the Ebola fight, VanRoekel outlined the urgent need for technological innovation to assist those who are caring for sick people in remote towns and villages.

2014_11_VanRoekel_Fedtalks2 USAID Chief Innovation Officer Steven VanRoekel demonstrates the protective equipment used to protect health workers treating Ebola patients in West Africa. (Credit: FedScoop)


“This is not like driving into northwest D.C. or any part of the District, it’s not going to even a town in the United States and sort of thinking about ‘How would I bring technology to this town?'” VanRoekel said. “You have very little cellphone coverage, unreliable power everywhere, devices that you would want to put out in the field probably can’t connect to the Internet from where you are and need to be ruggedized — we’re talking to manufacturers about when you have a tablet in an Ebola treatment unit. You have to be able to dip that tablet into chlorine water to get any virulent material on it off.”

But the growing demand for innovation isn’t only relevant to the extremely difficult challenges like Ebola. “Users want speed. It’s all about innovation. It’s not just about ‘I need to lower costs,'” said Mike Nefkens, executive vice president for Enterprise Services at HP. “The demand for the new style of IT is increasing like never before.”

For Terry Halvorsen, however, the new style of IT is about all of those things — speed, agility, innovation and saving money. But the acting CIO of the Defense Department gave an impassioned speech about how embracing innovation and actually achieving speed, agility and cost savings requires difficult changes in cultural norms.

2014_11_Terry_Halvorsen_Fedtalks The Defense Department’s Acting Chief Information Officer Terry Halvorsen gets up close and personal to answer questions from the audience at the 2014 FedTalks conference in Washington, D.C. (Credit: FedScoop)

“We’ve got to have a discussion now with the owners of that data about why it’s good to let go,” Halvorsen said. “Distributed data solutions are a better answer for us in terms of solving our business problems and lowering the costs and, if not improving, keeping the security at least the same level,” Halvorsen said. “If we get this right, we should be able to take about $2 billion out of our [operations] costs by gaining efficiencies,” he said.


Halvorsen told FedScoop he has already signed the DOD’s new cloud policy and will be releasing it publicly within two weeks, along with a forthcoming mobility policy.

In his presentation, “Embrace Change or Die: 6 Ways to Win,” NetApp Vice Chairman Tom Mendoza said change must become part of an enterprise’s ethos not just part of a corporate program. “Every six months, there’s a new reason we’re going to die if we don’t change,” he said. “The No. 1 reason change fails is the failure to sustain a sense of urgency.”

2014_11_stephWarren_Fedtalks Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Stephen Warren discusses agile development at the 2014 FedTalks conference. (Credit: FedScoop)

That sense of urgency was clearly evident in the presentation by Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Stephen Warren, who outlined the VA’s focus on agile development practices. “The greatest risk to delivering something is how long you take to do it,” Warren said. “The longer you take, the higher the chance you won’t deliver. If you can’t do it in six months, don’t bother.”

See more photos from FedTalks 2014.


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