WT Asks: Ira Hobbs, Treasury CIO
Ira Hobbs took the job as Treasury's chief information officer after seven years as acting CIO for the Agriculture Department. Here is the complete interview with Managing Editor Evamarie Socha regarding Hobbs feelings about his new role and what he sees for the future of Treasury technology.
WT: What do you look forward to as the new Treasury CIO?
Hobbs: The opportunity to build something myself. Up to now, I believe I have demonstrated a capacity to assist others in crafting the vision. Now, can I become the visionary?
WT: What is different here than at Agriculture?
Hobbs: The jobs are very consistent in terms of the types of functions and the kinds of issues you are dealing with. Both organizations have a great deal of history. They are very essential and woven into the fabric of America; the Treasury Department being one of the first original cabinet positions, the Agriculture Department being the people's department. They both have rich history and heritage.
WT: After seven years as the acting CIO at Agriculture and now this job, what have you learned about being a CIO?
Hobbs: It's changing and evolving. It was originally about technology for technology's sake. For so long we were just the people beneath the stairs, in the back room. Now, because of the infusion and pervasiveness of information technology, it's driving the direction of change and transformation in terms of how business is delivered. We now exist as a very formable weapon of choice in the arsenal of management.
WT: What is your biggest challenge in this new job? What are your biggest technology concerns?
Hobbs: My biggest challenges don't necessarily deal with technology. It's hard to buy a bad computer. Ten years ago, anyone going to buy a computer took a friend along, because the technology itself was so scary and risky, you wanted to be sure you didn't make a mistake. Today you can send your children to the store to buy a computer, because the technology is so consistent, so repeatable, so accurate in its delivery. The technology isn't the challenge.
What I find is the challenge is the age-old thing we deal with across management: How do you get a group of people aligned in such a way that they can buy into a direction, a vision of where you're trying to go, and then you move that group. That is the business we're in today. Technology is becoming a smaller and smaller piece of that, simply because the technology is so good.
As far as technological directions, it really is about how do we make sure information gets to where it needs to be, when it needs to be there. That involves our telecommunications infrastructure, its protection and security to make sure that whoever gets the information is the person that it was intended for [and] that we reduce the things that lead to nefarious activities across our network. Those are the technological things at the top of my list. So what I've given you are cybersecurity, telecommunications and enterprise management.
WT: How much of an issue is cybersecurity for you?
Hobbs: Cybersecurity is consuming a lot of time. Internally, [we're] ensuring we're doing the right things to make sure we're taking security seriously in the development, implementation and deployment of systems. That we're reducing vulnerabilities, that we're dong the right things as we build systems to ensure that we don't sacrifice interoperability simply for the sake of security, that security is truly a helpmate to us.
Externally, [the issue is] the watch in the night ? the world is a dangerous place, much more so than it used to be. Technology has become so simplified, you don't have to be a card-carrying, dues-paying member of IEEE [the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] to attempt breaking into systems these days. [We must be] sure we have the appropriate level of intrusion detection in place, so that we know who's entering our network and for what purposes and where they're going. Those are the issues that are real in the cybersecurity area, and they consume a lot of time.
WT: Now in this job, what do you look for in companies with which you are thinking of doing business? Has that changed from your days with Agriculture?
Hobbs: The formula is the same; you look for companies that have been successful, that have consistent, repeatable profits, you don't want to be dealing with every time you try to start something, you start anew. You're looking for people with a demonstrated track record of success. Certainly, you want to look at that in the competitive environment, and just like anything else you want to fill your portfolio in a balanced way. To me, that means small companies, large companies, diversification in that sense. You don't depend on one segment of the market; you can balance your requirements in terms of having an array of strategic partners who have a vested interest in you succeeding.
WT: What are your plans for your first year as Treasury's CIO?
Hobbs: To survive. (laughs) That is always the first and most difficult task. Beyond that, my objective is to create an active, integrated process where all of our components are engaged in the dialog and discussion about where it is we are going. From that, to be able to set a clear path and vision that guides our treasury ship as we move forward in information technology. That is what I hope to try to accomplish.