Senate CIO

Think you've got tough customers? J. Greg Hanson serves 100 U.S. senators, dozens of committees and staffs in 50 states. And about that upcoming inauguration ...

About a year and a half ago, the leadership of the U.S. Senate decided to raise the profile of IT at the Capitol. They wanted to provide direction, update technology, elevate awareness and improve customer service. To accomplish that, they invited J. Greg Hanson to become assistant sergeant at arms and the Senate's first CIO. "When you get a call like that, the only correct response is yes," Hanson says.
Since then, he has faced many of the same challenges encountered by CIOs everywhere, as well as some that are unique. Hanson told Kathleen Melymuka about his job, where "every day is a surprise."

You're the CIO; what does your other title mean? In the Senate, all technology is managed out of the sergeant at arms office, so I'm an assistant sergeant at arms.

Are you a political junkie? No, definitely not. I'm not a tech junkie either. I'm interested in delivering tools and solutions to help senators accomplish their missions. I look for ways to use technology to solve business problems, not for technology's sake.

What kinds of positions did you hold previously, and in what types of organizations? Prior to here, I was CTO at Universal Systems & Technology, a high-tech company in Northern Virginia. Prior to that, I was CTO at Telos Corp. We grew that company and spun off some new companies, and I did some CIO work in some of the subsidiaries. Prior to that, I had a 20-year career in the Air Force, and I was in technology the entire time.

Some CIOs consider themselves technologists first; others consider themselves primarily business people. Where do you fall along that spectrum? I've got very, very deep tech expertise; I've got a Ph.D. in computer science. But in my entire career -- from the Air Force through my time in the commercial world -- it's been clear to me that technology is a tool. It's a wonderful tool that can give you advantage if you use it correctly, but it's a tool to make bigger, more important things happen. I consider myself a business person before a technologist, even though I still teach a graduate course in technology at the University of Maryland.

J. Greg Hanson, assistant sergeant at arms and the Senate's first CIO
J. Greg Hanson, assistant sergeant at arms and the Senate's first CIO
Image Credit: Katherine Lambert

How big is the Senate IT group? I have about 500 people reporting to me. Two hundred fifty to 300 are full-time government employees; the rest are contractors. But IT at the Senate is even bigger. To get it done right requires a team that also includes the Rules Committee and the Appropriations Committee of the Senate. And every senator's office has a small tech staff. They report to the senators, but they're also part of the larger tech team here.

What is the IT group responsible for? We're responsible for the entire Senate IT infrastructure, all the networks, all the telecommunications, information processing, storage, front- and back-office applications -- all the typical things a CIO does. We're also very, very closely tied to continuity of operations, and we do a lot of planning and work with our counterparts in security. We're responsible to see that the Senate has state-of-the-art technology and to look into further strategic technology and enterprise architecture and how that can best be used in this environment. So I've got CTO as well as CIO duties. It's a dream job.

Is your position in any way political? It's a federal government job, but it's not politically aligned, and it's completely nonpartisan.

What are some of the unique aspects of your role -- things you do that are outside the purview of other CIOs? I get to do great stuff. When we have elections or a transition or an inauguration, I have to support them. We have to set up the offices, provide all the technology, get the systems set up, train the staff, support telephone and radio. When President Reagan's funeral took place, we supported that. And as an assistant sergeant at arms, I participate in ceremonies and sometimes escort dignitaries.

What are some of your top priorities as CIO? Customer service; that's No. 1. That's tough in this environment because I have about 10,000 customers. Equal to that is security. They need to access information anywhere at any time.
Next is strategic planning: looking over the bow for new technology and innovation, staying ahead of the technology curve. Technology changes very quickly, and senators and staff see that and demand excellent technology. We have to keep it all lined up and facing in the right direction.

Ten thousand customers? I thought you had 100. I have 137 entities: a hundred senators, all the committees and leadership organizations, the sergeant at arms organization, the secretary of the Senate. I support the senators' state offices as well -- their infrastructure, help desk, telecom requirements. When you add all the staffs, there are about 10,000 people.

In many companies, the business executives form an IT steering committee that sets priorities for IT projects and spending. Is there anything similar in the Senate? We use a combination of the Senate leadership organization, plus the Rules and Appropriations committees, plus my organization. Rules sets policy and procedures. We build budgets, but Appropriations has to bless that. The Senate leadership gives me oversight, and there are organizations of system administrators and administrative managers, and I get input from them on a constant basis, as well as from technology working groups.

What are some of your big challenges? When I'm trying to do a big project, I try to gain consensus, and that's a challenge. There's also the challenge of being in the public eye and the challenge of special events. We have the regular day-to-day work, and then there's a special event and there's a surge, and we have to set up transition offices or work a state funeral in addition to all the day-to-day stuff.
There's the challenge of strategic planning. I have 137 entities. Each has an idea of where we should head in technology strategy, and I have to take all that into account.
There's the challenge of getting consistent, workable requirements. I can't wait around forever to get requirements, or the technology will jump out from under me. So we go with innovation, rapid prototyping, small pilots. We'll put something in there real quick and try it on one office, and if they like it, maybe others will. We have to think big, start small and scale fast.

CIOs sometimes complain that their business executives are technically illiterate. How tech-savvy is the average senator? The senators I've worked with are very tech-savvy. They have cell phones, PDAs, BlackBerries. They operate computers. They know how to do this stuff. They also know what they need to get their jobs done, and they know the technology is there to do it.

What's the toughest part of your job? Trying to merge requirements from so many entities into something that you can deliver that will scale and be cost- effective and apply to everyone. Trying to make everyone happy with 137 different customers to satisfy. That forces me to consider a lot of different options and choices. For example, not all senators want e-mail the same way. There are choices and options out there, and they know about them. So they won't just take what I offer. I have to figure out a way to get it all to mesh to one set of requirements that's cost-effective and I can support.

How will your performance be measured? In terms of customer satisfaction. I do a formal survey every year. It's in process now. It's not a little thing with an e-mail questionnaire. We sit down or get on the phone with each office and get responses. We hear it directly -- warts and all. My performance will also be measured by our ability to respond to unforeseen events and by the ability of senators to communicate anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. It's not about what happens; it's about how you respond to what happens.

What's been your most memorable day so far? I had been here maybe a month, and I was called into a senator's office by the senator himself, and I got royally chewed out. We were in the process of migrating e-mail accounts and had migrated his to a new system. We had done a wonderful job on the migration but not on the customer care part. He gave it to me good. And I couldn't help thinking: I'm standing in our nation's Capitol being chewed out by a U.S. senator. He's spending his time being concerned about this. When I walked out of there, I was as happy as I could be, because I thought, "This is something I can fix."

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