When President Barack Obama in 2010 tapped her to be the Defense Department’s chief information officer, Teri Takai had already built a reputation as one of the nation’s leading authorities on consolidating and streamlining IT operations.
She had already successfully led a massive technology consolidation and reorganization effort as the CIO of California. There, she was tasked with creating an efficient enterprise out of 130 agency-level CIOs. And prior to that, from 2003 to 2007, she had done the same thing for Michigan, where she cut the number of data centers from 38 to just three.
In many ways, the Pentagon CIO gig is Takai’s crowning achievement. For the past three years, she has overseen the largest consolidation and streamlining effort in all of government, managing a $38 billion budget while steering a global IT enterprise still riddled with stovepipes toward shared cloud services, overarching security standards and an integrated information sharing environment.
But Takai has no regrets about her time in DOD and, not surprisingly, no plans to sit still. In an exclusive interview with FedScoop a week after her departure from government, she recalled the many challenges and triumphs with fondness and a sense of achievement, but said the last chapter in a long, illustrious career has yet to be written.
“It’s just not in my nature,” Takai said, when asked by FedScoop if she plans to take a break after spending years in one of the toughest jobs in federal IT. “This is my third government opportunity. I always felt that you need to pick a time when you think that it’s appropriate to move on.”
For Takai, that meant first getting several key strategy documents published, including a cyber-workforce plan, a spectrum-sharing strategy, a mobile device strategy and a 10-point plan for modernizing DOD’s IT enterprise. It also meant moving forward on data center consolidation, starting work on the Joint Information Environment and ensuring her successor has enough time to have an impact.
“I really felt that we had made a lot of good progress,” she said. “But because it’s a political appointment, if you leave too close to the end of the administration, then it’s very difficult to get someone to come in and actually have a chance to own the job. It seems like the right timing to me.”
From reorganizing to rebuilding
Takai’s resignation came just weeks after her principal deputy, Robert Carey, announced his departure. It also followed a shakeup in the Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer and the transfer of responsibility for the department’s business IT systems from DCMO to Takai’s office. According to sources who have worked closely with Takai and spoke to FedScoop on background, staff changes like this are not a surprise given the extreme difficulty of working in “the building,” as DOD employees refer to the Pentagon.
“It’s an extremely difficult building to work in,” one source said.
“If you’ve gained power or influence in the building, it’s usually because you took it from somebody,” another source said.
But Takai is more diplomatic, preferring to characterize the changes as a “rebuilding” phase. “I’m sure that with the changes of personnel, they’re going to be looking at what is the right way and the best way to organize for the future,” Takai said. She added that because the CIO position is no longer subject to Senate confirmation, it should not be particularly difficult for the administration to appoint somebody to the post permanently in a timely manner.
As for the allegations of power grabs, Takai acknowledged there are some in the building who believe that is the way to succeed.
“But there are others in the building who see it more in how they exercise the influence that their office has, as opposed to taking it from someone else,” she said. “Every organization is not intent on growing power. That would be an unfair characterization of [DOD] as a whole.”
The 20-percent reduction in headquarters staff and reorganization announced last year by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel remains a work in progress, Takai said. And officials have not yet made a final decision on who will oversee the department’s business system portfolio.
Takai said the most difficult part of being the DOD CIO was convincing hundreds of stakeholder organizations within DOD’s global enterprise that consolidation and the movement to shared services and standards would not hinder their ability to provide services to their users.
“We were trying to look at things that could be done across DOD from an enterprise perspective, both in terms of what that would mean for cybersecurity and what that would mean for efficiency,” Takai said. “And that’s always difficult. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at DOD or the State of California or whether you’re at a private entity. Any time that you’re looking for an organization to use more shared services, it’s always very difficult.
“People feel that they don’t have the same kind of control, and they want to make sure that they have the right service for their customers,” Takai said. “It’s a delicate balance. There’s always friction. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it friction as much as I would call it creative tension. There has to be a balance between what you can do centrally and what you can do from a services perspective. I think there needs to be some real, hard discussion about what to do.”
Where to from here?
Takai has no immediate plans for the next phase of her career, but said she is keeping her options open. For now, she is going to head back to her home in Michigan to reestablish ties with her family.
In addition, she remains a board member of FirstNet, the independent authority within the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration responsible for building the nationwide broadband network for first responders. She recently started a new two-year term on the board, where she represents the interests of the states and governors in the planning effort.
“I need to reestablish ties with family and see what the opportunities are and go from there,” she said. For now, she still gets up at the same time every day and is still learning how to deal with her newly found free time.