Posting from Las Vegas: The last time we bumped into Steven VanRoekel at the Consumer Electronics Show, he was working for Microsoft, looking to transform the way people use computers in their homes. Today he’s working for President Obama, as the U.S. chief information officer — attending the show as part of his mission of transforming the way the U.S. government uses technology.
VanRoekel, who still has a home in Seattle, oversees the federal government’s technology spending as part of his role, with a budget in the neighborhood of $80 billion. When we met up with him here, we noted that the sum is significantly more than the Windows Home Server budget. VanRoekel laughed and pointed out that it’s more than the Microsoft budget.
Meet our latest Geek of the Week. Continue reading edited excerpts from our conversation with VanRoekel about what he’s doing at CES, how Obama and Ballmer compare as leaders, plus his answers to some of our more offbeat Geek of the Week questions.
What are you doing at CES? The context for my visit is, one, to look at the technology and interface with a lot of people that are doing cool things in technology, and to think about how it intersects with the federal government. …
The other big thing I’m doing is kicking off an effort — a roadmap, if you will — for 2012, on mobilizing the federal government. So looking at moving past where we’ve been for the last 15 years. Really Blackberry has been the mobile strategy in the federal government. Moving beyond that and thinking about how we really embrace the intersection of the consumerization of technology, the necessity for a new way of delivering applications to federal workers, and a new way of interacting with the public.
Smart mobile is just growing so much faster than every other platform, especially in communities that have been traditionally out of the touch of the federal government from the standpoint of interaction. Minority communities and others. It hits on all of those things that we need to do. And I think we can do it in a way that actually saves the government money all up.
I’m going to give a speech (today), kicking off this roadmap, which will have some prescribed deliverables in 2012, including a big phase of public participation to help us flesh out the plan, and then a call on industry to help with security, privacy, app development — and doing that in a very vendor-neutral way, to bring the phenomenon forward.
How can you be effective with a mobile strategy and be vendor-neutral at the same time? A lot of these apps right now are tied to specific mobile platforms.
But you’re starting to see a transition, and it’s really come in about the last nine months, where even app developers are starting to embrace HTML5 as the platform, and in some cases wrapping the apps in device-specific wrappers. The Twitter app, the Facebook app, all of those apps are HTML5 wrapped in some OS-specific installer, basically.
The thing that encourages me the most is to think about it across the government. So much of our execution has been really agency-specific. If we seize on this opportunity to look across government and say, what is our app strategy, how do we build a new set of standards and everything to deliver on this, we can do it in a way that really scales.
A great example of that is regulations.gov. It’s a place where you can look at what proceedings are happening in front of the U.S. government from a regulatory agency standpoint, and give substantive feedback to the government on what those things are. We want to get the broadest set of Americans involved. … Our role in many of those citizen-facing things is to just become a platform — create the APIs and the data feeds, and let the app community dream up the next great things.
What’s the coolest thing about what you do? I have a core passion for technology that started with seeing Star Wars when I was 7, that extends to today. … A mistake that people can make either being a technologist or a policy person is not understanding the important link between those two things. Technology isn’t really a solution to anything in Washington, but it’s part of the solution to almost everything.
How do President Obama and Steve Ballmer compare as CEOs? Passion, baby, passion. They both care a lot about what they do. Steve and the President are also just real people. They care about employees, they care about the people around them in a way that just translates. It’s that compassion and passion mixture that gets the job done.
Greatest Game in History? It would have to be Dungeons & Dragons. I grew up on Dungeons & Dragons.
Zork would probably be my favorite computer game. It was all text-based. Infocom was the company that created it. It was a text-based logic path. I have unending reams of graph paper that I would pull out and graph the dungeon, because you could walk certain directions. I actually met the creator of it — he lives in Bend, Ore., now.
Favorite app? I’m pretty diverse in my app use, actually. I’m spread between sports scores, news, social media. I’m a prolific photographer, so I love the camera apps. Camera Plus, that’s my favorite camera app. Camera Plus is a great one.
Obi-Wan, Yoda or Luke Skywalker? Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan was the one who figured out how to come back. He was the one who led the way for the Jedi Order to come back. He was the persistent guy. The guy who could set a course for his strategies and objectives, and make them stick long-term.
Favorite cause? FareStart in Seattle is one of the causes that my wife and I have supported for many years.
Most important technology of 2015? If you were to look out three years, what will be the most important trend to watch? I think the cloud as we know it really has to evolve, and I would love to see it evolve by 2015. We’ve got all these issues around trade, and data sovereignty, and things that affect the U.S. government, and one area I think we could actually have a lot of influence on as a government is really helping the technology behind the cloud evolve.
Another big thing I’m watching is software radio. The spectrum crunch is really upon us, and I’m really excited to see what the white spaces work and all of that leads to from a national scale. I think people don’t realize how transformative that’s going to be. I don’t know how your life is going with your iPhone, but it’s tough in a city like this with all these people around, and that’s only going to get worse. I think the promise of software radio is pretty profound.
But the overarching one is green energy. When I was a kid, I remember hearing that our best days were behind us as a country, that we were destined to be a society of burger flippers and management consultants, and all the innovation was happening in Japan. But a lot of work was happening behind the scenes. The government was investing in primary research. ARPANet was coming up. We had a lot of science, technology, engineering and math education work happening. Places like XEROX PARC were starting to get the fire lit, and what you saw was really just a grand revolution of innovation that came out of this country, centered around the personal computer and then eventually the Internet.
I think we’re at that same inflection point. Everyone is walking around saying our best days are behind us, there’s others in the world who are out-innovating what we hope to do, and I think our reliance on energy and other things are going to drive a set of behaviors. We have been doing smart things in this Presidency around investing in things like science, technology, primary research and other things — which I know first-hand we’ve been doing a lot of. I think it’s green energy and things like it that will be the next wave.
Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more. Does someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.