The role of a chief information officer may have been a mystery to some, but the advent of FITARA has shown a more prominent spotlight on how these leaders direct agencies' digital future.

So to speak.

In a May 23 roundtable discussion at ACT-IAC's Management of Change conference, four agency CIOs — who, per conference rules, may not be identified — talked about the day-to-day challenges and opportunities of being the top information officers.

Here are three things we learned:

1. It's complicated.

Much like an ambiguous Facebook relationship status, the life of a CIO is complex, nuanced and full of a discussion.

As the face of the agency's digital operations, CIOs spend a lot of time interfacing with not only their own teams but also outside groups and constituents and listening to them all.

"My day is generally going to meetings," said one CIO. "Either meetings inside my organization or meetings outside my organization, around the agency or whoever it is that I need to be talking with about what we do or what we are trying to accomplish and how we can meet their needs.

But while all of this interaction provides the leaders with information, the challenge comes when the CIOs have to direct their strategic projects into action.

"A good day is when we can make a decision," the CIO said.

Another CIO agreed that with multiple customers and networks, their job requires a nimbleness and an innate ability to prioritize projects and stretch resources. "In the midst of what we have going on — we all know our budget situation — the requirements outpace our budget and the demand is not changing," the CIO said. "So for any given day, I am negotiating between, 'Here's what I can do in this given timeframe,' to "Do we really need all of this right now?'"

2. FITARA has made them popular.

Since the IT acquisition law has given CIOs the power to shape their agency's digital infrastructure, the private sector is clamoring to provide them with new solutions, making time management a priority.

"We couldn't do our job without industry," one CIO said. "I probably get 15 or 20 emails a day from vendors who want to meet. Obviously, I can't meet with everybody who would like just 20 minutes of my time. Mostly, in the office, I meet with our existing vendors that we need to manage relationships with and to encourage my staff to meet with folks who are interested in doing business with the agency."

3. Failing small is better than trying to remove all risk.

With CIOs moving toward an agile development of their IT, the focus has shifted from the long-term rollout of finished projects to embracing some level of risk to ensure that IT systems reach incremental achievements toward the overall goal.

"Part of our move towards agile is recognizing risk," one of the panelists they said. "What we’ve done historically is pretend that by planning everything out in minute detail we can eliminate all of the risks. We were fooling ourselves."

The CIO said now it's better to think big during the early part of the IT plan to see where the bugs are so you can fix before they become crippling.

"We’ve said to folks, ‘Take risks up front. Test something out and if it fails at $15,000, we’ve learned something and we move on," they a panelist said. "I don’t have to explain to anybody that I had a failure that costs $15,000. It’s a lot harder for me to explain that we worked for five years and spent $30 million and then we failed."

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