CIOs Are People Too (Opinion)

New Virginia CIO Sam Nixon faces a tough job fixing outsourcing deal with Northrop Grumman.

by / August 18, 2010

The relationship between Virginia and Northrop Grumman is a story we've followed for a long time. When the IT outsourcing partnership was established, it was cheered by many as setting a landmark precedent for future large-scale technology projects. Despite the well publicized troubles the partnership has faced, neither party has given up on the effort. Rather, all involved seem to be willing the project to the finish line -- however distant it might remain.

This month's cover story is about a man who has been at the center of this endeavor since its inception. Sam Nixon is a former Virginia legislator who left the Statehouse to become state CIO, a position in Virginia that has been battered by troubles with the outsourcing project. Nixon's appointment as CIO by Gov. Bob McDonnell brought full circle his career as a public servant, as Nixon had been instrumental in crafting the legislation that allowed the outsourcing partnership to happen. What Nixon had a hand in creating, he is now called upon to help control.

In talking with him for this story, Nixon impressed upon me that he's a man who's both thoughtful and determined. I believe him to be dedicated to righting the course in his state. During our conversation, he was honest and open about the project's failings while maintaining cautious optimism about the future. The conversation, which lasted much longer than I had expected and probably longer than he had time for, helped remind me of something I believe we too often forget: that by and large, the trials and tribulations incurred by projects of any scope aren't really due to machines or technologies. Rather, it's humans who get in the way, who bungle things and who are uncooperative. Yet it's also for humans that these projects -- often fraught with risk -- are undertaken, and it's humans doing the work that hopefully will make things better for everyone in the end.

Our photographer, David Kidd, spent a day with Nixon and got to know him as a human being. Sure, Nixon commands attention and respect from those around him, but at heart he's also the youngster who, as Kidd recounted for me, used to climb a hill near Martinsville Speedway to watch the car races he loved so much but could not afford a ticket to attend.

When technology projects -- or any project for that matter -- don't go as planned, we all become experts at pointing fingers and assessing blame. When trouble finds us, it becomes all too easy to forget why a project got started to begin with. Virginia and Northrop Grumman have had more than their share of problems, which we often gladly reported because it was news. Yet Nixon reminded me -- at least for a little while -- that beyond the problems and bad publicity are real people trying to do the right thing. I think we'd all be better off if we could remember that truth a little more often. ¨



Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

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