david-bray-articleA major challenge faced by many CIOs is figuring out how to lower fixed IT costs amid flat year-over-year IT budgets in order to free up additional capital too drive innovation and create new value for the business.

Indeed, CIOs devote 72% of their IT budgets to run-the-business activities, while just 28% goes towards innovation and new business projects, according to Forrester Research.

When Dr. David Bray joined the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as CIO in August 2013, he quickly realized that there was both a dire need and enormous opportunities to shrink the agency's fixed costs. At that time, 85% of the FCC's annual IT budget was used to run and maintain the 207 legacy systems the agency had on premise. The average age of the systems was 10 years old and there were many systems pushing 20.

But in order to make the turn, Dr. Bray also recognized that FCC stakeholders, including IT staff members to include both contractors and government employees, needed to break out of the legacy mindset and open their minds to new opportunities.

Dr. Bray faced some heady challenges in his early days with the FCC. Prior to his arrival, there had been 9 CIOs over the previous 8 years. Meanwhile, the average IT staff member had been with the organization for 15 years. With high CIO turnover and little investment in workforce skills, Dr. Bray found that he'd hardly stepped into a welcoming and trusting environment for a new leader.

Gaining staff confidence

After spending the first 30 days on the job meeting with various stakeholders from across the agency as well as IT staffers, Dr. Bray held an all-hands meeting with his IT team. He previously had created posters that asked team members to write down what they perceived as the IT organization's strengths and weaknesses. Most folks had been willing to email him their thoughts but not directly write on the posters.

At the all hands meeting, when Dr. Bray called upon a known extrovert to share his thoughts, the team member noted that previous leadership would sometimes yell at staff members publicly whenever they made mistakes.

"I thanked him for his honesty and asked what could I do to demonstrate I would not be that kind of leader - it was clear that it would take time for us to trust each other as a cohesive team," said Dr. Bray.

After another month of talking to people across the agency, Dr. Bray had come to recognize that the FCC needed to break out of its legacy model of on-premise IT in order to open up new opportunities for the agency to modernize. At another all-hands meeting, he shared the team goal of getting all legacy IT off premise within two years via public cloud solutions or to be hosted by commercial providers.

"This struck fear into people who had become accustomed to maintaining systems," said Dr. Bray. "I knew we had to show a new way of working more productively to transform how we worked together as a team."

Demonstrating 'quick wins' to build to larger long-term wins

In 2014, Dr. Bray and his team started the FCC's transition to the cloud with a 15-year-old consumer help desk application. Under the legacy system, consumers could print out up to 18 different forms requesting assistance and then mail or fax them back to the agency. According to Dr. Bray, this was "not the most user-friendly of solutions."

The cost to modernize the application by a contractor and have it run on premise would have cost the agency $3.2 million. This would have included 14-to-18 months to develop and test the app before putting it into production. As an alternative, one of Dr. Bray's staffers suggested looking into Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) as an alternative.

By going to a public cloud solution, the SaaS provider the FCC eventually hired was able to get the app into production within six months at a total cost of $450,000. Not only did the SaaS initiative provide a better, more streamlined experience for consumers, those FCC IT staffers who had maintained the previous system could now be assigned to work on other projects for the agency.

The project demonstrated that the FCC could move off legacy systems quickly. Later efforts followed that year that reused the same approach to move to a public cloud model faster and less expensively.

Momentum to make the big leap

At this point, Dr. Bray embarked on the second stage of the FCC's transformation efforts, specifically a "bold and audacious" plan to shift the remainder of the agency's applications and systems to either public cloud solutions or to be hosted by commercial providers in one big leap.

After two years of requesting additional funds to replicate data and systems to more modernize environments, Dr. Bray realized they would have to "make a leap of faith" on a flat budget and no additional funds to make the jump.

"In a perfect world, you'd test the new cloud systems and replicate data before shifting off legacy. We didn't have that luxury since we didn't receive additional funds beyond our normal budget, so it required us to do the equivalent of a 'Hail Mary' football pass of retiring systems over Labor Day weekend and using seven moving vans to move data and systems to a new commercial data center," said Dr. Bray.

One of the contractors working for the FCC at the time, Layli Suel, put together a "Normandy D-Day" type plan moving all of the agency's email and office software to a public cloud in less than 4 months - which at the time the commercial vendor said was near-impossible. The FCC succeeded.

Another contractor working for the FCC, Kevin Jordan, assembled a plan for the systems and applications that would be transitioned to the cloud over Labor Day weekend in 2015. This included three groups that were assigned to different portions of the cutover.

The first group moved a set of the FCC's legacy systems to the public cloud. The second group transitioned systems to a commercial services provider since these systems were written in an era where there were stored procedures and those procedures couldn't be replicated in the cloud, Dr. Bray explained. A third group was charged with retiring a set of legacy systems.

As a result of the transition of 207 systems, the FCC was able to condense 90 racks of hardware down to fewer than 60 racks.

The move has since lowered the FCC's fixed IT costs from 85% of its annual IT budget to less than 50% of its yearly budget. It did this with no budget increases over the last seven years. With the money that's been saved, the FCC has since launched a modernized, responsive FCC.gov website along with a new Electronic Comment Filing System which makes it easier for members of the public to retrieve any document from the FCC's docketed proceedings. "These efforts would not have been possible if we hadn't gotten off of our legacy IT and transformed how we work together," said Dr. Bray.

The FCC's shift to cloud and hosted services also has created new opportunities for members of Dr. Bray's IT team to stretch their wings. As their leader, Dr. Bray noted "We now have 14 different cloud services at the FCC and it's enabling our team members to stitch together micro cloud services like a quilt. More importantly, everyone has embrace the mantra of 'be a creative problem solver' and adapt, overcome, and succeed."

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