Federal Spotlight: Jonathan Alboum
MC: How long have you been in federal service? What is your main responsibility in your role today?
JA: I’ve been in the Federal government for approximately 11 years, and today I’m the CIO for all of USDA. In that role, I have responsibility to manage technology directly in my office, which supports our approximately 2,800 county offices and enterprise network connections across the country, as well as information security and capital planning for all of USDA.
At the same time, I’m the leader of the USDA IT community. USDA has 17 offices and 19 agencies, all with IT needs and several with agency CIOs. We work collaboratively to deliver solutions, support program needs from fighting forest fires to delivering nutrition assistance, doing agriculture research, and food safety inspections. I have an oversight responsibility for all of it.
I began my career in the Federal government by working as the deputy CIO and then the CIO for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. I’ve really learned what it’s like to be an agency-level CIO—did it firsthand for several years.
I left for a while and worked at the General Services Administration (GSA). One of the things that I was responsible for at GSA was the creation of a unified GSA IT organization. Once that work was completed, I had an opportunity to return to USDA to work in the farm and foreign agriculture mission area.
I worked very closely with USDA Leadership to support the Farm Service Agency and the implementation of an enterprise system to manage activities in offices all over the country. I’ve had a variety of USDA experiences across mission areas, which gave me a good perspective as I moved into this job as USDA CIO.
MC: What keeps you motivated and passionate to stay in the public sector?
JA: An organization like USDA touches the lives of all Americans. USDA has a role in everybody’s day-to-day life even if it’s not always obvious. Everybody eats, and we support the farmers and ranchers that produce our food. We support the nation’s ability to visit a national forest. We support the school lunch program. Every child that goes in to have a school lunch, whether it’s free, reduced or they pay it for full, is a USDA customer.
We touch everybody’s life in a way that they don’t necessarily see or know—but we know we’re there and, to me, that’s a very motivating factor. USDA does so many things that make the United States of America a great place to live.
MC: What is one of your biggest achievements?
JA: I’ve had a lot of opportunities to take on projects that were troubled. Many years ago, I worked on a project as a contractor for an agency in USDA. When we started on the project, it was extremely behind schedule and it was unclear if we were going to deliver what we needed.
I had the benefit of being new, and I was able to ask a lot of questions and make some adjustments with the team, and we had the opportunity to re-plan the project. We were able to get all of our deliverables met, and we were able to implement the system on a regimented schedule, which ultimately led to a very successful system implementation.
That was about 13 years ago, and we still use that system at USDA today. To see it still functioning and continuing to be modernized, it feels very good.
In the first year that I was in the CIO role at USDA, as I got to learn the organization better and understand where we had some opportunities, we formalized our executive leadership team, and together we did some strategic planning around what our priorities would be during FY ’17 to FY ’20. We worked very collaboratively to make sure we had a good mission and vision statement for the organization and values.
In that strategic planning effort, we came up with priorities around cloud computing, network modernization, investment management, cybersecurity. Those priorities have been able to form a basis for the major work efforts over the past year.
As we understand the new administration and their goals for IT, I we think we have really nailed it in terms of priorities because things that we’re hearing about seem to fit in very nicely in those same areas. We’re very proud of creating that framework and the function and vision and values that go along with it.
MC: What would you share with the young people on entering government?
JA: No one’s going to manage your career for you, except you. So you have to take a real interest in the work that you’re doing and how you want to grow and evolve in your career.
When you’re new to the government and you’re meeting long-tenured public servants, you might think, “Well, these people have been here for a long time. They might not have any new ideas or think only in an old way.” I’ve never found that to be true. I think folks who have been around for a long time have a lot of wisdom and quite a lot to offer.
I’ve gained tremendously by embracing them with an open mind and listening very closely to what their experiences have been, because we tend to repeat ourselves. We might have different technologies or might have different program requirements, but the ways in which we approach problems, politics, or culture—those things don’t always change very quickly. There’s a lot of wisdom that, if utilized, can support a very successful approach today.
The final thing I’d offer is that you need to think about your job as part of a career, which is going to span many, many years. One project, or one boss, one instance might seem like it’s a really hard time, or might seem like it’s going to never end, but it is finite. It won’t last forever. To the extent that you’re able to see beyond whatever the immediate challenge is and see the bigger picture, I think that creates a much healthier mindset for some of the work that we do, which can be very hard at times.
I always encourage people to consider working in the Federal government because the work we do really does have an impact on people’s lives. You might never meet these people, you might never have an opportunity to interact with them personally, but you have definitely, positively impacted their life.
The government is a good place to work for that reason alone. I encourage people to consider government service as a way to give back to their country, but also as a way to feel really good about the work that you do.
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