Maria Roat is the CIO of SBA. (Photo: Small Business Administration)

Maria Roat, smart business innovator CIO at SBA, knows her way around the jobs that define government IT–because she’s held most of them. She’s precisely the kind of professional we all want to see on the MGT Technology Modernization Fund board–a lean forward, pragmatist. Roat is a military veteran who has also walked a mile in the contractor’s shoes–she notes she’ll never drop an RFP before the Christmas holidays. Like Suzette Kent, she stresses the importance of the Federal workforce.

In an interview with MeriTalk, Roat shares her vision for the future of Federal IT, talks about successes at SBA, and provides keen insight on the future of MGT, TIC, and more. Maria Roat, thank you for your service.

As the CIO at SBA, what are your top responsibilities and priorities–and what does a typical day look like?

The U.S. Small Business Administration is the premiere Federal agency to help support and champion America’s entrepreneurs and small business owners. As CIO, it is imperative that my team and I ensure a digitally accessible platform internally and externally to help empower the innovation ecosystems that thrive across the U.S. and help demystify SBA’s resources to the general public.

I am very focused on modernizing SBA including taking some big steps not only moving to the cloud, but turning on and using the capabilities to their full extent. My priority is to ensure that SBA’s Program Offices not only have a reliable and robust technology foundation, but also that the Program Offices are leveraging innovative technology based solutions to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. We actively partner and collaborate with offices across SBA to come up with solutions to address their most pressing business challenges.

A good example is last Fall when the Hurricanes hit. Our OCIO team, working with the Disaster Assistance IT teams, ramped up computing capabilities because we were already in the Cloud. We turned on virtual desktop, BizTalk, as well as Yammer and Skype for social networking and better collaboration.

A typical day runs the gamut of meetings with SBA leadership and OCIO staff. Because we are short on project managers, I am the PM on three projects–TBM implementation for OCIO, a CRM pilot, and an IT Workforce Planning effort.

You’ve been at SBA for a year and a half–what are your biggest achievements and key lessons learned so far?

It has been a mix of tactical and strategic elements. We stabilized a dated environment, and improved the reliability of our foundational technology environment. We updated our cybersecurity strategy and are making sure security is built in from the beginning. We established partnerships with each Program Office and are working together to address their biggest and often long-standing challenges.

Change is hard. But every day I wake up with a laser focus that is committed to “building what everyone is talking about.” This is a mantra that I have on a T-shirt at my cube for everyone to see and truly embody as we all come to work every day. During this last year, we have implemented many changes, and the team is excited and can see that our office is committed to innovation and supporting our agency’s mission.

SBA is now migrating to the cloud. We are the first agency to deploy CDM in the cloud, and are monitoring and managing both on-premise and the cloud environments with cloud-based tools. We Just completed and migration to AWS.

How can you quantify the impact of your modernization efforts to date at SBA?

There is more to accomplish. However, we are “turning the ship” in the right direction. The changes and improvements we are bringing to the Agency are being recognized and felt across the Agency.

For one, our primary data center HVAC’s haven’t failed in nearly a year from overload. Our network is stable and we are nearing completion of our entire network migration to fiber. Clean-up and consolidation efforts in our data center are resulting in $2,500+ monthly savings in electrical costs. Cutting duplicative software, and other unneeded hardware and maintenance services allowed us to re-invest those dollars in senior engineering and architecture services that are enabling us to migrate quickly to the cloud. We implemented virtual desktop and other cloud-based capabilities avoiding investments in hardware and software purchases.

You’ve been named to the MGT TMF board–what do you see as opportunities and what are you most looking forward to in this role?

The board already received many proposals and we are looking for those with the greatest impact, strongest business case, and highest probability of success. We are looking for innovative solutions as well.

As the TMF Board reviews agency submissions, I think we will see common challenges and we will be able to help leverage and re-use solutions across the Federal government. Visibility into all activities will assist with identifying best of breed and maximize efficiencies.

What does success in government digital transformation look like and can you point to some early successes?

Success in digital transformation looks like a more interactive, better informed, and more collaborative community, open to new technologies and sharing successes. The collective work on the Enterprise Infrastructure Solution will provide significant enhancements to our networks at a much better cost.

Evolving the mindset and duties of the Federal IT workforce is part of what a successful parameter of government digital transformation should be. In a rapidly changing world, embracing technology more than ever, our IT workforce of the future needs to adapt and become more technologically savvy. Success is not only driven by achieving milestones and modernization of IT infrastructure but also helping convince IT and non-IT stakeholders the long-term value of enabling digital transformation. Some early successes we have seen across government include:

  • The recruitment of digital service experts from the private sector to do short tours of duty with the Federal government
  • Interagency collaborations such as–one of the first database platforms funded by multiple agencies (SBA, NSF, and HHS NIH) to enable a one-stop shop for tech entrepreneurs wishing to access America’s Seed Fund
  • I’d like to see more collaboration across all levels. Resources and talent are very limited, so creating and nurturing a “community-of-practice” model allows us to really maximize the best practices and expertise that exists across government
  • Migrating to cloud to enable agencies to focus on mission related activities

What are the biggest obstacles to broader cloud adoption?

Moving to the cloud is about much more than a lift and shift. Systems need to be modernized before they move to take advantage of cloud capabilities. Once the systems are moved, they need to be monitored and managed making operational changes critical to success. Further, internal processes and procedures need to adjust, such as the Change Control Board. No longer does the CCB meet twice a week, but approvals are streamlined and seamless to support virtual environments where VMs can be spun up in minutes, and applications move automatically from development to test to production and into operations seamlessly.

The Trusted Internet Connection–TIC–pilots underway with SBA and two other agencies. The success of these pilots will significantly, positively change how users can connect from anywhere, at any time, and from any place and reduce the single point of failure we have today. At SBA, the pilot will explore new approaches to provide robust protection and situational awareness for traffic flowing between SBA’s MPLS to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud Infrastructure as a Service–IaaS–without routing that traffic through the TIC.

FITARA has not changed Federal IT efficiency–what needs to change to give it teeth, and/or does it need teeth?

It starts with leadership–CIOs need to be part of the top-level leadership team. Technology is a vital element of any organization and by not being part of the top-level team, it diminishes the role of technology. Often top-level leaders are not savvy from a technology standpoint and they need a strong technology leader to drive the technology agenda for the organization. The commitment to FITARA is growing, now we just need the discipline to ensure all aspects of the law are fully implemented and matured. For many agencies, it requires revisiting policies and procedures. At SBA we revisited our IT acquisition practices and revamped our internal review process. I review all SBA IT acquisitions greater than $50K, and with my partnership with the CFO, SBA is seeing commitment to and success with the updated process.

What are your recommendations on how to do MGT right?

Focus on the foundational elements and get them right first. One needs to make a concerted effort to take on transformations while “keeping the lights on”. This requires commitment and perseverance over a long period of time.  It also requires proper planning and looking out several years ahead.

How did you come to SBA? Tell us a little bit about your journey.

I became the Small Business Administration Chief Information Officer in October 2016 bringing many years of professional experience in information technology.

I’ve really had two parallel careers. The first started with the Navy where I served 26 years on active duty and in the reserves as an Information Systems Specialist. I joined in 1981 as an E1 and retired in 2007 following two tours as a Command Master Chief.

My second career started in 1985 when I left active duty and began my civil service career as a GS-3 office assistant. I quickly landed a job as a GS-5 mainframe operator, and from there moved up through the ranks always evolving with technology from mainframes to PCs, networking, operations, engineering, architecture, and program/project. I don’t think I’ve ever had the same job or job title twice. I’ve been a NOC/SOC and HelpDesk manager, ran a global network monitoring and management program, was the deputy director for the development of the Secure Flight program, a CISO, DHS OCIO Chief of Staff, FEMA Deputy CIO, FedRAMP Director, a Chief Technology Officer.

The journey meant I didn’t always move “up”, and sometimes moved laterally or went down a grade or two to get into a career ladder position to be able to ultimately move up. The journey included frequently being on the leading edge of trying out new technologies.

I had a gap in my federal service journey from 1999-2004 in the private sector deploying and managing global, enterprise network management systems, as well as running a Network and Security Operations Center. Working for two small companies taught me two things. One, running a small business is hard, and two, don’t ever, ever release an RFP right before the Christmas holidays.

If you were Federal CIO, what would you change?

First, continue to push in the direction of Federal-wide solutions where it makes sense. Second, more cross-agency collaboration and communications to elevate the conversation. Third, while modernization continues to happen, champion the amazing technology solutions and successes that are being implemented that don’t always get visibility. Fourth, reduce the red tape to get stuff done. Efforts to date to get to agile acquisition are a good start, but more needs to be done to educate acquisition professionals on, and put into practice, the flexibilities and capabilities of the variety of contract options. Finally, I would continue to focus on our Federal IT workforce. We need to continue to recruit the best and the brightest–faster and more in line with industry practices–and champion the “cool stuff” that the government does. Too many lose sight of the amazing missions. Identify and bring forward individuals that are comfortable working within our new paradigm of continuous innovations and creative thinking.

One other thing–instill a sense of urgency and a bias for action. The Federal environment tends to be largely risk averse and I believe it would be prudent to reduce this risk aversion posture slightly where it makes sense.

If you weren’t in the Federal IT business, what would you be and why?

A park ranger or something outdoors with the environment. I’ve always been physically active and an outdoors person, and the last couple years I have been doing more hiking from the Austrian Alps, to local spots such as Harpers Ferry, nearby Appalachian trail, C&O Canal, and Catoctin Mountains.

What book are you reading now, or what book did you just finish reading?

I read “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek about a year ago and recently gave out copies to my entire team at our OCIO All-Hands Meeting. It is a book to inspire people to do the things that inspire them.

What haven’t I asked you that I should have?

How about a shout-out to all the amazing, smart and talented people I’ve worked with, met, or seen in action over the years!

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Steve O'Keeffe
Steve O'Keeffe
The most connected executive in the government technology community – O'Keeffe is an accomplished entrepreneur and tech-policy expert, with 30 years’ experience as an innovator at the crossroads of government and industry. He founded MeriTalk, O'Keeffe & Company, 300Brand, among other entities. O'Keeffe is a fixture on the Hill, in both the House and Senate, testifying on IT, budget, government workforce, and the requirement to modernize government IT to enhance outcomes for the American people and government employees. He is a champion for change, simplification, transparency, and clear communication of IT value without jargon. A committed philanthropist, O'Keeffe has served for 15 years on the USO-Metro Board of Directors – Vice Chairman of the Board and Chair of the Annual Awards Dinner. He started his career as a journalist – O'Keeffe has contributed to The Economist, Government Executive, Signal Magazine, The Washington Post, and, of course, MeriTalk.