Technology is paramount when it comes to securing our nation according to Pete Tseronis, CEO of Dots and Bridges, former CTO of the US Department of Energy and US Department of Education. On this episode of Tech Transforms, Pete explains the critical role technology plays in our lives, and how innovation underpins that foundation.
Carolyn: Our guest today has got quite the pedigree, Pete Tseronis, CEO of Dots and Bridges. Before Dots and Bridges, Pete served as a Cabinet-level federal CTO, not once, but twice. First at the US Department of Education for eight years, and then at the US Department of Energy for seven and a half years. Before those two, he was actually with the DoD since the beginning of things.
Pete: It's nice to be on the other side of the mic. I have all the respect in the world for what you're doing, in addition to your other jobs and incredible pedigree you have. But I love the conversations and it's a treat to be able to tell my story a little bit, at least.
Carolyn: Your unique perspective on technology and federal agencies, as well as from the commercial side, it's going to be a great conversation. Let's just start with your story. Will you give us an overview of Dots and Bridges and how it came about? Then share your journey in the government and where you are now.
Pete: I tell folks I can do five hours or I can do it in about a minute. But there's about 32 years there, wrapped up. I'm a Washingtonian native. I grew up in the Washington DC area, in the suburbs of Maryland, Montgomery County and went to high school in Washington DC. It took me to Villanova University for my undergrad, where I studied liberal arts and communications. I wanted to be a sports broadcaster.
Pete: I’m 54, and I do have a nine-year-old. So a little bit of a late bloomer. Four kids, a great wife from Pittsburgh, and yes, I have an Australian Labradoodle named Phineas Maximus Tseronis. So that is my life, my family. I came out of college, I ended up back here in DC, and interned at the Pentagon. One day, I woke up and I'm working in the Pentagon. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Didn't have a plan to work for the government. I didn't know much about it, even though it was in my backyard. But it put me on my journey.
The time was '91. I had the chance, when I was working as a civilian, the Department of the Army, to dabble in some of the work that the DARPA community was working on. The internet work was what it was called. Before I knew it, I had a bug, an itch that I scratched. And I was like, "This is going to be a big deal." I was that guy typing in on a text-based, character-based, if you will, screen: www.espn.com. I'm like, "Whoa, I can see all this news before it's in the paper tomorrow."
The itch was there. I said, "I'm going to go learn this internet thing." At that point, it was three years at DoD. I had a chance to move over to the Department of Education and do some computer security work. That was becoming a thing, like if you're going to use this tool, security matters. So we'll talk a little bit about that today and its evolution, but I jumped back to school.
Pete: I enrolled at Johns Hopkins University and got my master's degree in telecommunications. I’ve wanted to know how this worked. How do you type something in and then it's there on your screen? That was the coolest education for three years. Every time I'd go back to class, it was like the material we learned was outdated. For three years it was like all of us were growing up in this IT world.
So I finished school while I was working. By the time I came out, the Clinger-Cohen Act had passed, 1996-ish. The federal government had chief information officers, CIOs. You were a thing, you weren't an IT director. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you were actually a C-level. I said, "Well, maybe that's what I'll be."
So I tried it. At least, I went on that path. I found myself very interested in wanting to leverage what I learned in grad school. That was, well, you got to get into a data center and see how it really works. I ended up at the Department of Education, being a director. But really, running the data center with an incredibly talented group of folks that run circles around me. But they were my on-the-job training experts, firewall guys and gals, circuit folks, server people.
It was a real education on how to learn this stuff, this geek speaks, but then I have to go talk about it to my federal community. By the time I was making a decision on, “Do I want to be a tech guy, like the geeky side which is a compliment, or a propeller head?“
Pete: “Do I want to go down the management route and stay in this government, as I was being promoted every couple of years?“ I got up to a SES status by the time I left. Then I found myself on a speaking circuit, talking about technology. I was asked frequently to work with the Office of Management and Budget, an arm of the White House executive branch, to translate the tech and why it matters. Maybe I wasn't a sports broadcaster, but I definitely loved getting in front of an audience and doing a bit of that educational component.
So in '08 I felt like it was time to do something different. I was appointed CTO. But in '08 it was like, "Well, what do they do? What's a CTO? We all know a CIO is such and such," and I didn't care. I called myself a connective tissue officer because I just loved bringing people together, convening, having conversations. Never, for the life of me, act or feel as though I was the smartest guy in the room. I was learning constantly in a world that was just moving at a clip.
In '08 I had an opportunity to come over to the DoE. I got to be blunt, it was the coolest, and it still is, job I've ever had. But I didn't really know what I was getting into. I didn't know much about the Department of Energy, or the Department of Science as it's called. But we can speak for hours on just the complexity of that institution. It was not just the Department of Energy circa 1977 when it was made a Cabinet-level agency, it was the former Atomic Energy Commission.
Pete: It's truly where some of the brightest minds, for years, dating back to the Manhattan Project, to autonomous vehicles today, with our national laboratories. It is this brain power, that if you have a chance to work there or visit, you walk out of there just feeling like, "Oh my gosh, I can't wait to come back." At least, I did and I had a great run. That was eight years. I caught my passion and bug there for, “How does all this technology impact humanity? Why are we spending billions of dollars on research and development? Where is it going and how does it impact me and humanity globally?”
In 2015, I hit that ceiling. I was not in the government for the money. I realized, "Well, I'm not going to be able to really go much higher. So maybe I better go out and figure out what all this education can do in terms of hanging a shingle." I started Dots and Bridges. My wife gets all the credit for the name. I try to be cute at times, and then ultimately she said, "What's the big deal? What'd you do for 25 years?" I said, "Well, hon, it was a dot-connecting bridge builder." She goes, "Be Dots and Bridges. People get that. Connect dots, build bridges, that's what you did." So that was it.
Six years and a few months later I'm living the dream, working my tail off. I didn't retire from the government, I miss it. But being here in the Beltway and having this global community now, whether it's smart cities or critical infrastructure or cyber physical systems, I continuously learn and teach wherever I can and within bandwidth.
Pete: I make sure that I'm there for my family first and foremost. I love what I do.
Mark: It's a fascinating history. You had the opportunity to have critical roles in the government, in areas that are really impactful to society today. So helping the greater good. Those are certainly two organizations in your roles that are fabulous, and so is Dots and Bridges. How does that work? Having now been on both sides of the fence, how do you think you can help organizations, industry, the country, and its citizens be more effective in that transformation? Is it on the Dots and Bridges side or is it on the government side? What are the different dynamics there?
Pete: The short answer is, when people say, "Oh, you're in the industry now." I'm like, "Yes, I took an exit off the highway of being a Fed, and I'm enjoying it. But I'm going to get back on that road." I say as of late, "I'm probably going to end back up in the government again someday. I miss it." There's something about the 25 years of why you do it. People use this phrase, "I love the mission. I serve the mission." And I dig it. I get it.
But the impact of that mission that you're serving, or the mission impact of what you're doing, is really what hit me late in my career. I remember waking up one day at the Department of Education. Somebody asked me, "All this data center stuff you do and all this technology, how is that helping the Office of such-and-such at the Department of Education?" I honestly was like, "I have no idea."
Pete: That was the moment, or epiphany, that I went, "It's one thing to be a tech person. But to know how it's impacting students, or teachers, or educators, or rural America." Something I said to myself, "If I don't know that, shame on me."
When I came to Energy, the first thing I did was, "I'm going to learn this mission. It's going to take a while. I am going to travel to the national labs, all 17, as best I can. I'm going to understand why all these agencies, why the government even exists to serve our country and the world."
One way I’d like to answer part of your question is, it's a yin yang thing. There's an opportunity for all of us to understand the role of the mission. There are 450+ agencies in the federal government. There's not 32, there's not 24. Every one of them has a mission, from the Smithsonian, to the National Nuclear Security Administration, to the Environmental Management Office at DoE, to the USDA.
Think about that as a technologist, a guy who was sold to for so many years. One of the questions I used to say to every industry partner that came in was, "Do you know what it is I'm doing in my role, in a $30-some billion agency, a CTO, to serve the mission."
That's when I realized there was a gap. I'm translating why it matters. How zero trust can impact our nation's 16 critical sectors, how distributed energy makes sense and doesn't make it about fossil versus renewable. But the technology, the one thing I say is never the problem, it's how we are implementing it.
Pete: Your C-level, or the people in the data centers, in the basement, or the outsourced folks at these big large institutions, do you know that they're the ones keeping the lights on? Technology is agnostic. How you explain it to people is critical in terms of adoption. If we don't do it, that's where the inertia is created. It takes forever for us to realize the benefits of what technology's promise is.
Carolyn: You've said something a few times. I think what your focus is, is how to make life better for our kids, for our country, for the world. You actually mentioned smart cities. I'm fascinated by the idea. From what little I've read, there's a lot of potential with smart cities. The smart cities are a big step towards our environmental problems and improving our lives, for ourselves and for future generations. Can you talk about smart cities? What did you do in the Department of Energy with them? Start with what a smart city is?
Pete: Technology, humanity, and culture. It's interchangeable. Technology, we know we need it. Humanity, we want to live longer. I know we won't be here forever. We're not in the era of the matrix, from what I understand, even though it's a great movie. The machines, that's the futurist comment. But there's hope. We're living longer, but we need our air clean. We need our water treated properly, we need our cars to be safer.
I'm looking at my list here. You brought up smart cities, what makes up a smart city? Well there are 16 sectors that are deemed the critical sectors. Their assets, systems and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States.
Pete: Their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security; national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof. Straight from the DHS CISA website, there are 16 sectors that everybody should be aware of that should relate to our lives. They’re the energy sector, food and agriculture, financial, and government facilities. Those are the foundations for cities. It's our streets, it's our water, it's our air.
We love when we get, at least I do, a snowy day. But then when you can't shower, or you can't eat, or you can't get food, then you realize that Mother Nature is in control of some of this. Why are we not a more resilient city? We saw it happen in Texas last year with the freezing temperatures, and people died. The goal is safety, public safety. I always say, "Bad stuff happens, we realize how resilient or non-resilient, how we need to improve when a bridge collapses. Or somebody says, 'How did we not know?' or a tsunami hits."
So smart cities don't one day appear, a smart city is not smart because you put a sensor on a traffic light. A smart city is people getting smart, from city officials to those that have to make the investment in the technology to then deploy it. Then to figure out where's the data, how do I distill it, and is it protected? Yes, the world we live in, data is the new oil, data is the fuel, data is compromised. When that happens, we saw what happened in Colonial this year. We can shut down an East Coast pipeline because of ransomware.
Pete: Smart cities eight years ago were more like a smart grid. How do we make the grid smarter? Or how do we put technology on our power grid so that it stays up longer? So when bad things happen, people don't freeze to death, or there's a blackout and there are looting instances or traffic accidents?
The word "smart" is something I put in front of a lot of things: smart agriculture, smart water, smart air. It's really just the application of technologies and sensors to communicate, to tell us in real-time where things are at risk. I'd like to think that our most critical sectors, that critical infrastructure, that $1.2 trillion is now being made available as a result of the infrastructure bill. It will go towards making sure that the very things we need, the water, the air, the food, the bridges, the planes, trains, are safe.
Carolyn: So to be a smart city, they have to check the box that they're monitoring. That they're being smarter about critical infrastructure and at least three or four different areas. I still am unclear how you get qualified as a smart city.
Pete: There is no single definition. If you think of smart cities, it's the people. It's reexamining the process by which we do certain things to know how technology can make it better. I'll just use an example of potholes. There's a great company in Pittsburgh, RoadBotics, that, with a phone, takes pictures and sends them into the cloud. They're now detecting where all the potholes are. Why are some repaired overnight and others don't get repaired? It's about equity, societal and economic value.
Pete: A smart city involves tech. It also involves people becoming smarter about the tech and what those risks are and implications of deploying it in a city.
Carolyn: Is there a green component? Or is it more about being resilient as a city?
Pete: I like the word sustainability and resilience a lot. You bring up a great point. The reason there's this, let's look at distributed energies and microgrids and low Earth orbit satellites. Let's use wind power. It's just to say, if the coal burning and the nuclear power, it's not one or the other. We need a resilient grid so that when it goes down, it doesn't stay down.
Pete: Yes. And that's not sustainable in, "Oh, sustainable, I think of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints." Yes and no. It's like, we don't want it to be down for a long time. That's why you'll see these days that cities want to be smarter, secure, and sustainable. On the flip side, it's reliable, resilient, and flexible.
How do you do that? We have to look at the integration of renewable and fossil fuels and nuclear power. At the end of the day, you flip a switch on, you want the lights to turn on. You turn on your water, you want it to be clear, not brown. Then you get in your car, you want to know, even...