The U.S. Government is leveraging technology to improve and accelerate the citizen experience. Listen as Carolyn and Mark learn more about the ecosystem of the mission from Troy Schneider, Editor-in-Chief of FCW and General manager of GCN.
Carolyn: Today's guest is Troy Schneider, Editor-in-Chief at Federal Computer Week, FCW, and Government Computer News, GCN. Troy began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, and Political.
Troy, I would love to hear about your professional career. How did you become the Editor-in-Chief at FCW and GCN, two of the oldest and most influential publications in the public sector IT? You've had this long career. I'm really interested to know how you got into the government side of things, especially.
Troy: I started in what most people think of as more of the traditional Washington journalism, more of the politics, and the campaign, the lobbying side of things. I worked for National Journal almost straight out of college, and was there when it was a weekly print magazine, not much else, and just starting to tiptoe into the digital space. I’ve spent about a decade, a little more than that, with different parts of National Journal, which grew into Atlantic Media Company over the years.
I was lucky enough to be there at the creation of the digital business, moving to publishing and even online publishing before websites were the settled-on channel. Covered Congress, covered campaigns, all of that sort of work, and then made a pivot to a think tank. I’ve worked for A New America Foundation, which is now called New America, and went there to help them with their publishing efforts.
Troy: I really liked the ideas and the policy side of things. It’s a very media-centric organization, where they knew they couldn't just be contributing op-ads to places, but really needed to have their own publishing channels. I did that for seven years or so, and got a call about a job with FCW, to come on as the number two editor. If everyone liked each other, to move into the senior role. It’s a little bit of a daunting transition to focus on the true government side.
My focus for the first part of my career had been about all the stuff that happens to figure out what goes into the budget. To figure out what goes into the laws, to figure out who's going to be elected to those positions. In that politic-centric view, "What happened after the bill was signed?" The agencies got it. That’s just implementation details. Then you dive in, you realize just how big that set of details is, and just how important the operations are. FCW at the time, they wanted to be less about computers, because IT is so much more than that now.
More about the policy, the business, and the leadership side. I’ve done a lot of work with emerging technology during my time at New America. We’ve crept a lot closer than we would have been when I was at National Journal. We would've seen each other in two completely different spaces, but there was enough overlap that it was interesting to both parties. I came in, in 2012, as the Executive Editor of STW. Stepped into the Editor role about a year and a half later, then took the similar role at GCN a couple of years after that. We've just been rolling ever since.
Carolyn: Early on, you had a government beat, but there was a transition for you.
Troy: There was. I knew the government, I knew Congress, I knew the budget process, I knew nothing about things like FedRAMP or FISMA. Or really what agencies have to do to effectively run, and execute their missions. I remember talking to a colleague who had worked in the sector before I took the job in central. This is exciting. There's a lot that I don't know. It's like learning a foreign language.
You walk around, you're scribbling down notes, and looking things up every day. Then six weeks or six months later, you wake up and you realize you're dreaming in Spanish. That was it. I would come out of every conversation I had with Ann Armstrong, at FCW, or every interview I did with someone, with a list of names and acronyms. I had to go dig into the FCW archives and figure out what they were talking about, but it didn't take long for that stuff to start to fit together.
At a certain level, journalists should be able to get smart on any beat. It helps to have some subject matter expertise, but mainly it helps to have curiosity and want to dig in. The federal IT space is just a fascinating community. It's easy to be engaged. The fact that it really is a community is something I didn't fully appreciate when I joined FCW, but is one of my favorite parts of the job now. The people in government, the people in industry, yes, everyone has their jobs.
Troy: Everyone has their things they do, and don't want to talk about, but they really do want to work together. They’re generally united by that mission of making government work better. It's nice to be a part of that in a media capacity.
Carolyn: You said something that really hits home to me almost daily. Government is its own ecosystem. You talked about Congress, and that layer and knowing it. The agencies, and what they have to deal with, with the mandates, but then also developing and procuring the different technologies. This podcast is focused on how global technology is changing the way we live, and how critical government decisions are.
It affects the intersection of technology advancement and human needs. That said, you said something really interesting in your promotion of the 2021 GCN Innovation Awards. I'm going to quote you here. You said, "Public sector tech is far cooler than the government often gets credit for." First, I love that. Can you talk more about that?
Troy: There are certainly corners of government where the stereotype of bureaucracy has been earned. I've never met more people who work harder, and are more committed to their job, than I have in my conversations with people in government IT. I care about my job, and I think I worked very hard. But I feel like a slacker when I'm talking to almost any agency CIO. The people part of it is truly outstanding, but you look at the technology side of things.
Over the last 10 years especially, the government has been such a leader in thinking about how to digitize the workflows, and think about how to serve citizens differently.
Troy: Then obviously in the emerging tech side, and the things that I cited in that short article or intro, that you were quoting, you have DARPA, you have NASA. You have places that have the reputation for being the cool kids, doing amazing things. But you dig deeper and there's no one that's doing more with data than some of our government agencies. At the state and local level, what's happening with the internet, and smart city efforts is really leading edge.
Are there places where everyone's trying to catch up to the Googles and the Amazons? Absolutely. You can't have a conversation in government. Several years ago, it was the dominoes analogy of, "Why can't I do whatever in government, as easily as an order a pizza on my phone?" I feel Amazon, and any number of other companies have continued to advance the user experience even further. There are places where government's still working to catch up.
When you talk about doing new technology, and doing it at scale, there aren't many places that can match what the government's doing. You're seeing some agency beyond the traditional cool places, again, the NASAs, the DARPAs. You've found agencies doing a better job of leveraging that mission and that scale challenge. To bring a whole new type of talent, and a new type of worker into the government space, because you can work on things that you just couldn't do anywhere else.
Carolyn: Can you think of an example, specifically the cool stuff that agency has done?
Troy: Let's go to VA. Most of the stories you hear about VA are like, "Oh, scheduling problems, vets waiting on care over the years."
Troy: The VA, even 30 years ago, was doing stuff that virtually no one else was doing on digital health records and focusing on long-term care. Making those systems really work, for both the physicians and the patients. The Vista system is being replaced now, as they move to Cerner. VA was a true innovator in developing a real user-centered design, and working all through the health system to both serve individuals. And to try and look at the bigger lessons of what's happening with public health, by looking at the data across their entire veteran caseload.
That's one. Another more recent would be what HHS was doing when the pandemic first got rolling with HHS Protect. Really trying to pull all the data, and bring it together at tremendous speed, so the policymakers could make decisions about understanding how the virus was progressing, and making sort of public health recommendations. Obviously, that's been a very politically charged conversation.
But if you strip away exactly what decisions were made, and look at what the HHS team did in 2020 to build out an amazing data lake, and high-end analysis, that was pulling things in from hospitals across the country in real-time. That's the type of project that you can't go to a private sector company and work on. The impact in the short term for helping us get a handle on the COVID crisis, and in the long term the lessons learned of what we can do with public health data, is just going to be tremendous.
Mark: One of the things that go hand in hand with some of those efforts is security. The president put out the executive order in regard to cybersecurity. I was very curious to get your thoughts about that. Particularly zero trust, and what that means to you.
Troy: I should say that we could fill several books with what I don't know about zero trust. But it's been really interesting to watch that become the organizing principle for so many security conversations in government. I remember it was three or four years ago, at FCW. We were doing a round table with about a dozen CEOs and CTOs, talking about security challenges. One of them said, "I really wish we could get to zero trust. Google has been doing this. It'd be great."
The reaction in the room was, "That would be really cool. It would also be really cool if I had wings," was the sense. Now agencies are actively pushing toward it, but in terms of what zero trust is, it's an idea. I'll give you the layman's explanation. There's a longstanding idea in IT security, of least privilege access. If you're doing your stuff on your computer day to day, you don't want to have the permissions that lets you intentionally or accidentally delete all the files on your machine.
You should be logged in, in a way that lets you do what you absolutely need to do, and have to go in with admin privileges to do more. That's hard. It makes life complicated for users. One of the big cyber hygiene problems that the government and all organizations have had, was rampant use of admin privileges, where they really weren't necessary.
Troy: It leads to vulnerabilities like we saw in the OPM hack several years ago. Once people are able to get in and they can get privileges, they can move through the system and access everything.
Zero trust is this idea of, "I am going to give you only permission to access the data you need right now. When you need a new set of data, I'm going to reverify. It's a simple concept. But to do that across government systems, in a way that doesn't grind operations to a halt, because of all the frictions that are being put in, that's the hard part.
That's what agencies are wrestling with right now. Where they get into trouble, but they say, "oh, we're just going to implement zero trust in 2022." Well, it's not a thing you can implement. It’s a mindset and approach. It requires changes at virtually every level of the IT operations and how they're managed. I think it's good, but it's going to be a long slog.
Mark: It seemed about a decade or so ago, there was this analogous executive order that was put out on Insider Threat. It had a lot of specific details and requirements that were laid out as to how to go about that. In this executive order, there seems to be a certain level of vagueness to it. How do you see this manifesting itself as we move forward?
Troy: At this point, I'm willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt on this. I had a conversation with a group of officials not too long ago. It included Chris DeRusha, the Federal CISO.
Troy: One of the main assignments of the executive order was that agencies have to do their own assessment, and say, "This is our plan of working towards zero trust. This is what we have in place now. Here's how we think we're doing against those efforts." You're right, that's a very abstract set of marching orders.
Part of the goal, as I understand it, is for OMB to be able to take that information. To start to get a sense of what building blocks different agencies actually have in place. So they can then take that to bring both more specific guidance out for the agencies, and also to start to make the business case.
To say, "Okay, well, for agencies to get to this certain level that we think is important, we can now see that this amount of time or this amount is required." Part of this is to help establish the facts, and make the business case, for helping agencies move forward with their zero trust efforts. Because there is a recognition that it's going to be a long and somewhat expensive process.
Carolyn: Coming right up, are The Federal 100 Awards. I want you to speak more about it. As I understand them, these awards are all about industry and government innovations. What I'm hearing you say is the government says, "We want to get to where Google is with zero trust." But I've seen a lot of really forward-thinking, especially with the DOD, around zero trust.
Carolyn: This coming together of industry and government is so important. I see that with the Fed 100 Awards. Will you talk more about those awards, how you decide who to name because there are so many. How do you decide who the innovators are every year?
Troy: We, at FCW, do not. It's one of the things that makes the Federal 100 Awards so special. They're coming up. The winners were announced early this year. We put off the actual gala until the end of August, hoping we'd be back to a good, safe space. We're now in a safe-ish space. With vaccination requirements for attendance, and masking, we're feeling pretty good about being able to celebrate in person here in a few days.
I'd encourage people to check out the list because it's an amazing list of people. It's all at fed100.com. The award program, what makes it real, is that it’s really community-driven. The nominations come in from across the community. We put the nomination out. It's not just a, "Hey, I like Mark, I like Carolyn," one line, if they did great stuff. It's fairly intensive.
Carolyn: Are you saying I'm not going to make the list?
Mark: That was an endorsement.
Troy: There are plenty of awards as listicles out there, not just in our space, in the world in general. The Federal 100 is not that, the best nominations, they come in. They have a whole slate of nominators from both the organizations of the individual there. Usually, customers or partners who were vouching for her or for him. They have pretty detailed essay questions/answers about explaining the job, explaining what they accomplished in the past calendar year.
Troy: The criteria for Federal 100 is an outstanding individual achievement in the previous year. We really look for the specifics there. Then what FCW does is we assemble a panel of judges for this. It is often, but not always, previous Federal 100 winners. It’s always people who are both senior in the community and doing work to where they know about a lot more than their own silo.
They're working across agencies. They have ties in the industry. We have often had the Federal CIO be a judge. The CIO of the defense department, other major agencies. We worked very hard to build a panel that has expertise from across the government. There's always an acquisition pro, there's always a security expert. Our industry leaders' there as well. As you all know, from this community, a lot of the industry people have spent a portion of their careers in government as well.
They know both sides of that conversation. The judging process, they get a binder that's about a year thick, and spend a tremendous amount of their personal time going through that. Then we all convene. This year, unfortunately, it was in a Microsoft Teams meeting for seven hours on a Saturday. Normally we'll gather in a conference room, bring in food, and lock ourselves in there.
The group of seven to nine judges goes through each nomination, and reaches a consensus on who makes it and who doesn't. Some of them were easy and slam dunks. And some of them are easy to say, "No, nice person, but this is not a nice personal award there. That project's not far enough along yet."
Troy: Then there are really intensive debates about that 80/20 rule that applies to a lot of things. It's fascinating. I learned more on that day of deliberations than I do in any other three or four weeks of the year. I'm just amazed at how much our judges know about the individual people and the individual projects that are going on across the government.
There's almost never a case where there isn't at least one judge who has firsthand knowledge about either the person, or the project. Or at the very least, one of the nominators who's vouching for them can sort of do a quick fact check on it. We bring our reporters in to help take notes in this process. It helps us with writing the profiles when things are done. But I also do it because it's like a masterclass for the edit team, to just sit there and learn from these people. It's legit.
When I first came to FCW, we had a black-tie, what to recognize, who, and why. I was a little bit skeptical, until I went to the first one, and saw how seriously people took it. Then I went through the selection process. Again, where, Ann Armstrong, our Chief Content Officer, who helped create the Federal 100 Awards. She likes to say, "We have a voice, but not a vote in there." Same thing, I will share things that we know from our reporting, but the judges ultimately decide who the Fed 100 winners are. That was a longer answer than you may have wanted.
Carolyn: No, I appreciate it. These awards, you've given me even more insight into what I thought they were. I think they're...