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FCW : January and February 2017
Innovation 24 January/February 2017 FCW.COM What were your first impressions of your first government job? There are just a lot of things in government you’ve got to consider that the private sector doesn’t, that make sense but you’ve got to get used to. The other thing is the scope of impact you can have is really amazing, which is part of the reason I came here. I came here because the quality of the people I saw here completely blew me away. It’s as good as anything I’ve seen in the best tech companies in the private sector. And then the chance to do something to improve government and to reach people on that scale was too good to pass up. What are you seeing so far? Ithink the thing that impressed me the most is we’re a fairly small group, we’re not going to do everything ourselves. We see ourselves as trying to get as much leverage as we can. There are a few things that make sense for us to do in a centralized way, but there aren’t many of those. A lot of work is done with the agencies on their projects. But ultimately, if we’re going to have an impact, it’s going to be by making government a better buyer of technology from industry. What’s the culture like at 18F and TTS? It’s got the same feel of energy and optimism and ability to dive in and tackle thorny problems. It’s the best of the private sector that I found, to my surprise, in the middle of the General Services Administration. The challenge I see for myself is how do you take that and keep it with that energy and yet connect it to the rest of government where it has an impact on a broader scale. It’s got to be adapted to By his own admission, Rob Cook was failing at semi-retirement when he was offered the top job at the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service, the government innovation shop that includes 18F. Cook, 63, left his California home — and the Oscar statuette he keeps dressed in G.I. Joe clothes — and moved into a rented apartment in Washington for a three-year Senior Executive Service appointment as TTS commissioner. Cook won the Academy Award for his work on developing RenderMan, the 3D animation software that gives Pixar films their particular look and feel. Cook said he was drawn to government service for some of the same reasons he was drawn to the world of entertainment — including the desire to “have an impact on people’s lives.” “When I walk through an airport and I see a kid holding a Pixar toy or doll, every time I see it, it just moves me,” he said. “I’m happy to have been a part of something that touches people’s lives.” Although TTS has some high-profile support, its future remains uncertain under the Trump administration. Many of its employees, particularly at 18F, are on two- year appointments that are renewable for an additional two years, so a hiring freeze or neglect of the organization could cause it to wither even if it isn’t abolished outright. GSA used the last days of the Obama administration to make a bipartisan, dollars- and-cents case for keeping TTS as a way to help the whole government become a smarter and more efficient buyer of technology. Cook spoke with FCW in early December; his remarks have been edited for length and clarity. 0217fcw_022-025.indd 24 1/25/17 9:32 AM
November and December 2016