Tony Summerlin of the Federal Communications Commission
The FCC's Tony Summerlin. Photo by Howard Solomon

Patience is not one of Tony Summerlin’s strong suits. Nor, he suggests, should it be in the toolkit of a CIO or CSO.

Currently senior IT advisor to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he’s a former senior advisor to the CIO of the federal government there and has held a series of positions in the public and private sectors including working for American intelligence agencies (earlier this year he addressed a closed door conference for cyber professionals in Ottawa) and for two Canadian startups.

So after years of experience he has become decisive, the kind of guy who says he believes a leader has to be inclusive and transparent until it doesn’t work; then be ready for war with your staff. Somewhat ironically, he calls himself a pragmatist: “I’m about getting things done …To me speed is everything.”

And quickly. Not for nothing does he call his style “Blitzkrieg.”

From Summerlin’s Rules: The proposition better be good — prove small things early and often

Don’t be fooled by his genial grin. He doesn’t merely wield a sharp tongue: As IT staffers at the FCC found out, he will use cable cutters to enforce his order that they couldn’t bring every server with them when the agency’s data centres moved.

Earlier this month Summerlin was a late replacement keynote speaker at the annual Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto for the FCC’s CIO. What attendees got was a punchy (and sometimes unquotable, even in this publication) address on his philosophy, which is get change done quickly.

When it was over he sat down to discuss his continuing experience at the FCC – which included complaints about him filed to the federal inspector-general — and why he believes IT leaders can’t do things slowly.

“Incremental change won’t work,” he explained. “It’s like incrementally killing someone: It’s called torture.”

Hence his rules for instituting change, like “The enemy is within:” Fifty per cent of staff will oppose you, and of them half will leave or you’ll have to replace. and/or leave. Of the other half,  25 per cent will be passive aggressive, and 25 per cent will actually tell you what they think and may come along. As a result, you need to bring in new people to support those doers, not to replace them.

He learned the hard way: “I was the turn-around person in banking, so I didn’t have much time. They’d give me $3 million and tell me I have six months (to change things) or I will lay off 300 people. So my approach is a bit different.”

Another lesson was people resist change. “I was leading a software company and I had a rebellion …’We want this, and this and this, and this stinks,’” staff said. So he asked for a list of what they wanted – and they replied everything they were working on. To which he answered that the company would be bankrupt before he got to the eighth feature.

“So It’s all about discipline and what you can and can’t do … You need to tell the client, and then they can complain.” But, he added, at least there’s a deliverable.

From Summerlin’s Rules: The “Black Hole Theory” — “If someone’s just sitting and not contributing, if they don’t have output, then you have to move him because they suck everybody’s energy.”

Brought in two years ago by current FCC CIO David Bray, Summerlin was asked how he’d modernize the IT department. ‘Take their toys away,” he replied, “Move the data centre out.’

Aside from the fact that the data centre was in downtown Washington, D.C., where not only the real estate was expensive it was a nuclear target, to him the 19-year old facility suffered the usual problems of an ageing infrastructure and entrenched staff.

“These guys almost literally sleep with the machines – all their servers are named, like ‘Betty, Bob,’ they name them after comic book characters. They have an affinity for their servers, they know what’s on every servers, but they don’t document jack s**t … So the only way to get discipline in the process was to move it.” That forced staff to port-map and itemize everything.

“We started off with 97 racks of servers. I told them we would be moving 60 [and in six months]. They said that’s impossible. I said ‘No, it’s what’s going to happen.’… I knew I could take 30 per cent of of everything and it wasn’t going to hurt anything, because I know what inefficiencies look like.

“I mean, I just pulled it out of the sky, but I’d done it before and I’ve never not been able to take 30 per cent out of a data centre.” And that doesn’t mean by just virtualizing all the existing applications to save storage, he stressed.

“You can’t let up. If you ride people hard they’ll start appreciating their own accomplishments. And they did.”

From Summerlin’s Rules: “Be arrogant, just be right.”

In fact he says his team, including partners and the service provider, came together the long weekend the data centre was re-assembled. However, things weren’t so cozy the day before. “Thursday at four in the afternoon we shut down all applications. I went home and came back at eight o’clock and these people were sitting on the floor following cables.

“I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and they said ‘We’re just confirming the cable routes.’ and I said ‘No you’re not,’ and I went and got cable cutters and cut the cables. And they almost had a heart attack.’”

“They reported me to the I.G. (Inspector-General). They tried to have me thrown out. They had me met by the guards at the front door of the building and wouldn’t let me in one day.”

From Summerlin’s Rules: ‘Change agents’ must be part of the equation – Make sure they are good at SOMETHING. Empower them, then make damn sure they deliver something.”

Today the FCC is down to 20 servers in part because Summerlin figured the agency does three things: Process and issue grants, process and issue licences and run spectrum auctions. The agency has to develop — but not own or host — the specialized auction software (which last year brought in US$44.5 billion in the first incentive auction). Otherwise, almost everything else – from office productivity applications to HR – is or will come from the cloud as a SaaS service, including Office365 (although don’t ask him about the browser interface), ZenDesk (customer service) and ServiceNow (a platform that includes a number of services including finance and HR).

“Every agency does have a core mission that has to be achieved by your owning software,” he says. “It can still be SaaS, but build it on a platform that demands rigour.” It’s easy to build garbage, he says, but the discipline of a good platform keeps staff from doing that. But, he adds few people want to be disciplined. So developers have to be given a toolset that is fully transportable. “That’s what I do. I don’t let people pick their own tools – which is the danger of something like AWS (Amazon Web Services). AWS has so many tools on it 80 per cent you would never put in production.”

Meanwhile, at the FCC operational and maintenance costs have been slashed from 85 per cent to 50 per cent, with the savings invested in modernization.

From Summerlin’s Rules: If you don’t celebrate wins no one else will — and if you have failures, make them fast and move forward quickly.



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