The FCC’s CIO uses a D.H. Lawrence poem to explain our digital future

A quarter of an hour is not a long time to describe the scale of the Internet’s growth and its long-term impact on the planet, but you can’t say David Bray didn’t make the most of his fifteen minutes.

Offering what he described as the keynote speech equivalent of an “expresso shot,” the CIO of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission appeared near the end of the Canadian Telecom Summit’s first day. Beyond the educational value of what he provided the audience, he also managed to shatter any perception that IT leaders are best left in a back room somewhere working out vendor agreements. This was technology showmanship at its best and most compact. Here’s what stood out and how other CIOs could incorporate similar techniques when they get their big moment before the board, a customer or a major industry event:

Brand your ideas, not just yourself: Although CIOs, like other executives, have often been advised to create a brand identity to reflect their strengths, Bray managed to capture his theme with a catchphrase (from Latin!) that was instantly memorable. “Terra incognita,” he explained, refers to “unknown land,” and it’s a good metaphor to describe the unmappable Internet and the exponential growth of technology like smartphones and broadband connections. In some respects, the job of a CIO is occasionally to help others recognize not only what technology can do, but what we don’t yet know about its potential. By looking backwards through history and forward to growth forecasts, Bray made it clear why studying digital phenomena and having an action plan is so critical.

Use language you would never expect to hear from a CIO: The Canadian Telecom Summit audience probably wasn’t surprised to see Bray discuss statistics and terms such as “cyber,” but he built upon his terra incognita theme by referencing — and reciting — a poem by D.H. Lawrence of the same name. Sample verse:

Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement

of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices 

there is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty

The effect was to make the challenges of technology seem both timeless and somehow noble.

Explain the philosophy that’s baked into your approach: There have been lots of CIOs who have stood up and discussed their success stories with customers, but what’s often missing is a deeper reflection on the culture or values that drove the project. Bray used the same of an Internet speed test app the FCC developed. Given the scandal over the NSA and public-sector snooping, Bray admitted that there were probably some trust issues to be overcome. That’s why trust was a cornerstone of the strategy.

“We decided to make that app open source, so people could easily see what the code does,” he said. “You could see that the IP address is not visible and that we didn’t collect it.” The terms and conditions were kept simple and everything behind the app was available on the open source repository GitHub.

The results? 50,000 downloads in the first month and the fourth most-downloaded iOS app in the next few months. Bray called this an example of “building a bridge to the public,” and it wouldn’t be difficult to see many of his peers taking a similar route in their own industries.

Ditch pie charts for visuals that actually explain something: Bray wanted to give a sense of how quickly and massively the Web is spreading. Although he talked about the IPv4 addressing protocol and its much-needed successor, IPv6, he went a step way beyond that by showing two images that really said it all. If you took all the IPV4 addresses in use today and compressed them as much as you could, he said, they might fit into something the size of a beach ball. In about two years, the world of IPv6 addresses would fill something the size of the sun.

Bray also managed to touch on the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and much more, but perhaps his most important message was to harness the capabilities that are already within reach.

“A smartphone today has more power than the U.S. pentagon had in 1980,” he said, “and soon you will get it for less than $49. This is the kind of resources that used to only be in the hands of advanced nation states. We can use these for hard problems, for ways to collaborate better.”

Photo by Howard Solomon

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Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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