Appian VP Chris O’Connell Outlines Plan for Federal Innovation; Discusses Journalism Background

Chris O'Connell, Appian

Chris O’Connell, Appian

Constrained federal budgets coupled with increasing cyber security threats have led some government agencies to rest on their laurels when it comes to bringing innovation into the federal landscape. But Chris O’Connell, Appian Corporation’s vice president of federal sales, says that’s no excuse.

The former Reuters news producer’s plan for fostering innovation involves minimizing O&M costs through the use of cloud and mobile technologies and social business collaboration.

“I think oftentimes in the federal arena it’s very easy to use cyber security as a crutch for not doing anything new and innovative,” O’Connell told us last month in an interview. “But really there is a lot of opportunity in the federal government for non-classified work, non-sensitive material for citizen-facing services and for internal processes of mission critical components within agencies that can be done on mobile devices, which can be done with new technology that will improve performance, and that will improve service delivery.”

O’Connell has spent the majority of his career in federal consulting, despite getting his start in journalism. He said working for the world’s largest news agency taught him early on how to ask the right questions to gather information and communicate effectively– skills he now uses in his post at Appian.

“My training as a journalist taught me how to go into very complex situations, that can sometimes be politically motivated, and ask the right questions to quickly assess what is at the core of an issue or challenge,” O’Connell said. “That fact-finding is really key to consulting. Taking that skill, and then being able to apply a technical acumen, and a heart for doing service for our citizens, consulting really turned out to be a great career choice for me as I moved into the federal arena trying to drive innovative solutions to the problems of the federal government.”


“The government actually needs to be innovative in order to cut down on that long, burdensome life cycle cost that’s weighing them down, so they can turn some of that precious budget back to the new modern technologies that are available like cloud and mobile and start investing in long-term, cost-effective solutions”


Because cyber security will always be critical, the security around BYOD policies spans many levels, and O’Connell said agencies should evolve their standards as technology evolves.

“You need to stay vigilant to protect the applications at every level; the data level, application level and then at the end device as well,” O’Connell said.

But that doesn’t mean innovation is impossible. The key for government, O’Connell said, will be reducing the O&M cost from legacy systems and custom developed applications that consume a large portion of the budget and using that money to implement more efficient technologies like cloud and mobile in the long term.

“I suggest leveraging cloud and the mobile technologies that are out there but also doing them in a smart way so that the agencies aren’t spending the extra cycles in order to try to fund it and then even more so keep it up as technology continues to evolve,” O’Connell said.

For cloud, that means instantly deploying the new technologies rather than waiting months to build up an infrastructure. He said government agencies struggle with the cost of deploying mobile to all devices, and suggested they instead lay the challenges on vendors.

“Let the vendors provide the technology to deploy to all mobile devices so that agencies aren’t developing either in-house expertise or paying numerous contractors to deploy different code for every type of device, or building up HTML5 expertise which doesn’t deliver the same performance and has some security flaws behind it,” O’Connell said.

“I think there’s been less innovation put out in the government because of the number of years spent building these large ridged ERP and custom developed applications. You see agencies’ budgets are just hamstrung by the O&M costs associated with these legacy systems which can end up being 80-85 percent of the total lifecycle cost,” O’Connell said. “The government actually needs to be innovative in order to cut down on that long, burdensome life cycle cost that’s weighing them down, so they can turn some of that precious budget back to the new modern technologies that are available like cloud and mobile and start investing in long-term, cost-effective solutions.”

Social business also offers value to federal agencies in search of innovation, O’Connell said, as it allows agencies to collaborate in order to establish and share their best practices

The notion of the collaboration hinges on the notion that taking advantage of the intuitive zero-training interface of today’s social technologies can drive faster and more meaningful collaboration among agencies.

“The ease of collaboration across the knowledge workers in the federal government is something that really hasn’t been available because people have been heads down in individual applications doing their day-to-day work. What we’ve seen with social is if you tie it to business, to work, to the actual processes, data and the mission of the federal agency – now you can collaborate across and gather the wisdom of the entire organization to make better decisions, to be able to react more rapidly to the needs of the people that they are serving,” O’Connell said. “I think social technology is more of a delivery mechanism in the way people are going to interact and collaborate in the future. I think that needs to be applied to business solutions and that’s what we’ve been focused on here at Appian.”

Overall, O’Connell emphasized the need for the federal side to adopt technologies being used on the commercial side to provide efficiencies. His advice to federal CIOs hoping to reduce enterprise architecture?

“Stop coding. Stop building one-time applications. Stop integrating 20 different products in order to do one specific thing. There are modern agile platforms, there are efficiencies to be gained, that can deliver mission services with no code, to all devices, in the cloud, on premise or in a hybrid approach. There are platforms with a simple user interface that’s easy to understand, that will increase collaboration, will improve decisions, and ultimately, provide better service to their constituents.”



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