Careers inside the Beltway can last decades, even span an individual’s entire career from entry-level to retirement. But for these executives, there came a moment when they instead wanted out of the Beltway and along the Technology Corridor of 66-West. Retiring from a long career in public service to one more quiet and out of the public eye is a decision many are making.
Former Dept. of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Information Technology Roger Baker, now the Chief Strategy Officer for Agilex Technologies, explains what led him to leave the government side for the private sector, addresses his new role and offers advice for others thinking of making the switch.
WashingtonExec: You recently left government for a second time, following a four-year stint at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. How is your transition going – any surprises?
Roger Baker: As you mentioned, this is my second “retirement” from government so I knew what to expect. As a matter of fact, most of my 35-year career has been in the private sector, working with a number of high tech firms. This was like going home.
For those that work incredibly hard in the private sector, it’s hard to explain how the public sector can be different. But the hours are incredibly long, and it’s a seven-day a week job. And you’re constantly dealing with high-tension issues that have potential to impact millions of Americans.
WashingtonExec: Why did you decide to leave the VA, and what drove you to continue to support government from the private sector?
Roger Baker: Quite frankly, after four years in a position like Assistant Secretary at VA, you’re spent. Those that can stay longer than that and be productive amaze me. The pace is incredible. For those that work incredibly hard in the private sector, it’s hard to explain how the public sector can be different. But the hours are incredibly long, and it’s a seven-day a week job. And you’re constantly dealing with high-tension issues that have potential to impact millions of Americans.
WashingtonExec: What would your colleagues say were your top three accomplishments while at Veterans Affairs? What do you consider your top three accomplishments while there?
Roger Baker: First, I hope that they would say that I was a good colleague to work with.
I also think that when you consider my tenure, you have to consider what stuck. That’s the criteria that you have to use – what difference did you really make? For example, VA today delivers more than 80 percent of its IT projects on schedule. I think that people universally would agree it was a huge change. And this cultural change has stuck at VA.
The other thing that you have to consider is what happened as a result of this change. We developed several IT systems that are making an incredible difference for veterans under these new approaches. The New GI Bill system is helping more than one million veterans attend college and get paid successfully. An even larger system – the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) – was delivered six months ahead of schedule. For a $1 billion program in the federal government, this is unheard of. And as a result, we were able to have a faster impact on the disability claims backlog that VA has struggled with for years.
WashingtonExec: What is your biggest challenge or focus as Chief Strategy Officer for Agilex?
Roger Baker: Agilex is trying to be a slightly different kind of company in this marketplace. We want to build our success by using cutting-edge technologies and approaches to deliver better results.
The reason that I say slightly different is that I think that a lot of companies are trying to do something similar. Where Agilex has been able to distinguish itself is doing these things consistently and at scale across a number of federal agencies. This success is what’s fueling our incredible growth.
As Chief Strategy Officer, I’m focused on scaling our current company into a $1 billion market leader of tomorrow while preserving all of the qualities that make us successful today. Within this focus, there are any number of challenges. How do we ensure day-to-day quality across a larger company? What new technologies do we need to embrace? What other approaches should we adopt? How do we demonstrate to customers that there’s a subtle but significant difference in our approach over our competitors? Fortunately, these are the issues that I consider the fun part of the job.
WashingtonExec: What is something that you’ve learned since your transition to the private sector that you didn’t realize initially?
Roger Baker: I’ve spent most of my career in the private sector so no real surprises personally.
If I had to pick something, I guess that I would say the lack of understanding outside of government for the challenges that federal employees face and how hard they work. The contractor community sort of recognizes this, but there are also gaps. With the general public, the number of misperceptions is amazing.
WashingtonExec: What are your goals for Agilex while in your new role?
Roger Baker: Our goal is to become a $1 billion company while continuing to have a significant and positive impact on how federal agencies operate. If we achieve those objectives, I know that I’ve been successful.
WashingtonExec: Do you believe a public sector executive’s top leadership qualities differ from a private sector executive’s leadership qualities? If so, how?
Roger Baker: No, not really. What does matter is how you deal with the politics and the bureaucracy inherent in government. I’ve seen brilliant private sector leaders check-out of public service after just six months, dismayed by the number of additional obstacles that they have to navigate here.
So the skills are the same, but public sector executives may need more patience to deal with the frustrations that come with the job.
I should add that if the lows are lower in the public sector, the highs are higher. There is a huge sense of accomplishment when you are able to have an impact in government.
WashingtonExec: Did you have any mentors or individuals who deeply influenced who you are or your decision to stand at the head of where you are now?
Roger Baker: That’s a very long list that goes back decades.
However, there is one that I’d like to call-out. Ric Shinseki, the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs. If you’re working for a national hero, you’re going to learn things along the way. Specifically, his approach to dealing with the very difficult mission issues of Veteran Affairs. And his dedication to the individual veteran or as he phrased it, “the boys that I sent into battle.” I learned a lot about how to approach incredibly difficult decisions from Ric Shinseki.
WashingtonExec: What is your best piece of advice to those thinking about remaining in federal or enter the private sector?
Roger Baker: Be prepared to go back and forth between the public and private sector frequently. There is so much to learn on each side.
Those working in the private sector with the government should know what it is like to be a government employee and the challenges that they face.
For those in government, they need to spend some time in the private sector, taking advantage of the opportunity to see the latest technologies and working with cutting-edge practices and bring that back to government.
WashingtonExec: Do you see yourself “boomeranging back” to the public sector?
Roger Baker: I am an admitted “govaholic” and have enjoyed my time in public service tremendously. And while I love what I’m doing today, especially the ability to impact so many different government missions, I wouldn’t close the door completely on a return to public service down the road.
WashingtonExec: What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Roger Baker: Maybe that I worked my way through college on the steel gang for the Grand Trunk railroad. And yes, the steel gang is as physically hard as you’d imagine. Good to remember when you’re having a tough day later in life.
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