The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 13, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Dec. 8.
Next is DOD Government Executive of the Year finalist Raj Iyer, who’s chief information officer at the Department of the Army. Here, he talks career turning points, learning from failures, proud career moments and more.
What key achievements did you have in 2020/2021?
When the Army realigned the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the G-6 into two separate offices, I was honored to be selected for the Senior Executive Service and named the first civilian Army CIO.
I successfully established the new office of the CIO with a new vision and mission statement to align with Army priorities for modernization, readiness, reform, and people and partnerships.
We established the Army’s first-ever Digital Transformation Strategy and a new governance structure called the Army Digital Oversight Council to oversee the $15 billion annual digital budget.
We successfully established full operational capability for a secure and resilient commercial cloud for unclassified and classified workloads as well as migrated over 300 systems to the cloud that includes the Army’s three complex ERP systems.
What has made you successful in your current role?
I always seek to think outside the box and push the status quo as a change agent and a big believer in enterprisewide transformation and culture change to innovate at scale. We cannot advance the Army and win the future fight if we think and act the same way we always have. Going digital is a mindset, and it requires a fundamental culture change of how the Army operates.
I’m here to advance the reality of that culture change and ensure every member of our digital workforce understands what the future means for them.
I also challenge myself, my office and my peers to take a listening-first approach. We need people — from soldiers on the ground to industry leaders — to tell us what we are doing wrong and what we can do better.
What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?
Making the decision to accept the position as the Army’s CIO is probably the hardest but almost most impactful in my 30-year career.
After my first 10 years in federal service, I returned to industry with no expectations of returning. However, when I received the call to duty from the Army secretary last year, I knew it was my obligation to go back to public service.
The Army is at an inflection point today after 20 years of wars in the Middle East and in the midst of a modernization effort of scale that is a first in its 246-year history. It also comes at a time when our critical infrastructure, networks, systems and data are being hacked at an aggressive pace by our adversaries.
I knew this was my time again to serve the nation and give back to this country that has given me everything.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
The Office of the CIO just established the Army Digital Transformation Strategy — the overarching framework to drive all aspects of the Army towards its goals of being a more ready, lethal and modern force by 2028. We are directly shaping the future Army by challenging ourselves to think differently about what is needed to achieve digital transformation.
What are your primary focuses going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
Operationalizing the ATDS is my top priority, focusing on three key areas: modernization and readiness, reform, and people and partnerships. The Army must lead the way to achieve digital overmatch against our adversaries, but we cannot do it alone.
The future fight will challenge our nation across all domains — air, land, maritime, space and cyberspace — and we must be ready to advance joint multidomain operations around the globe. Executing the vision laid out in the ADTS will advance critical cloud, data, network and cyber capabilities, enabled through process and policy reform and a prepared digital workforce.
How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders?
For the Army to be successful with digital transformation, we have to reskill and upskill our digital workforce of the future. That is why we made that a key objective in the ADTS.
We are currently working on a digital workforce strategy to address how we are going to recruit, retain and deploy skill sets in cloud, data, AI, cyber and software development.
A number of initiatives are being planned right now, including a digital talent marketplace that can help link our workforce with remote projects using interns crowdsourcing, as well as greater training and collaboration with industry through detail assignments and rotations.
What’s one key thing you learned from a failure you had?
Never give up. As a change agent, sometimes, you are in front of others and they may not see the immediate value in your efforts and vision for the future. But it’s important to continue to drive a sense of urgency and build a coalition of the willing who can partner with you.
Change never happens top down and you will need an army of ambassadors to help drive change in a large organization.
Finally, I always count on my mentors to help me through my failures. I know I can count on them to keep me straight and advise me on how to move forward.
Which rules do you think you should break more as a government/industry leader?
Continue to push to reduce the bureaucracy. While not all bureaucracy is bad, it’s important to understand where they can add value and where they don’t.
Being bold and speaking the truth is important especially when it’s so easy for group think in a bureaucracy.
What’s the biggest professional risk you’ve ever taken?
I co-founded my own software startup company right after college and ran that quite successfully for almost 10 years while my peers in college decided to take up traditional jobs in large companies. I learned so much on the job then that continues to help me today.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
I have managed to leave behind a great reputation of honesty, professionalism and high ethical values that people that have worked with me continue to echo today.
What was your biggest career struggle and how did you overcome it?
My biggest struggle early in my career was to break out of my introverted character. I realized moving through senior leadership roles that as a leader, you have to share positive energy, enthusiasm and excitement with your workforce.
This cannot come if you lock yourself in your office or cubicle and are not able to communicate with your peers and staff. I had to work hard to turn myself into an ambivert by putting myself in uncomfortable positions so I could break out of the introversion.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t be afraid of taking up new positions and assignments that make you uncomfortable. You can learn a lot about yourself when challenged in ways to help you grow and develop.