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Bob Woods: The collaboration artist

Don’t tell Bob Woods it can’t be done.

“I tend to run toward fires,” he said. “I tend to want a tougher challenge, not the ordinary. And it isn’t just the technology piece I like. It’s creativity in both the business and technology side.”

Woods’s appetite for action has been primed throughout a four-decades-long career that has taken him from roles as a Navy engineering specialist to executive IT appointments at the Transportation and Veterans Affairs departments and the General Services Administration.

Along the way, a lot of his work involved getting people to understand technology well enough to support funding IT programs. It wasn’t easy. Early in his career, people were just learning the basics of IT.

“People couldn’t decide whether to call it EDP — electronic data processing — or ADP — automatic data processing,” Woods recalled. “Almost no one called it IT.” At the FAA, where Woods began working in 1972 on air traffic control, technology was being acquired only in bits and pieces.

“It was almost like going to a junk yard,” Woods said. “You built it with whatever you found. Literally, we had engineers go to Radio Shack to buy parts.”

Yet he had a knack for getting people to collaborate on complex projects. “I think his major contribution has been in bringing people together and getting to work toward a common vision,” said Kenneth Allen, executive director of the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council, who noted Woods brings to the government IT market, “a commitment to public service, a reputation for integrity, an affection for people, a thick skin and a kinship with Aesop.”

The “Aesop” reference underscores “the fact that Bob can tell entertaining stories, often with a moral, without criticizing or making fun of anyone,” Allen said.

Those traits have come in handy in several IT management high-wire roles Woods has held. In 1984, he became head of the FAA’s IT programs, and led a Herculean effort to closely integrate IT into FAA’s mission.

In 1987, Woods left FAA for the Transportation Department, where he turned around an IT shop that he said had “melted down.” He then moved to the Veterans Affairs Department as deputy assistant secretary for information resources management. In the mid-1990s, he was named commissioner of the General Service Administration’s Federal Technology Service. In 1997, Woods founded the Topside Consulting Group.

Over the years, Woods learned that change in government can’t be driven with a sledgehammer. “The biggest issue overall has been to gently challenge a bureaucracy to go beyond its boundaries and force it to think in a different way without burning the house down,” Woods said.

While many executives espouse such ideals, it is more than just a theory to Woods. “Bob’s commitment to collaboration and leadership has been a driving force in the public-private partnerships that are so vital today,” Allen said.

About the Author

Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in Maryland.

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