Go with the grain
- By William Jackson
- Apr 26, 2005
Passion, not technical expertise, drives USDA modernization
Chris Niedermayer, USDA
Chris Niedermayer did not have his eyes on the Agriculture Department's CIO office when he joined the department 28 years ago.
'I never thought I would end up here,' he said. 'I am not a technical guy, I'm really a programmatic person. But it really is the right kind of fit.'
Niedermayer is USDA's associate CIO for enterprise planning, project and information management. His forte, he said, is recognizing opportunities and charting a course to the value they offer.
'Business is 90 percent' of his job, he said. 'IT has no value whatsoever if you can't help people carry out their missions.'
That understanding is Niedermayer's strength as an IT manager, said Chris Durney, mentor and longtime friend.
'He is exceptionally savvy about the difference between information and information technology,' said Durney, who heads the change management and training practice of ICF Consulting Group Inc. of Fairfax, Va. 'He understands how to use technology in getting people to think about information.'
Since moving into the CIO suite in 2001, Niedermayer has been instrumental in developing USDA's eGovernment Strategic Plan, launching the department's Web portal, implementing an enterprisewide e-authentication service and establishing the AgLearn online training system. USDA is involved in 21 of the 25 e-government programs.
Niedermayer began his career as a grain inspector for a private company in Iowa. In 1976 USDA set new standards to beef up inspections of U.S. grain exports.
'They offered licensed grain inspectors the job,' Niedermayer said, and in 1977 he went to Galveston, Texas, as a USDA inspector.
By 1981 he was working with the Federal Grain Inspection Service at USDA headquarters in Washington. His introduction to IT came when he moved to the Stabilization and Conservation Service, which oversaw large loan programs.
'In a couple of years, I ended up in charge of the loan program,' he said. 'I was part of a team that tried to automate it. I learned a lot in that process.'On the trail
He learned enough to become a Trail Boss in the federal program established in 1988 to develop a cadre of IT executives to oversee complex IT systems over a 15-year modernization program.
He spent a lot of time trouble-shooting Agriculture's disaster relief programs in offshore U.S. possessions such as American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
'I spent a lot of time in the North and South Pacific,' he said. The romance of working in exotic locales quickly paled. 'The first time you go it's pretty neat. But by the sixth, seventh or eighth time, the trips are just killing you.'
By the time that work was wrapping up, the idea of electronic government began taking hold. 'So I got tapped for that,' he said.
In October 2001 he became associate CIO and led the development of the department's five-year strategic plan for e-government.
A hallmark of Niedermayer's style is broad inclusion in the planning process, both from end users and upper management.
'One of the reasons I was willing to follow him was because he is a great communicator,' said his assistant, Sandy Facinoli. 'He is passionate about it. That energy is what makes people feel that this can work.'
USDA has been a loose confederation of agencies, which has led to duplication of effort in many programs. A case in point is the department's Web presence. When Niedermayer became associate CIO, USDA's 29 agencies had some 12 million separate pages, requiring an estimated 200 full-time equivalent positions to manage. The quality of the pages ranged from 'really, really good to really, really bad.'
A move began toward a portal with a common look and feel.
'We figured we could do this work with about 25 full-time equivalents,' Niedermayer said.
Now, in the last two years of the department's five-year e-government plan, Niedermayer is ready to begin shifting his focus. The first part of the plan concentrated on infrastructures that enable use of IT, such as the Web portal.
'My next focus is on the strategic applications that use the infrastructures and consolidation of business processes.'
Cooperation is the key to changing business processes. Such projects often fail, he said.
'These things aren't free. People have to pay to move forward.'
Do these challenges ever make Niedermayer miss working in the field as a grain inspector?
'No,' he said. A series of grain elevator explosions in the late 1970s made him glad to move into the Grain Inspection Service's regional office in Chicago. 'I decided that was something I didn't need.'
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.