Top of the deck
NIH's David Songco has a long track record of being a step ahead of the game
- By Edmund X. DeJesus
- Apr 26, 2006
I love tough. If it was easy, they'd give it to someone else.'
What do Texas hold'em poker and IT program management have in common? For David C. Songco, CIO of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health, there are important connections.
Poker is one of Songco's many hobbies, which he indulges both online and with occasional trips to Atlantic City and Las Vegas. But Songco's 46-year career in IT, mostly at NIH, also illustrates some key principles of poker strategy.
In poker, you don't play every hand you're dealt, but learn to recognize the good hands to stick with. Songco has shown an amazing ability to recognize the good hands in his career, and play them well.Hardscrabble start
The son of a Philippine immigrant, he grew up in a rough section of Washington and started his government work'and his connection with IT'while he was still a student at the University of Maryland.
'At the Bureau of the Census, he sometimes had to climb into their room-sized computers to replace vacuum tubes,' according to William Risso, a long-time colleague, past director of computing at NIH and now an industry consultant.
Songco stayed at Census three years. After graduation, he moved to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where he saw his next good hand: mid-size computers, for which he created interfaces to analog and digital systems processing satellite data.
In 1967, he started at NIH, where he has remained.
'Many of those working on big iron resisted change, believing computers would stay inside the glass house,' Songco recalled. But he could see the next wave and was determined to ride it. 'The only constant is change. You have to stay flexible.'
At the newly founded NIH Computer Systems Lab in Bethesda, Md., Songco teamed up with a blind colleague who was a programmer. Together they created the first voice terminal for the blind, which Songco still regards as one of his best accomplishments.
Again, he recognized the next big thing'personal computers'early on. 'Dave was pushing to get what he called personal workstations'Wang and IBM word processors'onto people's desks, before the Apple and IBM PCs were invented,' Risso said.
'I've always liked to do start-ups,' Songco commented. 'There's an excitement about it.'
Also significant was a challenge from long-time friend and colleague Robert Martino, now director of the Division of Computational Biology at NIH, to start graduate school'a decision that made management a possibility.
When PCs did arrive, then-director Arnold (Scotty) Pratt gave him the chance to move into a managerial role. 'Dave founded and headed the NIH's Personal Workstation Office, going on to become assistant director of the Division of Computer Research and Technology,' said long-time friend Perry S. Plexico, senior adviser to the NIH CIO. Songco grew the PC group from six workers to 80 in a short time, and he discovered another poker-related principle: Learn to judge people. 'I look for people who are passionate about their work,' he said. 'Then I can empower them and support them.'
Many describe Songco as a leader, not a manager. 'Dave accomplishes his project objectives, but his people advance also, making them even more capable for the next project,' said Brenda K. Ecken, a senior associate with Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. and program manager for the National Children's Study at NIH.
Former employee Dale Spangenberg, now CIO of Frederick County, Md., said, 'Dave taught me from the beginning that leadership was something to be studied and developed throughout your career. Technical skills will only get you so far.'LAN plans
Another Songco 'good hand' was recognizing the importance of interconnecting PCs. 'Dave was developing standards for local area networks before there were even networks,' noted Risso. Songco has also been on the leading edge of incorporating WAN, Internet and wireless technologies for NIH users.
Songco said he also sees managing IT programs as poker-related. 'You have to look at return on investment for both. You can't fund every idea'just like you can't play every hand'but if the potential is good, you go with it.'
Currently, Songco is the CIO for the National Children's Study, the largest and most in-depth study of children's health ever conducted.
'I love tough,' said Songco, whose strategy is to proactively anticipate problems and solutions. 'If it was easy, they'd give it to someone else.'
Despite the demands of his long career in government, Songco has always made it a priority to make it home for dinner with his three children and his wife, Nancy, with whom he recently celebrated his fortieth wedding anniversary. 'You need a life,' he advises. 'You can't let yourself burn out.'
While enjoying his work for NCS, Songco looks forward to his next career as a semi-professional poker player. 'I can beat the bad players, and I can stay away from the pros,' he jokes. Has Songco found a winning strategy? You can bet on it. n
Edmund X. DeJesus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance technical writer in Norwood, Mass.