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White House CIO's first 40 days included 'worst day' ever

Patrick Thibodeau | March 14, 2012
Upon assuming his role as White House CIO, Brook Colangelo and his staff put in 80 hour weeks, "if not more.And in his first 40 days on the job, the White House email system was down 23% of the time.

As part of the process to upgrade White House IT operations, Colangelo held town halls with their customers, some whom were angry. "They had floppy drives -- I knew what they were going to say," he said.

The White House needed to replace much of the technology, including the email systems and storage area networks.

As part of the effort, the White House created new positions, including the "GOALIE," which is the Government Operations and Lead for Inspection and Execution. GOALIE employees worked 12 hour shifts to give 24 hour coverage of the data center and manage any crisis. Previously, the data center was only staffed from 9-to-5.

A year ago, in Feb. 2011, the White House suffered a nine-hour outage when its Sonet networking ring was cut, interrupting email and Internet access.

"I had to fax updates to the president while on the road - not a great thing to do," said Colangelo. "But it proved to be a very beneficial thing."

Colangelo said the outage allowed him to focus attention on the need for a disaster recovery data center. With a second data center accessible, "none of these issues would have happened," he said.

The White House now has a data recovery data center for its unclassified systems, which includes redundant email servers.

The White House IT office also worked to give mobile capability to staff.

The tech staff developed a Web-based portal to allow staff to access email and other services from home, "in a secure and records managed way," said Colangelo.

The mobility effort paid dividends when Washington was shut down for nearly a week in Feb. 2010 by two back-to-back blizzards that dumped several feet of snow. The White House had 60% of its staff online the entire week, said Colangelo.

The White House has since rolled out access to tablets for those employees who bring their own, and has rolled out support for more smartphones. It also rebuilt

"Our modernization program was very successful," said Colangelo. It included increasing Internet speeds over 300%, as well as reducing the number of assets at their end of life by over 50%.

Along with an absence of new technology and redundant systems, the White House operations also lacked automation tools for many record keeping tasks and processes.

Colangelo was also open to new ideas.

An intern in the Council of Economic Advisors, who had a computer science background but was working on projects unrelated to his training, sparked the effort. When asked to update a spreadsheet or a memo, he automated it using macros or some other type of technology to make it move faster.

The intern convinced Colangelo that there was a great need for automation.


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