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Where IT and HR Meet With Don Bauer of the State Department

Episode summary

Don Bauer has been pushing offices in the federal government forward in their software since the turn of the century.

“I was one of the co-founders of Quick Hire, which was one of the first commercially available staffing products for the federal government. Back in ’99, 2000, we were doing software as a service before it was a thing,” Don says.

After years of building programs for the National Park Service, NASA, the United States Digital Service and more, he now serves as the Chief Technology Officer for the Bureau of Global Talent Management at the U.S. Department of State, working at the intersection of HR and IT.

In this episode of Government Enabled, host Linda Sue Kirschner talks to Don about his role in the State Department, the challenges he has faced in recent years and how he’s managed to get the department to modernize.

t hasn’t always been easy given the security protocols and budget restrictions of federal agencies, but he’s made it his mission to transition the office to smooth, easy-to-use systems for HR management.

“Our mission is making our software as easy to use and as reliable as possible because when you’re in the field, it’s not your primary mission and you don’t need to be distracted by it,” he says.

Guest at-a-glance

Key insights

At the State Department, Don has been trying to push for the modernization of its customer service IT for years. However, it hasn’t been an easy or cheap undertaking. He finally decided two years ago to go directly to the source at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He told them their systems were at the end of their lives and they had no other choice at that point than to update. Luckily, the OMB said yes and started the process of modernization, which meant catching up to everyone else since they were so behind.

After working as an information system security officer in a previous role, Don knows how important it is to involve security when considering a new product or vendor. In his current job, he says HR workers don’t always think about the necessary security aspects, possibly because they work with so much personal data on a day-to-day basis. They forget about security assessments and FedRAMP certification. Therefore, he’s made it his responsibility to ensure that security professionals are involved in meetings with vendors and all the first steps of implementing new systems or products. “That has probably at least managed expectations better than most could for that very reason because there’s nothing worse than thinking you’re going to get this new technology to solve a problem only to find out that due to other constraints, you can’t buy,” he says.

People can’t become leaders if you always tell them what to do. With that in mind, Don tries to involve everyone in his office in decision-making. Although he makes the final decision, he believes it’s important to receive feedback from different perspectives while also empowering people to try new things, test ideas and take risks — at the right place and time, of course. This is part of the culture he tries to foster at his organization: one that puts the health and well-being of its employees first, making sure that they have a good work-life balance. “I don’t believe in that mandate of ‘You can’t take time off because you’re too important.’ You can’t put that much dependency on a single individual,” he says.

Episode Highlights

Where HR and software programming met

“We ended up with a contract to develop a hiring system for USDS, which ultimately became our product. Back before security assessment was a big deal and the only people doing this was USAJobs — at the time, an email-based job board — by developing this tool to do hiring for the government, my entire team learned HR. We became pretty good at understanding how Title 5 hiring gets done because we were writing software to support it.”

Learning the language of HR

“The biggest challenge that I faced professionally doing HR is the culture of HR itself. This has nothing to do with the people; it has to do with their language of communication. If you’re with a private-sector person and you talk ‘government’ at all, throwing around all these acronyms, the non-government people are like, ‘What are you talking about? You just said alphabet soup in three sentences; you listed like 20 acronyms.’ Well similarly, HR has its own language, too, and it may not be full of acronyms, but it is about the process and how complicated and sophisticated the government hiring rules are.”

A new approach to security post-COVID

“This whole COVID thing? Game changer for security for organizations. Where you used to go into your little office and just sit there inside your little bubble and do your job, now, magically, IT departments are being required to go to cloud or provide remote access. Now cybersecurity is everybody’s concern. I think there’s a convergence to some degree, that new way of looking at things, that convergence is now happening in that cyber world because now it’s everybody’s concern. I think I saw a metric one time that the State Department defends half a million attacks a day. That similarly is now happening to the rank-and-file business, and it’s typically ransomware where they get you. They earn their way through your network, then say, ‘Pay us or we’re going to wipe out all your data.’ And that means something to everyone; that’s not unique to the federal government.”

Adapting to the times and updating tech systems

“The State Department was one of the last federal agencies to embrace technology in general. It’s not catching up. It is embracing the new technology. In other words, they were intentionally not on the internet. I’ve been at the State Department a little over four years, and in the last four years, they have made leaps and bounds, I think out of necessity more than anything else. Then COVID just put a huge shot in the behind, and we went from [limited functionality and limited use] to 100% telework in six weeks, which was quite a challenge.”

From hardware servers to cloud: the evolution of data storage

“Cloud has changed the face of government. Back in the early 2000s, you were online, but you had to buy your own hardware then you handed it off to the data center, and the data center would take your hardware, install it, and then you own your server and you could put your software on it and you had to follow the rules — but it was yours. At some point, data centers got full because everybody’s online and they’re like, ‘We don’t have any more outlets.’ They literally ran out of power outlets to plug things into and physically put harbors. Then that whole virtualized world showed up. But [cloud] forced you to go to a consumption-based model, and the government has never been good at consumption-based pricing because we do our budgets in advance.”

Knowing your users and designing for their work environment

“All my bosses are Foreign Service Officers, and they’ve been in Baghdad and Afghanistan posts where you’re looking over your shoulder every time you hear a loud noise. He [one boss] said, ‘I just want it to work.’ That was kind of a profound statement that says, this stuff should be intuitive, easy to use. It shouldn’t be buggy. I took that to heart, and … that’s where we’re at with our mission: making our software as easy to use and as reliable as possible because when you’re in the field, it’s not your primary mission and you don’t need to be distracted by it.”