July 20, 2009, 4:25 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I got here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
If ever an enterprise IT executive embodied the spirit of service, then Gopal Khanna would be that person. Gopal's sense of community was borne from a childhood in Kanpur, India, where he grew up in a household with four generations of family living under the same roof. Today his service-orientation manifests itself as Gopal tirelessly advocates a collaborative approach to government IT with the aim of better serving, and protecting, U.S. citizens. Though he calls Minnesota home today, his view is global. Not only does Gopal lead the state's IT initiatives, but he currently heads the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) and previously served as CIO for the Peace Corps. Throughout his career, Gopal says he has had many mentors but that still he turns to his family for inspiration. His father and grandfather, in particular, have been great role models – caring, loving and willing to give of themselves to family, friends and –yes – community.
What were you like as a child and have any of those traits manifested themselves in your role as CIO?
I was raised in a household with four generations of my family. The environment was loving and respectful with a strong focus on education, hard work and professional excellence. I was also given a strong sense of community that taught me about the duty of service to others. I also was blessed to have attended an all-boys boarding school with students from many races, ethnicities and cultures. Everyone was treated with respect and you were expected to do the same. I've tried to uphold that approach to leadership in my role as CIO.
When did you realize you wanted a career in IT?
It wasn't a direct decision, but more of a path that emerged early on as I was starting my business career. The credit goes to my wife, Anjali, who after finishing an IT course at New York University encouraged me to attend as well. She felt my analytical and problem-solving mindset, mathematical orientation and business acumen would be well suited for a career in technology. I hadn't really thought of it on my own until that point. She turned out be correct.
How did your career begin?
A corporate headhunter asked my wife if she knew anyone with an MBA who was proficient with IT systems and finance. That happened to be me so I went for an interview. I got the job on the spot and became a financial systems analyst for the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), the rate-making body for the workers' compensation industry. At NCCI I had the great fortune of working with some fine mentors and IT professionals. I quickly became a manager of planning and control and then director of strategic planning. Finally I was appointed director of data processing operations.
How did you get from NCCI to Minnesota?
I was recruited out of NCCI in Boca Raton, Fla., in 1990 and joined the American Hardware Insurance Group, in Minnetonka, Minn., as vice president of IS – responsible for developing and deploying mission-critical systems. Eventually I became vice president of all IT functions and administration – serving as CIO. In 1996, I helped found International Technology Consultants, an IT management and consulting firm. We specialized in providing Fortune 1000 companies with business process improvement, project management and software product development services. Then in 2002 I was asked to serve in the administration of President George W. Bush; first as the CIO and CFO of the Peace Corps and then as CFO of EOP/Office of Administration. Finally, in 2005, Governor Tim Pawlenty appointed me as the state of Minnesota's first CIO and head of the Office of Enterprise Technology (OET). I was re-appointed in 2007.
Tell me more about your Peace Corps experience and how it helped shape your leadership style.
I served during a historic time for the Peace Corps following 9/11. It was my job to help build and structure the organization to enable it to grow when its services were needed most. During my tenure, the Peace Corps attained its highest level of funding and its greatest number of volunteers in 30 years. We deployed a worldwide financial system that aided 8,000 volunteers in 72 countries. And for the first time in its 43 years to date at the time, we submitted an audited financial statement to Congress.
During the Bush administration, the Peace Corps became more reflective of the true face of America. We had more Hispanic, African-American, Native-American and Asian-American volunteers than ever before. People around the world started seeing America in a different light; as a diverse, pluralistic nation. It is a very powerful message and it left an indelible mark on me.
Do you have any advice about following the Peace Corps path for young people with IT aspirations?
Many of the communities that the Peace Corps serves look to technology as a tool for economic development and better governance. There is definitely a place for IT-minded young people in the Peace Corps.
What advice do you have for future IT leaders in general?
Future leaders – whether they go into the IT field or any other line of work – will need to have multidimensional skills and have worked in – and be able to work with – the private sector, the public sector and non-government organizations. The major challenges of tomorrow cannot be solved by applying solutions from a single institutional focus. There must be a convergence and coming together of all sectors to make societal improvements. Multidimensional service-work experiences are what will truly position today's young people to be the leaders we will need tomorrow.
You've taken your state leadership role to the national level with NASCIO. How did you get involved with the organization?
Shortly after my initial appointment as Minnesota's CIO, I was asked to attend a NASCIO conference in San Diego. I was ambivalent about attending, but from my first exposure to NASCIO and seeing the work being done by my fellow CIOs I was blown away by their commitment to good government and improving government operations. My first exposure to NASCIO was one of the most gratifying professional educational experiences of my life.
What are your goals for NASCIO?
I have tried to build a strong working relationship with the National Governors Association, the National Council of State Legislatures and President Obama's administration. Through increased engagement with all these stakeholder groups, we can provide better IT services to governors and legislative bodies by taking a more standardized and collaborative approach to managing the public's IT assets.
What are your personal highlights providing Minnesota's IT leadership?
I hope I've been able to put forth a clear vision for the role of technology in our state. Our 10-year master plan and our white paper on alternative strategic funding sources will articulate a path to sustainable funding for securing and modernizing our state's digital infrastructure. This paradigm shift will be key to making people think of IT not as a cost center, but as a resource center; and from a public policy and governance perspective, a horizontal "program" that needs to be able to serve citizens better in the digital cyber world we live in. I've also focused on creating a nation-leading cyber-security program that will put Minnesota among the public-sector leaders in safeguarding the public's information and digital infrastructure.
Also, we've been able to institute internal reforms and best practices that will make the Office of Enterprise Technology (OET) a more high-performing and customer-centric department.
Lastly, we've enabled the executive branch and outside government agencies to realize $140 million in cost-avoidance savings through standardization processes and creating a strong and evolving collaboration system.
What's next for you? Do you have an exit strategy in place?
I haven't given too much thought to what I'm going to do next. I'm having too much fun doing what I'm doing now.