Meet the StateScoop 50 GoldenGov Nominees: Virginia Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson

One of the key leaders of Gov. Terry McAuliffe's IT efforts discusses her work over the last year.
Karen Jackson, right

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has long worked to make IT a key part of his agenda, and Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson has helped lead the charge in his administration.

Over the last year, Jackson has teamed up with the governor to put a huge focus on cybersecurity efforts in particular, which McAuliffe sees as crucial to bringing jobs to the region as part of a plan he calls the “New Virginia Economy.”

Jackson has spearheaded these efforts to work with lawmakers to allocate funds for cybersecurity education in the state, in addition to crafting policy on a whole host of other tech issues.

She earned a nomination for a StateScoop 50 GoldenGov award as part of that work, and she caught up with StateScoop briefly to dive into the details of her last year on the job.


Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

StateScoop: Tell us about some of your main achievements over the past year that may have resulted in your nomination for a GoldenGov award.

Karen Jackson: During the past year, we have worked hard to advance Virginia’s “New Virginia Economy” across two primary vectors — cybersecurity and unmanned systems. Working for a governor who understands the importance of cyber and the potential of autonomy is key to our accomplishments. Under his leadership, we have positioned the commonwealth to be a national leader through the creation of a holistic environment that not only advances our ability to secure the commonwealth assets, but also allows us to develop new industries that are foundational to the “New Virginia Economy.”

The governor issued two executive orders — the first related to securing consumer transactions and the second dedicated to expanding cyber-related risk management activities. We also secured funding to create a cybersecurity shared services center in the Virginia Information Technologies Agency.

Virginia was the first state to declare itself an information sharing and analysis organization and provide funding for initiating the process, and hosted two topical events — one on cyber and education, and the second on cyber and unmanned systems.


Virginia was also the first state to conduct a humanitarian package delivery by drone in rural Virginia, and we’ve worked with the attorney general’s office and the Legislature to pass seven pieces of cyber-related legislation.

If you’ll note, I use “we” and “us” rather than I, because this is a team effort. I think the fact that the governor, CIO Nelson Moe, CISO Mike Watson and I are all nominated (along with others) shows that this is truly a team effort with support coming from the highest level.

SS: What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time in your role? What’s still left to be done?  

KJ: It is difficult to pick just one. Making progress in emerging and quickly evolving industries is an iterative process that requires constant attention and diligence.

I am proud that Virginia now has the reputation (in the respective marketplaces) of being a leader when it comes to both unmanned systems and cyber. What’s next? We are working to blend our activities in cyber and autonomy to build opportunities related to the Internet of Things, cyber and physical systems, and cyber and autonomous systems.


SS: What’s been the biggest challenge you guys have faced in the past year? How’d you overcome it? 

KJ: The biggest challenge is the timing and the pace at which these industries are evolving. Government processes, policy and budget cycles make it difficult to keep up with the pace of innovation and the need to constantly evolve to combat new threats and seize new opportunities. Creativity is how we’ve managed to overcome them. We’ve used every tool in our toolbox to keep up the momentum.

We’ve used executive action, repurposed funding (where possible) and realigned personnel, in addition to the traditional budget/legislative process to keep up the forward momentum.

SS: Why public service? What lessons would you like to share with the next generation of state and local IT leaders?    

KJ: I’ve spent the past 20 years of my career in public service and it has been a most rewarding experience. There are few careers that allow you to go to work every day and focus on how you can make our citizens’ lives better.   


When you see your work come to fruition and lives being impacted, it is so satisfying to know that one person can make a difference.  

As for lessons to be shared, don’t be a lone ranger. It is much easier to accomplish challenging tasks with a team.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of action: Get things done.

I’ll also steal one from my boss — “Be bold, try big things. It is better to try and fail than not to try at all.”

SS: What advice do you have for next year’s eventual class of GoldenGov nominees?  


KJ: Keep pushing the envelope. Government is undergoing a myriad of changes at the hand of disruptive technologies and citizens who are demanding more. And, have fun on the journey.    

This Q&A is part of a StateScoop series highlighting the nominees for the StateScoop 50 GoldenGov award. Winners of the StateScoop 50 awards will be announced on May 4.

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