You don’t often get a chance to chat with a former chief information officer of an entire country — especially one the size and power of the United States of America.

So when I saw Vivek Kundra at a preconference reception tonight for Technonomy Detroit, I had to ask: What was it like?

Kundra was the first CIO for the U.S., serving under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011. Born in India, his family moved to Washington, DC when he was 11.

Before becoming the countries’ top technologist, Kundra served as the chief technology officer of the District of Columbia and as a technology advisor for Obama’s transition team. Since being the nation’s CIO, he’s entered the private sector and is currently leading SalesForce’s emerging markets team.

To answer my question, Kundra said he’d have to borrow from the Deborah Fiderer character in NBC’s The West Wing.

“At first you pinch yourself … am I really here, working in the White House?” Kundra told me.

Then you look around, he said, and you see the smartest people in the world — the best lawyers, the best politicians, the best advisors on any kind of national and international topic. And you wonder, he said, whether you belong. In other words: impostor syndrome.

“The third phase is when you start to think, wow, I have a lot of power!” Kundra says.

Unfortunately, that phase does not last, and at some point you start to realize that there’s an awful lot that, despite being in the White House, and despite all the power of the U.S. government, you cannot do.

But the biggest thing he learned from working for the president, Kundra said, was that money doesn’t matter. Ideas matter, and people matter, but not money. Even billionaires have trouble getting their ideas communicated, he said.

That learning may require a grain of salt — I’m sure Bill Gates has a better shot of meeting the president than you or I — but also has a grain of truth.

Passionate, dedicated people are actually the ones who get things done … whether or not they have tons of cash.

Image credit: John Koetsier