Alaska's tech leader reflects on his accomplishments and offers some advice for other CIOs.
Alaska CIO Jim Bates, also the director of Enterprise Technology Services (ETS), will soon move on, the agency confirmed Feb. 22.
Bates, who joined the state in May 2013, will depart in mid-March and be replaced by state Information Technology Officer Jim Steele in an interim capacity at the end of that month. Bates told Government Technology that he plans to spend more time on his consulting business -- once he’s accepted the idea that leading technology for the state is no longer his responsibility, that is.
“I am torn,” Bates said. “After waking up every morning for the last three years thinking about this huge operation, keeping email and phones and keeping all the operations running on the network, waking up and thinking it’s not my job anymore is kind of weird. It’s hard to let go. It becomes a part of your DNA.”
Bates led and assisted with several major projects during his tenure, including major infrastructure upgrades that led to millions in cost savings, new legislation that will make his office stronger for more comprehensive IT governance statewide, and an IT inventory analysis that will allow the state to streamline procurement and save even more.
By analyzing spending on networking contracts, Bates’ office cut annual spending on voice, data and circuits from $10 million to $5 million, he said. One old contract was separated into four pieces and split between two vendors based on who offered the best value. The best part wasn’t even the costs savings, Bates said, but that they increased their bandwidth offerings to their agencies 10 fold.
A 333 Mbps connection between Fairbanks and Juneau was upgraded to a 2 Gbps connection, with capacity for a future upgrade to 10 Gbps. Through the state’s Rural Bandwidth Initiative, the state’s western offices had their Internet costs cut from $68,000 annually to $400. Because access to commercial broadband circuits was previously unavailable in many remote areas, the state had resorted to expensive satellite and T1 systems that provided both low-speed and medium-to-high latency connections. New remotely-configurable modems allow the state to tap commercial networks over a secure connection.
New initiatives will also give the CIO role a stronger position within the state, Bates said. Any technology project that costs more than $25,000 annually is reviewed by ETS, which will allow the state to spot procurement overlap.
“That allows us to see into the agencies that are buying things without any kind of transparency,” Bates said. “They’ll say it’s a line of business project, but then we see they’re buying servers. … So it’s to, at least now, have a centralized way of looking at all spend. That’s a huge step forward in the right direction in my mind.”
Bates also recently completed an inventory analysis that found nine areas of cost savings in the state, with data centers and storage topping the list.
“We don’t need 133 rooms taking up about 38,000 sq. ft. of space,” Bates said. “We can get it down into our bigger data centers. We don’t need 457 racks. We don’t need 1,000 conventional servers and we definitely don’t need 7.9 petabytes of storage that we’re only using 3.2 petabytes of.”
As in many federated organizations, ETS found that many agencies were buying the same things from the same vendors, but on different contracts. His report will recommend the state consolidate those contracts, too.
To other CIOs, especially new CIOs, Bates offered some advice, which included evaluating the government’s level of organization, being a team builder, staying strategic and never underestimating the value of communication.
“My advice would be to create a vision and a mission for where your state’s going, especially when it comes to government-to-citizen, e-government strategy,” Bates said. “Keep a diary of all the thoughts you have around certain things. I created a folder with a tab for everything – mainframes, cybersecurity, everything. And over the past three years, I’ve collected stuff and threw them in those tabs along with my thoughts as we went forward, and it’s helped me to stay with my bigger picture, because you can get sucked into the weeds pretty easy.”
Bates joined the state after a career primarily working in the private sector. He began his career working in a warehouse near Anchorage before working his way up to retail floor manager, and then finding increasingly technical work for a series of companies before starting his own consulting firm, Business Improvement Group, in 2010.
“Nothing ever prepared me for the level of political decisions that get made based on votes or whatever instead of what I would consider to be a logical business decision,” Bates said. "That was a challenge for me, but I understood the reasons why those decisions don’t get made and sometimes things move a little slower. For those times, I would say have patience, get a grip and hang in there.”
Teaching Project Management and Lean Six Sigma courses as an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, has shown Bates that the demand for those kinds of skills is rising in his state, and through his company, there’s an opportunity to help local businesses and governments with such training.
“I don’t think anything prepares you for how to let go," he said, "and untangling yourself from it is not easy."