Articles

The Key to Technological Success Is Forgetting About the Tech, Says D.C.'s New CTO

An organization’s goals and a keen understanding of the industry come first.

by / March 4, 2016
Washington, D.C.'s new CTO, Archana Vemulapalli, with Mayor Muriel Bowser.Twitter/@MayorBowser

As former chief technology officer of a facilities management firm, Archana Vemulapalli said she plans to bring the same tech-fueled efficiency to the position in Washington, D.C., government.

Mayor Muriel Bowser's office announced Vemulapalli’s appointment in January; she replaces Tegene Baharu, who kept things running after Rob Mancini left in January 2015. Vemulapalli’s arrival coincided with the district’s push for a new open data policy, a call for a chief data officer and a renewed commitment to civic engagement. But whatever the project, Vemulapalli said the key to technological success is to forget about the technology.

At facilities management firm Pristine Environments, technology was the tool Vemulapalli used to drive efficiency, but it was the organization’s goals and a keen understanding of their industry that she put first.

“Most organizations, when you get caught up in technology, you tend to focus more on, ‘Well, I need this system and that system and this technology,’ and you don’t realize that to really have effective technology solutions, you sort of need to take technology out of the equation,” Vemulapalli said. "My personal driver is that I want to change that mindset, because that’s where inefficiencies happen. … If you really want to have an environment where that business or that city or organization is thriving, you need to know what is that they want to do. What is your mission? Then you work backward. Now that I know the mission, do I have the systems that can help me get there?”

Assessing an organization’s tools usually means finding a gap between what’s available and what’s needed, she said, but that can be overcome.

“Your impact has to be tangible,” she said. “That’s when you improve for the better. My personal philosophy has always been to take the time to know the organization, to know the strengths and weaknesses, to know what the vision is and then that’s where the map comes out. … The biggest commonality across any position in technology is how you use technology to improve operations and how you use technology to build better products.”

Understanding the environment in which a technologist works is largely a matter of understanding the stakeholders' needs and wants, Vemulapalli said, and that’s a big part of what she’s been doing her first five weeks.

“I’m making sure that we, as an agency, are doing three things: that we’re delivering impactful work, that we are making sure our decisions are very inclusive — when I say 'inclusive' I don’t just mean internally as an agency but that we are engaging with the vendor community, with who the functional stakeholders are to make sure they see the right value — and then that we’re innovating,” she said. “For me, innovating is being very creative with the resources we have. So what can we do for the maximum bang for your buck in our environment to deliver the services we need?”

Though serving as D.C.'s CTO is Vemulapalli’s first government job, she said she doesn’t look at it as a job so much as a way to give back to the city she’s lived in for 11 years.

“One thing that I really liked about the mayor and this administration was there was a willingness to listen to new ideas," she said, "and there was a willingness to really bring in people with a fresh perspective, which in my mind, I have a huge amount of respect for."

Plans around the city’s proposed open data policy and associated efforts can be found online at drafts.dc.gov, where many have already annotated and discussed the propositions found there. The Metropolitan Police Department publishes crime data daily, and the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development maintains weekly a dashboard of economic data to help the public and businesses understand their city. 

“Fundamentally, technology should help you deliver service quicker and faster; it shouldn’t be another hindrance that bogs you down with just another process,” Vemulapalli said. “And that’s really what I’m hoping to do here, is make sure we use cutting-edge technology, we make sure we use our resources efficiently and smartly so that we can deliver much more value to the city.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.