Michael Armstrong, CIO of Corpus Christi, Texas, and public-sector veteran of 41 years, announced in a recent Facebook post that he will retire on April 30. Armstrong says he can’t see himself staying out of IT permanently, and plans to return in some capacity eventually. But for health reasons, it’s time to take a break.
“I got a few consulting opportunities and once you’ve done this for as many years as I have, you really get interested in seeing what happens next,” he said.
Armstrong started his career in 1974, when he became computer sustem manger for Kentucky's Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, where he stayed for nearly 24 years. Armstrong marveled at how far technology has come over the years and how fast things are progressing now.
“One thing I’ve been encouraging people to do is to not just look at information technology,” Armstrong said. “The real big changes are going to come in medicine, in robotics and how drones get handled.”
In 1997, Armstrong moved to Iowa to serve as Des Moines' CIO and assistant city manager for eight years. (Armstrong was named a Government Technology Top 25 winner in 2003.) He then moved to the city of San Antonio in 2005 where he served as CIO for two years, and in 2007 became CIO of Corpus Christi, the position from which he will soon resign.
In Corpus Christi, Armstrong is recognized for having managed one of the nation’s largest Wi-Fi networks, and leading the city’s data center operations, cloud computing and mobile efforts. During Armstrong’s tenure, Corpus Christi placed in the Center for Digital Government’s Digital Cities Survey for six consecutive years, including a first place award in 2009.
Armstrong recalled how his first manager’s meeting with the city set the tone for his time there. “I got beat up because everybody was spending an hour a day cleaning the spam out of their mailboxes,” said Armstrong. “We fixed that by the end of the week and we were all heroes then.”
Despite all the concrete accomplishments that Armstrong and his teams have made, one of the biggest in Corpus Christi was a cultural shift that changed how people viewed technology, he said.
“Technology’s not something that we can do by ourselves and just hand off to you,” he said. “You’ve got to participate in funding and design, and there’s an awful lot of enthusiasm here for doing that.”
In four decades of public-sector service, Armstrong has seen not only a lot of change in technology, but also change in himself through the lessons he’s learned.
“If you want to be in a leadership position, you have to be able to communicate very, very well, both in writing and in speaking,” he said. “If you cannot do those two things, it’s very difficult to succeed, and the IT industry doesn’t always pay a lot of attention on how to communicate with businesses.”
There was another lesson that took Armstrong 20 years to learn. “Probably the most important thing is not to take yourself too seriously. We all do that when we first get started,” Armstrong said, noting that with his retirement impending, he’ll have a lot of time to not take himself too seriously and put things into perspective.
“I’ve had two heart attacks now, and I figure I probably need to go away and relax a little bit,” he said. “When your health gets to a certain point, you become ineffective in an organization and it’s not fair to your team and it’s not fair to the organization. You want to do the best that you can, but you have to show some loyalty and understanding of what the organization’s there for.”
When Armstrong returns to IT, he said, he doesn’t want to be in charge of the whole “shebang” again, but will likely work on a project-by-project basis.
“It’s been a tremendously fun ride and totally unplanned, but I’ve gotten to hang out with a lot of really interesting people, gotten to go see some interesting places and when I got into the field it was still possible to do things nobody had ever done. So, it’s hard to beat that,” Armstrong said. “If you’re making enough money to survive and you’re having fun, what else is there?"
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.