CIOs Inspired to Enter Public Service by Parents

CIOs reveal how their parents’ careers in public service influenced their professional choices.

by / December 3, 2012
Photo from Shutterstock Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Fancy university degrees and much sought-after certifications are often signs of an excellent public CIO. But the drive to enter public service often comes from somewhere else — family history. Many of today’s top public CIOs say their decision to enter government was a direct result of having watched their parents work within the public sector.

That’s no surprise to researchers. After all, several studies have established that children of entrepreneurs are two to three times likelier to launch a company than are kids of traditional salary earners. Similarly, public CIOs appear just as likely to be influenced by their parents’ career paths and inclinations. But that’s not all. Many public servants possess specific characteristics that make them prime candidates for government work — traits they’ve inherited from their parents.

Public CIOs in Training:

How today’s top CIOs are prepping their kids for public service Plenty of public CIOs follow in their parents’ footsteps. But when it comes to teaching their own children about the value of working for a government agency, many find themselves tongue-tied. After all, today’s up-and-coming public servants face obstacles, from talent wars to budget cuts, that can easily dissuade them from committing to the common good. Fortunately, there are steps public CIOs can take to guide their children, especially if they have the genetic makeup of a public servant. Here’s how some of today’s top public CIOs are preparing their kids for a tech career in government.

Parent: Steve Emanuel

Position: CIO of New Jersey

Advice: As the son of a police officer and a nurse, Emanuel learned at an early age the ”gratification that comes with being there to help others.” After all, he said, ”I looked up to this guy with a badge and a gun.” But having worked in the public and private sectors, Emanuel recognizes that many young professionals feel forced to choose between a cash-strapped career in public service and the potential riches of private enterprise. For this reason, Emanuel said he’s worked to instill a strong foundation of ethics in his five children that will guide them regardless of career path. So far, potential professions include a history teacher, criminal justice specialist, nurse, beautician and drummer. ”Hopefully the life lesson is that you have to make some choices,” he said. ”You can go after the almighty dollar, but I’ve always told them to just remember your foundation of ethics. Just make sure you make the right decisions and remember that it’s about serving a customer, whether it’s a citizen or an end customer.”

Sam Nixon, CIO, Virginia/Photo by David KiddParent: Sam Nixon

Position: CIO of Virginia

Advice: Encouraging your children to volunteer and hone their inherited talents is imperative, according to Nixon. And he would know. Nixon encouraged his son — who ”seems to have the leadership gene in spades” — to get involved in organizing trips with Habitat for Humanity. Nixon’s son spent half the summer as a site supervisor for the organization this year. ”I’m very proud that he wants to do this kind of work and feels like he ought to help people who are not in a position to help themselves,” Nixon said. ”It’s somewhat similar to being a public CIO — I just didn’t have his level of maturity when I was his age.”

Parent: Chris Mertens

Position: IT Director, Hamilton County, Ind.

Advice: Mertens’ daughter may be the tender age of 12, but he said it’s never too early to begin prepping your child for a career in the public sector. ”When I look at my daughter, I think that she has the right mentality for public service but also for IT in general. Part of it is seeing her willingness to help people. She volunteers to help work at the church and all kinds of things, not to mention her aptitude with school and computers.”

Stephen Wetzel is one public CIO who believes that there’s a genetic component to his chosen career. CIO of Tarrant County, Texas, Wetzel said that in order to serve as an effective public servant, “customer service has to be a part of one’s DNA.”

Wetzel would know. His father dedicated 32 years to law enforcement, 11 of which were spent as the police chief of Phoenix. Wetzel’s brother also served the public as a firefighter, and his sister works for the Phoenix water department. Wetzel got his start in law enforcement before “falling in love with IT” and eventually moving into a more tech-oriented position in the public sector.

While wanting to “make a difference” in the world is part of a public CIO’s genetic composition, Wetzel said coming from a long line of public servants also showed him the importance of having the right attitude. “My family taught me that it was an honor to be a public servant,” he said. “A career as a public CIO is really a calling. You have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives in a number of different ways. You can leave a lasting imprint and change the landscape forever. I was taught that public service is about making a difference that transcends your career.”

For Scott Brock, selecting a career in public service wasn’t just about obeying his DNA but following his heart. “A passion for being a public servant was passed down in our family,” said Brock, CIO of the Ohio Development Services Agency (formerly the Ohio Department of Development) in Columbus. His first foray into public service was painting fire hydrants as a child. Brock’s stepfather retired after serving 32 years as a foreman for the city of Westerville, a suburb of Columbus.
“I recall as a child him coming home from work and talking about there being nothing better than knowing you made a difference in an individual’s life,” he said. “That just stuck with me. I feel that same way today — there is no job outside of public service where the main goal is to be of service to others.”

Being taught to place the needs of others before one’s own has helped Brock endure both economic and cultural shifts in IT. For one, Brock said “not being so concerned with making a dollar” has enabled him to resist switching to the private sector in tough economic times and widespread government cuts. What’s more, placing a premium on helping others helps Brock cope with changes in work style as IT budgets and resources shrink. “You see much less turf and ego as we’re all forced to share services and ideas and operate as one holistic piece. We’re seeing more and more of an environment in the public sector that’s conducive to teamwork and not egos.”

Attitude and collaborative skills aside, many public CIOs have their parents to thank for their strong leadership qualities. Just ask Sam Nixon, CIO of Virginia and head of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency. “Something I learned from my mom was how to focus on being a good listener first and a talker second,” he said. “That’s extremely important — to listen more than you talk. Even when I have very strongly held beliefs about what I think we should do, I always carefully consult my team members.”

Knowing how to listen to others is a valuable life lesson that Nixon said was passed down to him by both parents. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a pastor — professions that require equal parts leadership and listening skills.

Another way Nixon’s parents helped mold his future as a public CIO is by shaping his perspective on life. Unlike private-sector CIOs who tend to focus on a single line of business, public CIOs are often required to be jacks of all trades — comfortable working with different types of technology, personalities and world views.

“My mom and dad both got home relatively early from work, so in the Nixon house, dinnertime for us was always 5:30, which meant by 6:00, we were usually finished and watching the nightly news on television,” he recalled. “As we watched television, my dad would editorialize and give us his 2 cents’ worth, so at a pretty early age, I became acutely aware of the world outside the walls of our house.”

In addition to being open to new experiences and opinions, Nixon said his famous last name, although he’s not related to the controversial past president, fostered “additional interest in what was going on with politics, public policy, governance and elections.”

As for his IT prowess, Nixon admitted that his mother had as much to do with his proficiency as his years of professional training. “My mom was the person in the house that if her sewing machine broke, she would take it apart and try to fix it. In fact, she was the first person I knew who had a personal computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80.” Nixon remembers his mom as a “gadget person,” who used a computer to grade her students’ papers long before it became common practice among teachers.

Public servants can inherit their parents’ technical skills but when it comes to job satisfaction, examples need to be set, not genetically mapped. Take Chris Mertens, for example. Currently the IT director of Hamilton County, Ind., Mertens began in government straight out of college and gradually worked his way up from the help desk to the CIO’s office. But it was his mother’s fulfilling career in economic development for state government that convinced him a career in public service was the right way to go. “My mother always enjoyed what she did, and that weighed into my decision,” said Mertens.

But that’s not all. While driving around town, Mertens recalled that his mother would point out the projects for which she had helped secure government grants. “She talked about the results of her work,” he said. “I saw that there was pride in helping communities and that there were real, tangible results to helping people. She’d point out physical improvements of the community and things that had directly related to things she had done.”

Patience is another important trait that tends to be encoded in a person’s DNA. “People are either patient or they’re not,” Mertens said. “Someone who is patient can take the time to really understand a variety of needs and to take the time to work with different departments.”

For example, Mertens said it’s not uncommon for him to “go from a meeting with the head of the parks department to one with a prosecutor” and have to understand each individual’s unique business problem and what they’re trying to resolve. “You have to try to switch gears and understand the business they’re in,” he said. Without a doubt, these are tough tasks for a public CIO, but it’s a job that’s made a lot easier when you have the right genetic makeup.

Cindy Waxer Contributing Writer

Cindy Waxer is a journalist whose articles have appeared in publications including The Economist, Fortune Small Business,, CIO and Computerworld.