On the surface, information technology and government operations may seem like distinct career paths. But the two fields have become more entwined in recent years, as various CIOs have switched back and forth between those roles and believe it’s a natural evolution for technologists in the public sector.

David Sullivan, the current CIO of Norfolk, Va., would know. After spending almost 16 years in various technology roles for the city of Virginia Beach, Va., and Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) — a transportation agency serving six cities in Virginia — Sullivan spent two years at HRT as the interim chief financial officer and chief of staff.

Although Sullivan’s shift away from technology wasn’t by choice (superiors asked him to take on additional roles) the challenge of moving into a non-tech leadership role is something he believes many CIOs are considering. He said technology professionals are ideally suited to leadership roles, as most develop a familiarity with the business processes and people that drive government.

“IT has a big view of the entire government, as well as a narrow view of understanding the different business needs for each of the departments it supports,” Sullivan said. “I often used to say there are very few people at the executive level of government who could walk in anywhere and people don’t act differently. But the IT guys can because they are part of the fabric of getting business done.”

Michele Hovet, the longtime CIO of Arvada, Colo., can relate. After spending 25 years in technology, including 20 years in local government, Hovet was named deputy city manager of Arvada in mid-June. She agreed with Sullivan that CIOs have a couple of different paths to consider as IT departments mature.

Hovet said because she has a business degree and some background in banking, she was driven to explore Arvada's business processes. She twice ran the city’s budget process when the deputy city manager was absent. And after being CIO for 11 years, she felt it was time to allow others on her staff to grow into the CIO position.

“It was just an opportunity to do something different,” Hovet said. “I think it’s very important for CIOs these days to take a bigger picture look. Technology comes and goes and is exciting [but] it’s important for CIOs to look forward.”

Key Skills Required

Being familiar with how various government agencies do can be significant when moving away from IT into a more general role. But other factors are equally important, according to Sullivan and Hovet.

Hovet said developing a sense of the bigger picture in government, honing project development skills and paying close attention to how small details are managed are key skills an IT person should acquire. Government IT personnel should have a leg up on those skills because everything tech people do is fairly complex.

“To have a good change process management in place, you need to be able to look at capacities and resources,” she added. “To me, that applies across any type of business. I don’t care if it is IT, finance or police. “

Sullivan believes the move to government operations isn’t all that unusual now. But it was about 10 years ago. Back then, IT people weren’t looked at as people who were primed for leadership roles. But as technology became more integrated with how government does business, IT workers started getting on the radar of key executives.

“The CIOs became more enterprise focused,” Sullivan said. “As a result, they became higher visibility, and higher profile in the organization. Then people started looking to them and saying, ‘Hey, if they can lead these initiatives, they can lead broader business initiatives.’”

In addition, Sullivan felt the biggest transition an IT person has to make when shifting to an government operations position is admitting limitations and recognizing the strengths of business staff people. When Sullivan became CFO and chief of staff at HRT, he said it was helpful to question why certain aspects of the business processes were done the way they were.

As a non-finance person, Sullivan stepped in and asked all the “dumb questions,” which forced his staff to step back and take a closer look at their efficiency and whether changes were necessary.

That experience has actually helped Sullivan in his return to IT as CIO of Virginia Beach. He came away with more respect for the pressures that non-IT staff face.

“I now have a much better appreciation of how people depend on our systems, and I think I brought that back with me to IT,” Sullivan said. “I help our staff focus on really understanding what our client departments are doing and [how] whatever we’re doing fits with them.”

Challenges Abound

The transition out of IT isn’t as easy as it may sound, however. New relationships have to be built and additional skills need to be honed. Hovet is in the midst of her own crash course, having been on the job as deputy city manager in Arvada for a little over a month.

From learning how to plan a residential development to dealing with protestors at a Wal-Mart opening, Hovet said that the experience has been good. There also are a lot of things she didn’t anticipate learning.

In Arvada, there are two deputy city managers who split oversight of all city departments. Hovet’s concentration areas are public works, community development, parks and hospitality, the city’s performing arts center and economic development — a far cry from managing information technology. The learning curve for her has been meeting the people involved in those areas and bringing together the departments to do things more strategically.

“It’s been eye-opening every day,” Hovet admitted. “Some days I feel like I’m drinking through a firehose, for sure. “There are a lot of new processes that I wasn’t aware of.”

Despite the challenges, however, Hovet said meeting new people and being more connected to the community has been a great experience. She believes the influx of IT people into leadership roles should continue as time goes on.

“I think there’s not a big enough voice in those areas of leadership where technologists should be,” Hovet said. “There are always lawyers and accountants, but I think it’d be great in the future to have more technologists to drive home innovation, effectiveness and efficiencies.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.