5 State IT Leaders Detail Their Path to the CIO's Office

Four state CIOs who came to their positions after careers in other fields and one longtime state IT executive reflect on how their experiences informed their priorities, decision-making and relationship building.

by / January 9, 2017
Joanne Hale, CIO, Alabama David Kidd

In 2011, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley asked Joanne Hale, a professor of management information systems at the University of Alabama, to serve on a commission focused on improving state government IT resource utilization. Among other things, the commission recommended that the CIO position be made part of the governor’s cabinet. “Previously IT was buried several levels down in the state government, which meant that despite all the best efforts and intentions, IT-related issues were rarely discussed around the cabinet table,” Hale recalled.

Little did Hale realize that in 2016 she would be asked to become the state’s secretary of information technology. “Without recognizing it at the time, I helped create the office that I now hold, never dreaming I would be asked to serve,” she said. And, she added, if the position hadn’t been elevated to cabinet level, she wouldn’t have been interested in taking it. “It wouldn’t have fit my background and skill set. It would have required somebody more focused on execution instead of proactive in making sure technology best serves the state.”

When filling their top technology positions, governors are increasingly interested in turning to executives such as Hale who come from other sectors and can bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to public-sector organizations from their experience in Fortune 500 companies, higher education and health care.

Bringing CIOs into state government from other sectors is becoming more commonplace, said Todd Sander, executive director of the Center for Digital Government (a sister organization to Public CIO).

“One reason is that the CIO position is more political and visible than it used to be,” he said. Previously, administration officials would come in and pick between the top technology people they found. “It wasn’t a position that transition teams really thought about. It wasn’t seen as a critical part of the governor’s policy team. I think Mississippi had a CIO who served for 23 years. I just don’t see that happening today,” said Sander, who previously served as CIO and assistant city manager of Tucson, Ariz., and deputy CIO for the state of Washington.

Public CIO asked four state CIOs who came to their positions after careers in other fields and one longtime state IT executive to reflect on how their experiences informed their priorities, decision-making and relationship building.

In Hale’s case, one thing she has learned is that government is more like academia than she would have thought. “Academics are entrepreneurs off doing their own thing,” she noted. They collaborate under a university umbrella, but they see themselves as individual contributors and researchers. State government is similar in that state agencies focus on delivering quality services, but they are not glued together by a single bottom line profit as they would be in a corporation. “As a result, you have got to be an influencer rather than a control agent,” said Hale. “As in academia, you have to make decisions through consensus, recognizing a diverse and sometimes competing set of priorities. That helped me make the transition.”

She also realized there were gaps in her experience that she needed help with from others in the state IT leadership. “My focus for 20 years has been on solutions development on the application side and project governance work, but not on infrastructure or security. So I have had to learn a lot about infrastructure and cybersecurity. It is also about putting a capable team around you to fill those gaps, and having the confidence that you don’t have to know it all.”

Not surprisingly, she has found that the biggest obstacles to overcome are about politics, competing priorities and getting the business to change the way it works. “I had an idea that would be my focus,” she said, “but I didn’t realize quite the extent that my role was going to be about relationship management and getting people to collaborate when they were used to working in silos.”

Hale is convinced she has been able to bring a different perspective than somebody whose whole career was in state government, but she relies on her team to navigate the political minefields. “It is valuable for me to come in with a fresh perspective, but that doesn’t take away the value of having people who understand why things have been done a certain way or why change has been difficult.”

A Millennial CTO in New Jersey

In June 2016, Gov. Chris Christie appointed 28-year-old Dave Weinstein as New Jersey’s chief technology officer. The choice of Weinstein may have foreshadowed two future trends in IT leadership: picking millennial-generation execs and those with cybersecurity backgrounds.

Weinstein came to the CTO position from the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, where he served as its chief information security officer and chief cybersecurity director. Previously he served in the Defense Department’s U.S. Cyber Command center.

Sander explained why cybersecurity executives are being considered for CIO and CTO posts. “Governors are realizing that they are vulnerable in the area of cybersecurity,” he said. “Although efficient technology is important to them, the thing that is going to get them in the headlines faster than anything else is some type of data breach.”

In a recent interview, Weinstein reflected on how his experience in cybersecurity shapes his views. “I spent a few years at Cyber Command, which is co-located at the NSA [National Security Agency], so I developed an intimate understanding of the techniques and tools used by relatively sophisticated adversaries in cyberspace,” he said. “The most important lesson I learned is that everything is hackable. As we increasingly embrace the Internet of Things and integrate technologies with IP addresses into our daily lives, we are exponentially increasing the attack surfaces for cyberadversaries. It informs my thinking about technology in general. We cannot let our fears about this omnipresent cyberthreat landscape impede our embrace of technological innovation, because it is always going to be there. Instead we need to think about it in terms of broader risk management.”

Weinstein wasn’t surprised to be appointed CTO, because he said Christie has always taken security and risk management very seriously. “He realized that we can no longer think of technology as its own discipline separate from security.”

Weinstein also was not surprised that Christie was willing to give the state’s top technology job to a 28-year-old. “Given the dynamism in the technology landscape, chief executives who appoint CIOs or CTOs are willing to explore different perspectives and skill sets for this job,” he said. “I think about tech a little differently just by virtue of my generation. I can’t remember a world without the Internet. And I think that characteristic, combined with my experience in cybersecurity, allows me to bring a different perspective to this role.”

Bringing a Sense of Urgency from Health Care

Suma Nallapati, secretary of technology and CIO for Colorado, sees her shift from a career in health-care IT to state government as a natural transition.

With a master’s degree in nuclear physics, she originally wanted to go into nuclear medicine, using her knowledge of radiation physics and isotope technology, but she was not able to pursue that ambition. “When I got an opportunity to work in health-care IT at Catholic Health Initiatives, it was my way of achieving a little bit of what I had hoped to do by using technology to help patients,” she said. “I was in charge of a lot of hospital technology and electronic health record implementations. I was very happy doing that kind of work, where the technology was impacting patients and improving outcomes.”

She was always interested in government, but didn’t actively pursue it because she was so busy in her career. “I was asked to apply for a public-sector job once and they had my resume,” she recalled. “When the CTO position for the state of Colorado opened up, they gave me a call and that was when I decided to take it seriously.”

One of the things she brought from the private sector was a sense of urgency. “When you are in health care, it is 24/7. There is no downtime,” Nallapati said. “You can’t just say, ‘I will get back to you.’ I felt that in state government that sense of urgency was missing before. When I ask people to do something, now they know that they can’t take their own time. Everybody works with a sense of purpose or urgency.”

Before working in health care, Nallapati also owned an IT consulting firm, and she said that entrepreneurial experience has been important as well. “For me, that experience was the most valuable of my whole career — having my own company. I was responsible for the bottom line. When you own your own company, you are the janitor and the CEO. You do everything. It helped me think like an owner. I take accountability for all my actions. The buck stops with you. That is the attitude I bring to my current job,” she said. “It has been very helpful to think like an owner. My team at OIT sees me working very hard, and I have to lead by example. You can talk about it all day long, but when they see you working at 10 o’clock at night when there is an outage, or when they see that I take accountability for issues, and don’t find someone to blame, they automatically follow my lead. That culture is very important to me.” 

Since she started working in state government, Nallapati has lost some of the skepticism she had before about why government is so slow. “Now I understand the constraints and challenges you have to work with. It is not just about the technology. Working with a limited budget, you have to balance the needs of everything from programs for homeless people to roads and bridges to technology. It has given me a unique perspective and I am grateful every single day.”

Similarities and Differences to Higher Education

Like Alabama’s Hale, Shannon Rahming had worked for years in higher education before being asked in 2015 to serve first as interim CIO, then full-time CIO of Nevada.

Rahming, who spent 11 years with the Nevada System of Higher Education, first with the University of Nevada, Reno, and then as a business analyst for Truckee Meadows Community College, said she enjoyed working in higher education and was intrigued by the possibilities of working for state government. “I am a native Nevadan, and I do love my state. Besides higher education, I had worked in IT in health care, gaming and manufacturing. I like the idea of helping people and giving back to the state.”

Rahming, who reports to the director of the Department of Administration, found some similarities to higher education. The state government and university system work on the same biennial budget cycle and have a lot of the same bylaws and regulations for personnel. But the constituents have different expectations, she said. “Students, faculty and staff are a demanding group of high-tech folks. Students expect everything to work all the time. They can’t imagine not having all the data and information they need at their fingertips. That is not how it is in state government. I had to deploy a lot of mobile apps in college. When I got here, they had no mobile-based anything.”

She is trying to bring a spirit of collaboration from her previous career stops to government. “I am talking to both state agencies and municipalities to see if we can bring our resources together to get quantity discounts and a bigger voice with vendors on things like disaster recovery.”

A Career in State Government

Doug Robinson, NASCIO’s executive director, pushed back a little against the notion that hiring private-sector CIOs is a recent trend. He sees an ebb and flow between hiring outsiders and deputy CIOs. One big deciding factor, he said, is whether the hire is at the beginning of an administration or mid-term. “With two years of a governor’s term left, it is very difficult to do a national search and get a private-sector CIO to come in,” he said. “And if a private-sector CIO does come in with half a term left, they usually find that the pillars of power have already been established, so they are always behind.”

Minnesota CIO Tom Baden worked his way up over his 35 years in government, serving as a business analyst, coder, systems engineer, project manager and enterprise architect. Photo by Jessica Mulholland.

Robinson added that some private-sector CIOs are surprised by how different the procurement and reporting requirements are in state government. “I had one CIO say to me, ‘If they had told me I would have to defend my budget and testify before the legislature, I would never have taken the job.’”

Tom Baden, CIO of Minnesota, epitomizes the type of CIO who comes up through the ranks. He has spent 35 years as a business analyst, coder, systems engineer, project manager and enterprise architect.

He described the enterprise architect position as dealing with a “combo plate” of the state’s technical, policy and political issues. “That was a good foundation to see the lay of the land across all of state government.” He also served as CIO of the state Department of Human Services. One benefit, Baden said, is that although he doesn’t know all of the state’s approximately 2,100 IT employees, he knows a lot of them.

Baden said he had some clear ideas about what he wanted to accomplish as state CIO when he took the job in 2015. “I came into it with an altruistic idea of creating a fully integrated intelligent innovation platform for government, including integrating government across jurisdictions,” he said. “We want to use big data and analytics to become more effective in the services we provide as a state government. But I was kind of caught by surprise. We were not quite ready to dive into that yet.” First, he said, the state had to improve its cybersecurity posture and further consolidate its data centers.

Although he is a longtime state employee, Baden sought out a few top staffers from the private sector. For instance, Jesse Oman, the deputy commissioner and chief operating officer, previously worked as a “turnaround manager” for Deutsche Asset Management. Baden said that because the state was four years into a consolidation process that he likened to a merger, he thought he needed those turnaround skills in the agency.

Baden said executives from the private sector help push the pace of change. “It takes those folks a little while to know when and where we can push the pace. The wheels of government grind slow, but sometimes they grind really fine and well too. We needed to find that balance of what we can accomplish and do it within the rules and above board.”

The Center for Digital Government’s Sander said some governors continue to believe that businesspeople “get” technology better than longtime state employees. “We saw that philosophy at the federal level when the health insurance website problem played out,” he said. “The president got frustrated after a traditional government team struggled with it. Once he had to pay attention to it, he reached out to people in Silicon Valley with the idea that people outside the government had a better understanding of the issues.” ¨

David Raths contributing writer