NEW YORK — An aspiring film maker. An astronaut wannabe. A problem-fixer for IBM, Walmart and PepsiCo. It turns out that government CIOs have career dreams and backgrounds that sometimes have little to do with technology. That was the opening and a key takeaway from a panel discussion about the essential skills for CIOs at the New York City CIO Academy, held Tuesday April 24, in Brooklyn.

Anthony Thomas, CIO for New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and moderator for the morning panel discussion, made the simple but effective point that today’s CIO has less to do with technology and more about being a well-rounded leader who can communicate, collaborate and build trust in an age of technological change and uncertainty.

Jeffrey Grunfeld, CIO of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, aspired to make movies when he was younger, but even though he traded that dream for a career in IT, he was able to use some of his movie-making talents.

“Story-boarding can be useful when it comes to planning systems development,” he remarked.

Kay Meyer, a former IT executive in state government and now a senior manager at SAS, had a career that did begin in IT, but found that she had to shift from work in analytics to trying to develop a statewide data integration plan.

“This was 10 years ago, before there were chief data officers,” she said.

While trying to lead a statewide data integration plan, she soon found that not all the state’s agencies believed data was a strategic asset.

“I quickly learned that trying to lead change and foster collaboration isn’t easy,” said Meyer.

Diversity in backgrounds can help launch a career as a CIO, but what skills make for an effective leader? Thomas brought up the issue of trust and how it can be won or lost. That resonated with Eusebio Formoso, CIO for New York’s Department of Finance who pointed out that IT departments are often blamed for a problem that may not be of their own making, but because technology is now embedded into so many processes, it’s easy for others to assign fault on the IT department.

That can hurt trust, he said. To counteract the issue of poor trust, Formoso said he makes governance a priority in any IT project to strengthen the partnership between IT and the business side of any project.

“I also publicize our successes and carefully explain when a problem occurs and why it’s not always the fault of IT when certain things go wrong,” he said.

Meyer said trust is critical when it comes to moving IT projects forward.

“Action speaks louder than words,” she said. “Honor your commitments. That builds trust, because failing to help can break trust.”

Another challenge government CIOs face is improving their own skills and staying relevant while working a demanding schedule. Henry Jackson, CIO for the Office of Emergency Management talked about getting out of the office and spending time doing different things to stay fresh. He has spent time down at the National Hurricane Center to better understand the impact of climate on emergency operations.

“It takes a lot of training and knowledge at OEM; everybody is doing more than one job,” he said.

Relevance, to Grunfeld, is about the importance of keeping in constant touch with what the business side of the agency is doing.

Formoso emphasized that IT is an enabler.

“You have to stay very close to what customers do," he said. "In government we have tremendous opportunities to do more with IT. We have to use IT to deliver. I can use my skills to do that. I look for the big change, where is the world moving. I see an incredible opportunity to change."

Much of that change is coming from a public that has grown accustomed to using any device for service that can be transacted in real time, according to Jackson. Those expectations come not just from the public, but from the commissioners the CIOs work for, according to Jackson.

“We need to be mobile ready. I can’t do it every time with every application, but that’s the challenge,” he said. “I try to identify people in my office who think this way. Today, every problem is an IT problem. We need people who can work with constant change.”

With those expectations comes pressure, according to Thomas. It forces CIOs to be prepared to fail and to balance that need against government’s requirement to be a stable environment in which to operate. 

Meyer sees a lot of value in the lessons from failure.

“I constantly sought out people who succeeded from challenges and understood that failure is a great way to learn,” she said.

Sometimes the problem is getting too hung up on the technology and not fully comprehending what the outcomes will be.

“Don’t make the solution too hard or complicated; think about the outcome,” she said.

Asked what about the most challenging issues faced by government CIOs today and the panel gave two sets of answers. First, security has become paramount.

“We are under attack every day,” said Formoso. “We have to stay secure while changing business systems as fast as required."

The second challenge is data sharing. It’s not happening at the rate it should be, said the panelists. The problem is balancing the two. More data needs to be shared to improve services and operations, but it has to be done in a way that can be supported and is both resilient and secure. That’s not an easy task for any CIO.