So You Want to Be a CIO

Leadership, innovation and data are on the agenda as tech leaders gather for the annual Los Angeles Digital Government Summit.

by / August 31, 2016
Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross e.Republic Inc.

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross, who also serves as general manager of the city's Information Technology Agency, kicked off his city’s Digital Government Summit* on Tuesday, Aug. 30, by advising the more than 500 attendees to be guided in their pursuits by their north star. Ross’ north star is the people — the nearly 4 million residents of California’s largest city. The three principles at the center of IT, according to Ross, are that it is responsive, responsible and excellent.

“As government, we are delivering digital tools and capabilities to people so that they can live healthy lives, they can earn a living, they can raise a family, they can simply pursue happiness,” he said.

On the agenda at the two-day event are a variety of government-facing sessions featuring public-sector and industry representatives, sharing best practices around common challenges, including open data, fostering a culture of innovation, cybersecurity, and disruptive technologies like the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

The Path to Government IT Leadership

A handful of IT pros in government offered their take on the best mix of skills to have to be successful in getting and keeping a CIO job. Jeramy Gray, now CIO of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s Office, recalled a valuable lesson gleaned from his first IT position, one in which his boss was not in IT, but rather had an administrative/finance role. Making the pitch for a 311 call center at an important meeting, Gray peppered his speech to decision-makers with technical acronyms, completely losing his audience in the process. All follow-up questions were directed to his manager, not him. Lesson learned? It’s not just about the technology — successful CIOs must be able to translate tech benefits to a non-technical audience.

“I needed to understand the language of finance managers, HR [Human Resources] directors, individuals from the public …" he said. "I needed to be diverse and dynamic with the way that I communicated, and it needed to be audience-appropriate."

Other panelists added that there are two distinct parts of the job: high-level visionary and tactical expert. Benny Chacko, CIO of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, explained that in addition to being the key IT strategist, you’re just as likely to field password and monitor questions.

“You’re supposed to be the visionary and the strategic person, and that’s a lot of the description of the job when you sign up … but your day varies from the beginning,” Chacko said. “It requires a lot of broad experience in various technologies, because you don’t have to be an expert in everything, but you have to have enough knowledge to make decisions quickly, be decisive and help move the organization forward.”

Ross agreed, adding that an important part of the CIO’s job is to help ensure the IT organization as a whole is more effective than its individual components. “It goes from tactical to strategic all day long," Ross said, "but what you can uniquely do as a CIO is to be able to push a tech strategy.”

Los Angeles Deputy CIO Joyce Edson talked about the importance of getting IT staff to engage in more strategic thinking. “As tech people, we tend to be very into the details, and that’s important,” she said, noting that it’s also important to develop a big picture view, especially for those who aspire to the CIO job someday. “The thing is to be able to inspire people to come up and look at the broader picture," she added, "not just focus on the technology."

*The Los Angeles Digital Government Summit is produced by the Government Technology events division and the Center for Digital Government, both owned and operated by e.Republic Inc., the same parent company as Government Technology magazine and Govtech.com.

Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.