After 21 years in Pittsburgh government, Howard A. Stern took over as the city's CIO and director of City Information Systems (CIS) one year ago. Those 21 years weren't in the server room, either. Stern worked as a personnel administrator, a budget analyst and a city planner, giving him a slightly different perspective on getting IT initiatives off the ground and into practical use by other agencies.

Like other cities, Pittsburgh has suffered its share of budget problems, and CIS is expected to help other city departments perform their missions with fewer resources.

Stern helped create a database of digital photos of graffiti that police use to arrest those responsible. The biggest project currently on Stern's to-do list is a mobile data system for law enforcement personnel.

How far along is the city in the mobile data rollout? When do you expect all police cruisers to be hooked to the new system?

We've got about 25 percent of the Pittsburgh police force using the mobile data computers right now. We're working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to get more grant money to pay for the balance of the police force. We're hoping by the end of 2005, or the end of first quarter 2006, to have all front-line police vehicles equipped.

It's contingent upon that grant money, but it looks like there's money there.

What do you see as Pittsburgh's biggest challenge in 2006?

In 2003 we were grappling with a $60 million shortfall, and because of that, the city put in strict controls for spending in all departments. To keep up with our user demands and stay current on technologies, we really have to be creative and innovative -- with not only our employees, but also our in-house applications.

We've conducted informal, in-house cross-training in areas like database administration or Linux, where we've taken people with interests or skill sets and tried to develop those interests and skills. We've taken some in-house applications, which we owned the source code for and were developed by off-site consultants, and we actually dug into that source code.

In the past, we would have paid consultants to make modifications or changes, but we're doing those things now.

It seems your staff has to be willing to learn new skills and try new things. How long did it take to cultivate that mindset?

One of the advantages to our department is that people work real closely with one another. Unlike a lot of traditional IT shops, people are not pigeonholed here. If you show an interest in database administration or a particular application -- obviously your regular work can't suffer -- but we're going to work with you. There's going to be informal training, and even though our formal training dollars have dried up, we still have some money and we'll send people to school if we can.

We believe in using it -- and if you don't use it, you lose it. We've created an environment where it's fun to work, and we're as close to private sector without being private sector. Fortunately the administration gives me the flexibility to manage that way.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor