What Should Be Expected from a CIO?

In the ever-evolving world of government IT, California state execs weigh in on what they seek when hiring a CIO.

by / February 24, 2016
Karen Johnson, chief deputy director for the California Department of Health Care Services, discussed the expectations and evolution of the CIO role within state government during a panel discussion at the Public CIO Academy held the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 24. Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The evolving role of the chief information officer is not only bringing organizational change, it’s also bringing new expectations from those responsible for filling the role.

State executives discussed the top IT spot and what they expect and look for in new hires within their agencies during a panel discussion at the California Public Sector CIO Academy the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 24.

Chief among their concerns is the ability to lead — past the implementation of technology — and the ability to align strategy with the real-world needs of their organizations.

Doug Hoffner, deputy executive director for the Operations and Technology with the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), said recruitment for the CIO role often comes down to coordination among stakeholders in existing leadership positions in what he called a “leadership assessment.”

He also noted that the need to translate tech into plain speak is an essential quality of an effective tech leader, who will need to interact with non-tech leaders.

“What we’ve done historically, the last few years, is use an executive assessment of the organization. So, when someone has left, we use that opportunity to assess the current state of that organization and what the future ... should look like,” Hoffner said. “Back in 2013, we took that opportunity to say, ‘Where are we going to be going in the next five years, are the resources  going to be aligned for the next five years or not, and then what do we need to do?’”  

Hoffner added that the executive overview ultimately translated into the description of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for the next recruitment of a new leadership role.

“What we came up with is that we needed to have a different style, a different type of leader in the organization," he said. "We needed to change the culture, both internally and how it was viewed by our business partners, and we identified the fact that we needed someone who could really translate technology into non-tech speak for the organization and become a great business partner.”

And basic professionalism is an important factor in the race to a CIO spot, said panelist Diana Toche, undersecretary of Health Care Services with the California Department of Corrections, who warned that internal candidates can often be too comfortable within the larger organization and can forget to think outside their immediate silo.    

“I’m always impressed when folks come in, either internally or externally, and they’ve done their homework," she said. "I know that they’ve researched, for me the Department of Corrections, they know what things are going on within my department, and maybe they have some new ideas of what technology they can bring to us…”

Toche also said that candidates who prove they can “speak outside their area” and “work across the agency” bring more to the selection process than those who only talk through points on their resume. 

And simple things like showing up on time, making sure your phone is off and not chewing gum can make all the difference when it comes to gaining points in the leadership selection process, she said.

For CIOs looking for a spot at the decision-making table, panelist Karen Johnson, chief deputy director for the California Department of Healthcare Services, said that it’s important for the CIO to establish credibility, trust and relationships with other executives.

"I believe that the way you are able to accomplish that is [in demonstrating] that you understand the business," she added, "and that you also are going to be collaborating with them to really come to the table to help solve business problems."

Johnson said delivering real-world IT solutions helps to solidify the CIO’s position among other agency executives.

Including IT in projects early on was also addressed by the panelists. Toche said that too often, IT is left out of the conversation until a plan has been developed, which leads to friction among the stakeholders who believe IT is holding up project efforts.

Toche noted that the evolution of the CIO role from strictly a technologist to a more executive position also highlights the importance of communication between CIOs and their superiors, especially during critical projects.

“Sometimes things happen; maybe you’re not on time and you're not on budget, and the question is, how do I find out that you’re not on time and you’re not on budget?" she said. "I want to be able to find out from you what the problems are that are coming along and I’m apprised as these hiccups happen. You tell us the good things, we also need to hear the bad things. I think a lot of times people are fearful of that, but when we don’t know the bad things, that’s when really bad things happen.”

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.