What do Kim Kardashian, Twitter and California government have in common?
Most people would struggle finding the link, but Sen. Darrell Steinberg had no trouble during Carlos Ramos’ senate confirmation hearing on April 9. At that hearing, Ramos, who has been California’s CIO since 2011 and re-appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown once again, faced the Senate Rules Committee’s questions about his previous accomplishments and his plans for the future.
Near the end of the hearing, Steinberg awkwardly compared Kardashian’s 20.6 million-strong Twitter following to a robust, interactive platform that California could emulate to connect its technology systems and give people a collaboration mechanism.
“Kim Kardashian has 20.6 million Twitter followers,” he said. “Why? I don’t know. That means 20.6 million people out there have the ability to intersect and interact with one another on one sort of existing platform.”
Ramos prompted Steinberg to clarify his position by pointing out that Twitter’s a social media technology that may not be the best mechanism for the kind of system the senator was suggesting.
Steinberg was grasping for a way to say that California needs a singular infrastructure for… something. He just wasn’t sure what, or how to properly articulate it. Ramos spearheaded a number of comprehensive technology projects, but does California need something more?
“We look at the number of state employees [and] the number of people who are… who are seeking access to health care. We look at all these differences,” Steinberg said. “All the changes you’re making, and the protections and accountability you’re building in is maybe missing the point here... I’m just saying, there are a lot of people out there interacting on a cloud, and apparently pretty well.”
Ramos, who wiped sweat from his brow a few times during the roughly hour-long hearing, stated what his intentions have been throughout his tenure at the top of California’s technology ladder.
“My focus has been understanding the technology trends and evolutions that are happening, and how are people in their personal lives using technology to transact business, to communicate with each other, and generally to make life more convenient for themselves,” he said. “Consumers bring those same expectations to government, so one of my goals has been to make California a leader in innovation and technology in the public sector.”
Yet it was unclear if Steinberg understood Ramos’ technology vision for innovation well enough. It’s no secret to those in the know that many sophisticated government administrations have a mixture of large, hardware-driven enterprise systems in their portfolio, as well as cloud deployments and smaller scale apps and platforms.
But Steinberg didn’t appear to be a fan of largescale hardware deployments at all. He said he recalled that Clay Johnson, a technologist who develops Web apps, mentioned at a senate policy summit in 2013 that it was a mistake for governments to release large, expensive procurement RFPs. Smaller is better, and so is less hardware.
Ramos agreed with Johnson’s perspective to a point, but argued that there will be times when California will need enterprise hardware and processing power, regardless.
“Some of those technologies, the mobile technologies, for example, an app, may work in certain aspects, sometimes you just need big, industrial strength computing power,” Ramos said.
Steinberg’s technology confusion reared its head at least one other time as well. Earlier in the hearing, he asked Ramos when California deployed its last successful $100+ million mainframe system, but what he really meant was system — period.
“When was California’s last $100 million or greater mainframe tech project that was a success?” Steinberg said. “When was the last time we used mainframe technology, if I’m using the right terms here, for a major IT project that’s been a success?”
Ramos had trouble remembering back that far, since mainframe technology’s heyday was several years ago. Sen. Holly Mitchell jumped in to revise Steinberg’s question — “new system,” she said, which cleared things up for both men.
“OK, well maybe I’m… I… I don’t want to... I’m not trying to trick you in terms of… I’m not trying to trick you in terms of vernacular,” Steinberg said. “When was the last new system that involved hardware? How’s that? Is that it?”
Ramos mentioned SOMS, the State Offender Management System, and the CMIPS deployment, which processes payroll for several hundreds of thousands people.
He pointed out that California delivers many technology systems well, despite any setback.
“We do actually deliver a lot of technology very successfully, but every now and then, one of them goes off the tracks,” he said, though he didn’t specifically name any of the failed projects.