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Learning from the Best: James Collins, CIO of Delaware

In this exclusive interview, James Collins, chief information officer (CIO) for the state of Delaware, shares insights from his extraordinary career in government technology leadership.

by / September 5, 2020
Photo credit Delaware Government

When James Collins recently announced that he will be ending his public service career in Delaware government on Sept. 11, 2020, the stories, press releases and accolades started pouring in from around the country.

Here are three of the articles covering the big announcement last week:

Nevertheless, from this blogger’s perspective, these articles do not go deep enough to highlight the impact, skill, thoughtfulness and wit that made Mr. Collins so immensely successful in Delaware government leadership and as the President of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) during their 50th anniversary year (celebrated in October 2019).

James is a one of the best communicators I have ever known who has the rare gift of helping audiences (large and small) feel relaxed and respected. But beyond his natural humor, he is smart and intentional – with a plan and reason for doing what he’s doing.  

Indeed, so much more can be said, and learned, from CIO James Collins that I endeavored to capture this moment in time with the (uncharacteristically long) interview below. I was blessed with the opportunity to sit down with James this week (virtually) to dig deeper into a series of legacy questions that, in my opinion, should become must-reading for global government CIOs. Beyond James’ humor and winning personality, his insights and approach are a great model for technology leaders in both the public and private sectors.  

For more background on James Collins, you can visit his LinkedIn profile here.  You can also see him in a discussion with Gov. John Carney in this video.  

Exclusive Interview Between Delaware CIO James Collins and Dan Lohrmann

Dan Lohrmann (DL): You’ve been in Delaware government since 1998, what are some of your best memories?

Delaware CIO James Collins (JC):  I have a lot of great memories from my years of public service and I have to start with the people. In general, public servants don’t get the credit they deserve. But I have had the honor of working with some of the most talented, dedicated, and conscientious people anywhere. We’ve been able to build relationships that have resulted in achieving positive and meaningful outcomes for Delawareans, businesses and visitors.

Government is intended to leverage our collective resources in service of constituents – to ultimately improve their quality of life. Just a few examples of projects that I have been a part of helping to combat opioid abuse, putting in place important child protection laws, impacting economic development, as well as a number of state workforce initiatives.

I also had the opportunity to work on over 90 pieces of legislation, which was a rare opportunity to enact protections for public engaged with license professionals. Although difficult at times, I was able to bring together stakeholders and balance the interests of the related professions with the wider goal of protecting the public. I found that work challenging, stretching and gratifying.

As CIO, I have been able to lead an amazing team to move a number of initiatives forward including IT centralization, open data, a modern child welfare system, and rural wireless broadband; to name just a few. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to collaborate and build partnerships that, by working together, allowed us to better serve our agency partners, focus on being innovative, and create enterprise solutions.

DL: What people/process/technology changes are most striking over the past two decades? 

JC: Those all weave together for me Dan, because technology has enabled unprecedented levels of collaboration for people to create innovative processes. Today, we can harness global data, knowledge and wisdom for the good of us all. I have this saying: “Together we know everything.” Technology has provided us the opportunity to engage the right people and information to tackle big issues. This newfound capacity of the Digital Age exerts pressure on government to continue evolving from the manila folder era to meeting people where they are with online services. We’ve made good progress but there remains more to be done.

We previously had staff who only performed data entry, but now we have pushed that out to the consumers to enter their own data. This change in practice lets staff focus on higher-level work – in both government and the private sector. These technological enhancements have the potential for more rapid, agile processes that enable continuous feedback.      

For example, when we order something today we regularly receive notifications until it arrives as opposed to the old way of picking an item from a catalogue, placing your order on the phone or mail, and waiting for it to hopefully arrive. Now, we see an item online, we click on it and the system uses data from our profile to immediately begin processing the order. Next, we get updates like order placed, item shipped, and item delivered and requests to provide immediate feedback. This has been a big change.

Last thing on this topic, technology has become pervasive in our lives today. It’s in everything that we’re doing. It wakes us up. It entertains us. It alerts us. It informs us. It even lets us know that it is time to get some rest, stand up or even exercise. I think all of this is great, as long as we are careful with the privacy and security of our intimate data.  

DL: You have a long list of awards and accomplishments including your service as NASCIO President. What has been the secret of your success?

JC: When you mention awards and positions … you don’t go after those things. What you really focus on is: “How do I get results in the area of service that I’m in?”

Just being genuine, focusing on helping wherever you can, making a contribution and inviting the same of others. I don’t usually go into a place thinking: “I want to be the leader or take over.”

Frankly, it was surprising to me to become NASCIO president. I have been blessed to serve in a number of leadership capacities and being entrusted with the NASCIO presidency was among the most rewarding. It wasn’t something that I was working towards. Rather, when I joined, I saw a great collective where we could leverage the thoughts and solutions of state leaders across the nation to raise the level of service for all states. I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure it was successful. And that mindset turned into a role on a committee, which later led to even more.

It reminds me of when I was at church and used to just help set up for youth events – and move chairs around. And next thing you know, I am the youth minister. I was like: “What the heck?”

But at the same time, to whom much is given much is required. So, when you get the opportunity to serve, you jump in and help. When you are faithful in the small things, it turns into bigger things.   

DL: In your CIO role in Delaware, how has cybersecurity grown in significance?

JC: I have developed this discipline as CIO to always start my thinking with the outcomes desired.

Recently, when talking to my team at the Department of Technology and Information (DTI), I challenged them to not think about their projects as servers, networks and applications, but think about what that (project) is enabling. That team isn’t just working on an election system, they are protecting the democracy of our nation! It’s that important.

So, I start with thinking about the outcome we want, and what is the outcome we want to prevent?  

In cybersecurity, we used to have a “protect the castle” approach, which meant we only had to defend the systems and data on our network from the bad guys – and that usually worked.  Now, many services have been pushed outward to the edge – so protecting the castle doesn’t work anymore. We’re now evolving our security strategy to protect the endpoints and identities. That is a huge shift and we are still adapting our systems accordingly. But if we are really going to achieve digital government, where anyone can access services anywhere, at any time and from any device, that’s where we have to go as it relates to security.

Another aspect of cybersecurity is that the threat landscape has dramatically increased, and we’ve been forced to respond to that. Fortunately, we have great executive support on that front and have been able to be proactive. What I appreciate about Governor (John) Carney is that he is not waiting for a crisis to act. When we went to him and described the new cyberthreat environment, he was coming from the perspective being a former Congressman who had all the classified briefings. So, he understood the threats and supported our initiatives here in Delaware.

I also know that, due to some of the election security issues and other cyber incidents across the country, my counterparts in other states are getting increased support as well to evolve their security posture. There have also been some promising developments at the federal level that have the potential to increase support for these efforts.  

Cybersecurity is a team sport. It used to be everyone just pointed to us (the IT people). Now, we make it clear to everyone across the enterprise that it is our collective responsibility. We also work cross-industries in our state cybersecurity advisory committee – with healthcare, law enforcement, higher education, telecommunications, utilities, financial companies, the National Guard and other organizations share threat information and action plans. We want to raise the cyber protections for the entire state, including individual residents.

DL: As you built your team, there were obviously staff members coming and going. You also worked for different leaders. How did you approach those relationship changes?

JC: Good leaders are born of good followers. So, I need to start with followers.

If you are going to commit to a leader, you need to understand what that leader’s priorities are. How do they like to receive information? What’s the best way and the best time to communicate with them?  And you need to execute on that.

I’ve seen some people who have a rigid style, and they try to apply that universally, that generally doesn’t work.

I had one boss who wanted me to communicate with him on the phone or with text messages. If I tried to communicate with him in a long email – he wouldn’t read it. In that case, if I send long emails, we’re not communicating – regardless of what I think we’re doing.  

Understanding leaders, how they communicate and what their priorities are worked well for me when I was in the military, when I worked for the Secretary of State, when I worked for the previous governor and in my work with Governor Carney.

He (Governor Carney) put together an agenda document when he was campaigning called An Action Plan for Delaware. I pored over that plan to see what was applicable to the Department of Technology and Information – to see what we could do to execute on those priorities. What was interesting is my initial review was too narrow. I was looking for things like broadband and open data, but it took me a little while to realize that things like offender re-entry, homelessness and crime were also related to technology. All of those strategic initiatives had a data or a system component. So, we widened our lens which helped us better align with agency partners.

I tell people this: Treat every day like it’s a job interview. When you’re going on a job interview, you make sure you look good, you’ve done your research on the company, you’ve anticipated their questions, you’ve got your answers ready, and you try to be as articulate and finished as possible. Those attitudes and actions should be our regular routine because the people at the next level are always looking to see who is ready to be promoted. 

Also, most leaders don’t want to be surrounded by people telling them what they want to hear, but what they need to hear – and when they need to hear it. It’s also vital to bring solutions – not just problems.

When it comes to picking my own team, it’s really important to have as many categories of diversity as possible. It sets the tone for the organization. It brings perspectives that I don’t have. But I also believe that together we can know everything, so diversity not only serves the agency well, it also represents the constituency that we are here to help, so we won’t miss things. While diversity in and of itself can increase conflict, we must be deliberate about being inclusive to realize the value and harness the potential. Remember, everyone deserves dignity and respect. Do unto others…

The first thing I do with a new team is hammer out our mission, vision and our values. We reach a consensus on those, set a strategy and then we execute. This is very similar to a sports team. You’ve got the players, the coach and the plays – and it all comes together on game day.  

DL: You built great partnerships. What was your approach to that skill? I know it is dangerous to name just a few, but any people or organizations in particular that you want to mention? 

JC: Partnerships are key – but I need to start this with something I don’t like.

I don’t like working with people who use “terroristic negotiation tactics.” What I mean by that is they come to the table knowing what they want, and they leave no room for any additional thoughts. Their entire objective is to get you to adopt whatever they brought to the table. That is not a partnership. In Covey terms, it is a “Win-Lose” proposition rather than a “Win-Win” solution.

For example, when working on legislation I would do my homework and expect a 100% win. However, I learned over time that if you get 70% of what is needed then you are way ahead of where you were before. That’s 70% more protection in place for residents than before the legislation was done. And many times, I learned other pertinent information of which I was unaware. Who would have thought? But those with a “terroristic approach” don’t get anything done, because impasses cause the legislators to say, “Come back when you can reach a consensus.”

So true partners, when there is a problem, attack the problem and not each other. It is important to come to the table with ideas, but to also leave room for what you don’t know. It takes a level of humility to come to the table and ask the other side to tell you a bit more about a service or customer and listen to another perspective.

I’ve learned that people are more willing to engage when you create a space for them to share and contribute. When I first was nominated as CIO, I went to the agency leaders with some open-ended questions so I could listen to them and hear their priorities. What are the problems they face? Ask, how can we be a good partner to you? 

Also, each one of our partnerships is different and requires investment from all sides. We, at DTI, are very proud that we are one of the only states that (the technology agency) serves the Legislative Branch. They have opted-in to our services, and we have a great team meeting their needs. This partnership was the result of us successfully working with many other organizations in support of their missions. During the current pandemic, we helped the legislature conduct historic virtual sessions to debate and pass legislation. Together we achieved a great outcome despite unprecedented circumstances.  

Needless to say, each of our partnerships must be treated in a way that makes them feel valued and heard. That goes for internal groups working together, our agencies, private sector (vendor) partners, customers, local levels of governments – and the even personal relationships for each of us. The trust required for these partnerships has been hard earned by the DTI team as they have offered responsive services, superior system and network stability, strong security and served as a resource.    

DL: What are you most proud of during your time as CIO in Delaware?

JC: From my early days in Delaware government, it was very clear to me that this agency (DTI) was key to the success of many government priorities. Most initiatives had a major technology component going forward.   

What I’m probably most proud of is the way that this agency is woven into the fabric of our state. We help to chart and achieve the future direction of many things. There are very strong partnerships with the Governor’s Office, legislature, agencies, elected offices, K12 and our industry partners. We meld that all together to deliver the services that our constituents, businesses, and visitors to our state deserve.  

I’m proud of the outcomes we deliver: supporting every law enforcement agency, our child welfare agency as they protect children, our elections commissioner – we helped totally modernize and secure our elections infrastructure.

I think about our corporate franchise – Delaware is the corporate capital of the world. Our team helped them complete an entire modernization of their systems, allowing our state to maintain its competitive advantage. 

I’ve encouraged our team to look at the outcomes beyond the technology and focus on the user to deliver much-needed intelligent, intuitive, elegant digital government services with the hopes that would inspire them to serve.  

I went out today (9/3) on a field visit to rural Delaware where we are completing a wireless broadband project. We did a signal test a few miles from a tower with an industry partner, and a local resident who brought his son along to “translate tech.” He said they were previously getting about 2 Mbps during the day, but the test confirmed that the new tower would provide over 60 Mbps. What struck me was not the funding or technology or other things, but at the end of that was a child trying to go to school, or someone trying to get treated by their doctor during the pandemic or an employee trying to work remotely.

Seeing those outcomes gets me excited, because it has taken years to get to this point – and I saw the results in that home-schooled child’s face.

DL: What are the biggest challenges that you see government CIOs facing over the next decade in the 2020s? Any advice?

JC: The top challenge is delivering a commercial grade digital experience for citizens. What makes it so tough is that government CIOs need to be that convener and drive the digital strategy across the state. The trouble is that it won’t happen organically, and all the parts needed to be successful are not within their purview.  They need to provide the overarching leadership by bringing together the Governor’s Office, Legislature, other agencies to break down silos to facilitate an enterprise approach.

Of course, that introduces other challenges. You need the right workforce and attracting and retaining IT talent remains a big issue, especially as some services become commoditized. It’s hard to get cloud architects and top programmers when Fintech (financial firms) and other industries are sucking-up all the talent they can get their hands on – and paying top dollar. Inspiring people to public service will be an ongoing challenge.

I think NASCIO has done a phenomenal job of elevating the role of the CIO into a strategic position - promoting it from an operational position. The partnerships they have with NGA, NCSL, NAAG, NACO, NASBO and many others have shown the importance of having the CIO engaged at the strategic level. CIOs must bring solutions, continue to raise the bar, and even get into the weeds to help agencies provide 21st century services. We wanted to be at the table so let’s make it count.

Funding remains a challenge for many, especially with outdated funding models many CIOs face. I agree with NASCIO that the role is evolving to a CIO-as-a-broker model.  Adopting an OPEX and charge-back model, which is how many private sector businesses run, is going to be a challenge for many – but is the right way to go.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention security because it’s a part of every initiative, right? The attacks have increased during the pandemic, but CIOs are doing the right things by engaging expert partners and employing new tools that leverage AI and advanced analytics to address the growing threats.

DL: Is there anything else you would like to say?

JC: As it relates to technology, I am really hoping that it will help us achieve digital equity across our society. It is, however, important that our newfound tools not be infected with inherent biases that could adversely impact people.

I want to encourage anyone considering a state CIO role to think about the tremendous opportunity you have to do a rewarding job. It is fulfilling because you are working on the most pressing issues for our nation: fighting crime, lifting people out of poverty, educating children and adults and other big issues. With that opportunity comes responsibility, but you can contribute to so much that can help our nation and our world. What could be better than that?

Lastly, there are very few things in my career that I have done alone so whatever accomplishments attributed to me are those of my colleagues as well. I appreciate all those who have put up with my particularness, randomness, and overly optimistic perspective. I am grateful for the relationships, mentors, good times, and lessons that have all served to contribute to my journey to this point and equip me for the next season.

I am very much looking forward to engaging at the state and local government level, and higher education to help them achieve more in my new role!

Blessings and be well.  

Final Thoughts from Dan

I will never forget how hard I laughed when James “played Steve Harvey” in the NASCIO version of Family Feud during a fun moment at the NASCIO 50th Anniversary Celebration in Nashville. His natural ability to improvise and respond quickly with amusing gestures (like viewing the slow-motion replay like an NFL referee in a box) are priceless.   

Perhaps what impresses me most about James Collins is the rare mix of style, humor and humility with an ability to produce meaningful results and outcomes that are so vital to society. James is also a man of faith who puts his personal beliefs into action. I am delighted to bring you his detailed thoughts in this blog interview.  We can all be challenged with his words: “Treat every day like it’s a job interview.”

I am confident that he will continue to do great things for Microsoft in his next career chapter. They are very fortunate to have him join their team.     

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