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Alaska IT Surges Ahead in Response to COVID-19 Concerns

Since 2017, Alaska's effort to consolidate IT had resulted in many dissatisfied state agencies, but the state was able to change a number of minds with its recent advancement in teleworking capability.

In the history books, COVID-19 will likely be portrayed as a gargantuan disruptor that took away lives, jobs and seemingly any sense of normalcy. But the record should also show that the global health crisis accelerated the role of technology. For the state of Alaska, the pandemic marks a point where a process of IT centralization, after a years-long rocky start, made a significant leap forward. 

“In the longer game, in the longer picture, it was actually a scenario where we showed the worth of centralized IT because we were able to take a few things off the plates of [state] departments … as we continue to move forward, I see more and more willingness to engage and more and more trust develop between our organizations,” said Alaska Chief Information Officer Bill Smith.

Alaska’s centralization journey began in April 2017, when then-Gov. Bill Walker signed an order for the state to move away from its federated IT structure. The order established a new agency, the Office of Information Technology (OIT), under the Alaska Department of Administration (DOA). “This concept has been years in the making,” Walker said at the time. 

A little more than a year after that historic moment for Alaska IT, progress looked like a mixed bag. Bill Vajda, whom Walker appointed as CIO to lead the consolidation, resigned in August 2018. Given that Alaska agencies were used to controlling their own IT, Vajda had remarked that he was a necessary evil of sorts, according to then-deputy CIO Dan DeBartalo.

“Bill acknowledged that he was here to be the one that absorbed the fire, what’s sometimes called friendly fire,” DeBartalo recounted. The friendly fire meant that some agencies played ball, while others “didn’t keep the same pace.” 

The CIO position in Alaska became a revolving door of interim leaders. Between August 2018 and November 2019, the state saw four people become the temporary head of OIT.

To an outsider, the situation might have looked like chaos. From the inside, Kelly Tshibaka, who was appointed DOA commissioner in January 2019, was assessing the situation and developing a plan to advance the state’s technological capabilities and increase buy-in for the consolidation effort across the state. 

“I found a history of IT making a lot of promises and not keeping them and posing a lot of mandates that did not work for the departments,” Tshibaka said. Additionally, the state’s tech lagged behind modern standards. “When we rolled into the end of 2019, we identified 3,000 computers that were still on Windows 7,” she said. 

Smith was hired as permanent CIO in November 2019. He found that agencies’ resistance to centralization wasn’t merely personal. 

“As I walked around, there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the central IT model, and the deeper I looked, I realized it’s because we didn’t really centralize,” Smith said. “People thought, ‘Oh, we’re done. We’re centralized.’ But we really hadn’t. We had done one or two steps, but there was no centralized IT governance. There was no pooled resources in a lot of ways. And so it became clear to me why there was dissatisfaction.”

When Crisis Inspires Change

Before COVID-19, roughly 100 state employees were teleworking in Alaska. But for months now, the state has had more than 6,000 employees working remotely. Tshibaka said that any staff member who is able to perform remote work has the capability to do so today. 

This massive shift started with an analysis of the state’s IT “chokepoints,” Smith said. The most significant chokepoint was the virtual private network (VPN) concentrator throughput. The network and VPN access capacity hadn’t “ever been sized,” which meant that Alaska employees weren’t in position to respond to social distancing concerns. 

“State employees would not have been able to make the choice to work remotely. … They would have been much more concerned about their own health and safety, but also it would’ve forced us to make some pretty expensive and time-consuming facility changes,” Smith explained. 

In Smith’s eyes, the VPN issue was solved in part due to a partnership with company Cisco that the state had nurtured for years — a relationship that amounts to more than a “transactional approach to vendor support.” During March, Smith received a phone call from the company about the issue before he even had a chance to reach out. From there, a team consisting of Cisco engineers, state of Alaska engineers and local Internet service providers delivered “incremental increases in capacity” before landing on a longer-term solution. 

“That team was able to design, build, test and implement virtual appliance VPN concentrators that gave us an increase of capacity of ten-fold … Literally within a week we went from being at 70, 80, 90 percent throughput at any given part of the day, making me pretty nervous, to being at 10, 20 percent throughput,” Smith said. 

Tshibaka said the team “performed miracles” that allowed Alaska to rapidly transform in response to the pandemic. Once the tech was ready, staff training cemented the new norm. 

“We went from nobody using [Microsoft] Teams to over 6,800 daily users in three weeks,” Tshibaka said. 

After all of this progress, both Tshibaka and Smith started hearing praise about the consolidated IT model from new directions.

“For the first time, I heard commissioners complimenting the central structure because of the ability to deliver things like VPN access … they thought very highly of it,” Smith said. 

The Future of Alaska IT

Tech-wise, the state may have taken a big jump ahead within the last few months, but Tshibaka believes if you look at Alaska IT two years from now, it will be substantially different from the present. Smith added that the state is only about one-third of the way done with its centralization effort.

Smith said the recent IT improvements are about much more than helping the state of Alaska be prepared for crises in the future. Equally important to the state’s vision is advancing service delivery for Alaska residents. 

“Where I would like to see us go and where I think we’re going to end up is just a really simple interface with the state of Alaska for our employees,” Smith said, “and there are ways that we can do that with technology that would allow Alaskans to interface and jump into the state of Alaska in a remote manner that doesn’t result in having to go through five or six different Web pages, or doesn’t result in having to go through a bunch of different hoops to get services.”

Alaska is also in the middle of a “pretty large cloud migration” — but not simply for the sake of utilizing the cloud. Smith subscribes to a “cloud-smart mentality,” meaning that he envisions a hybrid system where data centers still play a role. 

“You pick your provider, and [cloud] can be an amazing, amazing tool provided you use it the right way,” Smith said. “It doesn’t make sense just to take things that are sitting in your data center and lift and shift it in all cases. You might not be anymore efficient than you are today. You might not save any money. But if you look at the right applications and put them in the cloud in the right manner, you can have some real savings.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.