CIOs Off the Clock

Inside the fascinating lives of CIOs who break the mold.

by / December 10, 2013
Lisa Feldner, vice chancellor, Information Technology and Institutional Research, North Dakota University System Pamela Smette

For more than a decade Public CIO has documented how chief information officers and other technology leaders are becoming change agents in government. This magazine has explored in great detail the management and leadership issues that CIOs confront every day. We’ve explained what the CIO does and what the job is.

But we rarely discuss who a CIO really is. Like most groups, the broad sketch of a stereotype has emerged over the years. For the CIO, it’s that (mostly) he or she spends long days and nights in front of a screen, dutifully ensuring that the data center doesn’t go down, the radio system doesn’t break, or the funding doesn’t dry up. A personal life, it seems, is nonexistent or unimportant. Technology is everything and the only thing.

Of course, that caricature does an injustice. CIOs don’t eat, breathe and sleep computers, although we sometimes can forget this. They have outside interests and hobbies — and interesting stories to tell.

The stories of these four CIOs are a reminder that life goes on after the office lights go dark.

The Rancher

Lisa Feldner, Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Institutional Research, North Dakota University System

As North Dakota’s CIO for seven years, Lisa Feldner gave her share of opening remarks at meetings and conferences. She recalls running late for one meeting for a reason you don’t hear every day: One of Feldner’s horses was foaling and she delivered the newborn.

It wasn’t a big deal for Feldner, who’s now in charge of technology for the North Dakota University System. She has 12 horses on a 40-acre ranch and shows the best of them competitively in the U.S. and Canada. She attends weekend events about once a month, particularly when the weather is warmer.

Last year she went to the Canadian Nationals and won the all-around in the amateur bracket. “If you work hard, you need to play hard, and I really do that,” she said.

Feldner grew up showing Appaloosa horses, and she now competes in a variety of events, including Western and English riding and jumping, and saddle events. She doesn’t rope, but she does almost everything else. Feldner’s found her most success in the English events.

She credits her family for being supportive. Her husband and two college-age children have played a big role in managing their stable. Her kids even named one of Feldner’s best horses, called Genuine Secret on the event circuit, but known as Jar Jar at home. The kids thought the horse was a klutz like the Star Wars character.

Feldner’s hobby has taught her that concentrating on a goal is a key for success. She brings that lesson to work at her new job consolidating the IT of North Dakota’s universities. “Particularly at the World level where it’s very competitive, you must learn to focus and tune out extraneous things,” Feldner said. “You must be reasonable about your assets and resources, and set realistic goals.”

With her children grown up, Feldner is readjusting the goals of her horse operation. She once had 18 horses but is now at a dozen and wants to get down to eight. She gave some away and sold others. The horse industry is finally starting to rebound after a prolonged slump, so good riding horses are worth a lot of money. “It becomes somewhat of a business because people want to buy them from us,” she said. But Feldner enjoys the animals, and some of them are pets.

Feldner travels more in her new job, so she has less time for training with the horses. But her goal in the sport is still to win.

And yes, showing horses is a sport. “That’s how they categorize it on eBay,” Feldner said, laughing.

The Climber
Steve Reneker, CIO, Los Angeles

Once upon a time, the man in charge of computer systems in Los Angeles couldn’t figure out how to successfully send an email. But don’t be alarmed. Steve Reneker had the best excuse you could think of: He was at base camp on Mount Everest in 1995, with a group of American climbers who successfully made it to the highest point on Earth. Reneker is the 715th recorded person to make the summit. He was part of an American team of climbers, and one of his duties was to coordinate the expedition’s technology.

“We were trying to do the first email send via satellite at that point in time. Email wasn’t very pervasive back then; Internet wasn’t even that active,” Reneker said. “We had a satellite uplink, and we were sending faxes and getting incoming weather reports, but we just couldn’t get the data link working via satellite.”

But the three-month odyssey away from his wife and two young children wasn’t for naught. The climbers also were searching for the body of George Mallory, an Englishman who some speculate was the first person to summit Everest before disappearing on the mountain in 1924. Reneker’s team didn’t find Mallory after a fresh layer of snowfall wouldn’t melt, but the weather conditions cleared and the winds subsided, giving Reneker and other climbers at the high camp just the opening they needed for a shot at the top.

Reneker awoke at about 10 p.m., boiled enough water to drink for 24 hours, and strapped on his oxygen tank to combat the suffocatingly thin air at 28,000 feet. Then he exited his tent at the mountain’s final camp and started the last leg of the harrowing ascent. He didn’t see another soul for the next 12 hours.

“You definitely felt the danger,” he said. “There’s always strength in numbers, but when you’re climbing the final day on Everest, it’s a solo climb up the north side. Along that route, when your crampons kick off a few times and you’re looking down the North Face and thinking, ‘You know, if I don’t get this back on and I slip, nobody’s going to know I’ve fallen, and that’s it.’”

Upon reaching the top of the world on May 16, 1995, he cried out in accomplishment and reflected on God. Reneker also was carrying the ashes of his friend and climbing mentor David Tollakson, who died tragically a year earlier during a training climb for Everest on Mount San Jacinto in Southern California. Everest was the only of the Seven Summits — each of the highest peaks on the seven continents — Tollakson hadn’t conquered. “So that was my mission: not to get me to the top, but to get him to the top,” Reneker said.

It was the culmination of a long journey, which started many years previously when Reneker became a volunteer on the ski patrol. That activity introduced him to a tight-knit network of skilled mountaineers.

Reneker reminisces often about his time on Everest. He has a photo of himself on the summit in his office at the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency. “I think about how it relates to the work environment from a teamwork perspective — like having a project plan and sticking to it, persevering through thick and thin when the weather’s bad. When things get tough, you know that you can always regroup and conquer the goal.”

He just wishes Everest had email and Internet back then.

“Just being able to send a photograph and a loved one seeing your smiling face and knowing you’re healthy and you look good — certainly would have brought a lot more peace of mind,” Reneker said.

The Collector
Calvin Rhodes, CIO, Georgia

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Calvin Rhodes’ advice to beginning wine collectors is to use an app called CellarTracker, which notes the best time to drink each bottle and case in your collection.

Calvin and his wife are longtime wine enthusiasts, and he said his growing collection of vintages is a welcome respite from his responsibilities as the CIO of Georgia, a position he’s had for the past two and a half years. But still, he can’t keep technology at bay completely.

There’s an impressive wine cellar in the Rhodes household. The cellar’s main doors came off a home in Belgium and were imported by way of New York. The space, which is controlled for humidity and temperature, has enough room for 2,000 bottles — which Rhodes says is almost half full.

“If we’d slow up our drinking, we’d probably fill it up sooner,” he joked.

The couple plans many of their vacations around their wine hobby, and when it’s time to get on an airplane for a work-related conference, they sometimes will depart a day early, especially if there’s an opportunity to make a quick jaunt to the famed Napa Valley in California or another premier destination.

The bottles in their cellar come from places they’ve visited. They have been to Argentina to visit a winery owned by the renowned winemaker Paul Hobbs, and recently went to the Tuscany region outside of Florence, Italy, in the Chianti area. They’ve sampled wines on the Dalmatian Coast en route to Istanbul that are little known in the U.S. and found favorites in South Africa in a town called Stellenbosch east of Cape Town. The Rhodes also have acquired premier wines from Sonoma, Calif., wines that score 100 out of 100 — “100-point wines” — on leading U.S. wine critic Robert Parker’s rating system.

But you don’t need a big budget or extensive knowledge to get started, Rhodes said.

“A lot of folks get intimidated by those who have been involved in this longer. You should find something you like and not worry about if anybody else likes it or what kind of ranking it received,” he said. If you drink enough in a particular region, you’re bound to find a wine you enjoy.

Like any good hobby, Rhodes said he’s too emotionally attached to sell any of the wines in his collection, even if their value is appreciating. Many of the wines in his cellar are 10 years or older.

“I like the sexiness of the hobby,” Rhodes admitted.

Just don’t ask him to drink a wine with a screw-on cap. Even as a CIO, he’s not into that new-age innovation.

The Responder
Steve Emanuel, CIO, New Jersey

For many of us, a typical Friday night out might involve going to a nice restaurant and seeing a movie. But after a long work week, Steve Emanuel kicks off the weekend in an entirely different way. He drives an ambulance as a volunteer emergency medical technician. “As a government employee, pretty much the only nights you can ensure being at home is on the weekends,” the 58-year-old Emanuel said.

In one way or another, he’s been volunteering as a first responder since 1978, when the local volunteer fire department showed up at his neighbor’s house when the basement flooded. “Next thing I know, there were six or seven guys running around the fire truck figuring out what to do. I thought, ‘If my house is burning down, I want to make sure the water is going on my house and the guys aren’t just running around.’” That spurred Emanuel’s second career as a volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania, a role he served in for 23 years. He shifted gears in 2006 after getting his certification in emergency medical services.

One might wonder where Emanuel finds the energy to do a side job in addition to his work as New Jersey’s CIO. But Emanuel said he runs on pure adrenaline during his ambulance shifts, treating patients who need lifesaving care, doing heavy lifting when putting patients onto stretchers, and occasionally performing CPR. The work is great exercise, gets him out of the house and makes him feel good that he’s helping people.

Emanuel also gets first-hand knowledge of how technology can improve patient care, and he brings that unique perspective to his CIO career. Over the years, he also has been the CIO of the Amtrak national rail system and Montgomery County, Md. “It’s been a good learning experience for me. Being a CIO who has been in charge of radio systems and those types of things, I know what I could do with broadband and a video camera in an ambulance would be great,” Emanuel said. He recently transported and treated a patient who had a serious airway obstruction. Instead of having to focus on collecting the person’s vital statistics and other critical data, Emanuel said it would have been great to have the bandwidth to send that information automatically and instantaneously to the hospital so that he could have focused solely on treating the patient’s health problem.

“I see real value in wireless broadband and getting wireless capabilities out to these vehicles,” he said.

Emanuel has an array of interests outside of community service. As a father of five children, he became a weekend chef and has been called the barbecue king of his neighborhood. “If the grill has propane, I’m barbecuing,” he said. Emanuel catered his youngest daughter’s bridal shower last year, cooking barbecued chicken sliders and pulled pork au jus for more than 100 guests. “Because I’m an IT project manager, I plan things. I had my menu planned out — what I could do each night — and then I had a sequence of when I could put things in the oven so everything was hot and ready to go.”

He also does home construction and repair. He once finished the basement in his home, all the way down to doing the drywall and plumbing a new bathroom. He also refurbished a townhouse rental property and is now involved in helping build his youngest daughter’s home, where he is learning how to frame. In addition, Emanuel is a “ground pilot,” meaning he flies his collection of model airplanes. He keeps his flying skills sharp by using a computer simulation.

Some might call Emanuel a renaissance man, but he’s not sure the description fits. He believes his interests are focused, not broad.

“The kid in me likes my airplanes, the person who wants to please others is the chef in me, the cheap guy in me wants to do home construction and repair, and the humanitarian in me spends time doing EMT stuff,” he said.

Matt Williams Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines. He also previously served as the managing editor of TechWire, a sister publication to Government Technology.2

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