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Michigan's New Chief Technology Officer Gives Survival Tips

Dan Lohrmann gives six tips on handling a new information technology job in government.

by / May 6, 2009

Thomas Edison once said, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Was he managing a government technology organization?

I recently transitioned from my job as Michigan's chief information security officer to the state's chief technology officer (CTO). This may not seem like much of a change, but I went from managing a security team with 30 staff to directing 800 professionals responsible for all aspects of infrastructure services, including multiple data centers, enterprise architecture, help desks, office automation, technical support and more.

As a former agency CIO during the Y2K days and a private-sector technology director in England, I was confident in my ability to deliver quick, positive change. I came in energized with dreams of grandeur, visions of tech-savvy innovation, e-mails with customer gadget "needs," lists of secure PC and server configurations, magazines full of ideas and a few morale boosters to boot.

Man, was I in for a surprise!

I felt as if I was drinking from a firehose during those first few weeks - so much was coming at me all at once. But along the way, I learned a few things that I hope will help you when transitioning to a new IT role. Here are a few do's and don'ts if you find yourself in a new management job.

Do listen. I was blessed with the fact that Pat Hale, the previous Michigan CTO, was a good friend of mine. We spent almost two weeks working together before he left. Pat filled me in on the good, the bad and the things to watch out for. If you don't know your predecessor, consider giving him or her a call to set up lunch. I also listened closely to my new boss's expectations as well as my direct report's area summaries during transition meetings. Caution: Everyone seemed to have thoughts, but several ideas were contradictory. Find one or two trusted colleagues or mentors and act on their advice.

Don't let your calendar manage you. I quickly learned that my calendar was not my own. Meetings seemed to magically appear out of nowhere, and my schedule was packed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. All of a sudden, every IT vendor in the country wanted a meet and greet. I quickly regained control and blocked off some desk time. I also set meeting priorities with my executive assistant. The result? Some meetings were canceled or moved out, while other high-priority meetings were moved up and given more prep time.

Do deliver low-hanging fruit quickly. First impressions often stick, so making a positive mark during the honeymoon period is key. I quickly determined that assigned tasks had been dropped by staff over the previous several months. A better method of managing actions was needed. I instituted a new process to improve accountability by formally tracking promised deliverables.

Do embrace the unexpected. About three weeks after I started, Michigan was hit with a major zero-day virus outbreak that impacted two of our agencies. I spent three 14-hour days at our department's emergency coordination center directing organizational response. While I didn't ask for that mini crisis, the problems we faced were a blessing in disguise. I was able to display my strongest skills. It was also a great opportunity to grow relationships with all parts of my new organization.

Don't underestimate paperwork and know what you're signing. Org charts, position descriptions, reclassifications, strategic plans, tactical project plans and more were thrown at me on day one. The challenge was knowing what to read, what to skim, when to sign and when to ask more questions. One mistake I made was signing paperwork for a new position that wasn't well justified and didn't meet department guidelines. I assumed the paperwork in front of me matched the good verbal explanation given. I was wrong and got my hand slapped.

Do walk around. I struggled with how quickly to meet with various workgroups and people during the "acting" period, but I ended up getting out and following that age-old advice of "management by walking around." This strategy was definitely beneficial. Decisions look different on the front lines compared to back at headquarters.

One last thought: Thomas Edison succeeded through perseverance. But like the famous inventor, we can't be afraid of making mistakes. Practice makes perfect.


Visit Dan Lohrmann's new blog, Lohrmann on Infrastructure.


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Dan Lohrmann Contributing Writer

Building effective virtual government requires new ideas, innovative thinking and hard work. From cybersecurity to cloud computing to mobile devices, Dan discusses what’s hot and what works.

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