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Undercover CTO: Spending Time on the Front Lines (Opinion)

Michigan chief technology officer learns about an organization from the inside out.

by / August 2, 2010
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Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series covering columnist Dan Lohrmann's experiences as the "Undercover CTO." Part two will appear in the October issue of Public CIO.


In a recent meeting with front-line technology supervisors, I was wrapping up a Q&A session when one person raised his hand: "Everyone in my section is talking about that new TV show called Undercover Boss. We were just thinking: Why don't you do that? I mean, why not walk a mile in our shoes?"

Oops. Why did I take that last question? My mind started racing. How to answer?

OK, I believe in management by walking around, but I'm trying to be more strategic ... not good.

Try this: There are more than 800 staff and contractors in the technology infrastructure, so I don't have enough time to visit everyone. It wouldn't be fair ... strike two.

How about: That's not my job ... never mind. I'm out of strikes.

After a smiling pause, I responded: "Well ... um ... everybody knows me; it wouldn't work. I mean ... but ... you see ... I'm busy. And ... darn it, why not?"

Did I just say that?

Word travels fast. About an hour later I was on the phone trying to explain this to Vera, my executive assistant. "It's true. I'm spending a day on the front lines with each of our eight infrastructure groups this summer. I've already committed to the first stop -- field services in two weeks."

There was a painful silence before Vera responded sternly, "We never discussed this. Scheduling will be difficult." She was right.

Nevertheless, I decided to jump in with gusto. I announced the ground rules to my directors: "Your team decides where I go and how long I stay with each group. Your staff will tell me what I do and even what to wear. I will be with front-line staff solving real problems in the same way that they do. Beyond introductions, no other management will be present."

Two weeks later, as I walked into Dave's cube on my first assignment, I noticed his chair was old and looked uncomfortable. He insisted it was fine and proceeded to describe his job with an excitement that was contagious. His role: dispatching field services staff to users who are down and have problems that couldn't be fixed by our phone support staff.

After walking me through his processes and procedures, I asked, "How can we improve? How can I help?" Dave smiled and pulled out his list. He was obviously ready for this question.

"We struggle implementing our definition of 'user down.' All of our processes are keyed off of this definition, but the definition is too narrow. In addition, we need better back-office communications with the security group." Very interesting discussion.

My next 90 minutes were spent with Jason, visiting end-users who had submitted problem tickets. I was impressed with his knowledge and extensive work experience. (Jason has a master's degree, but he's fixing PCs. Wow!) After working with Jason, I was on the front lines with Jared for an hour. These guys know their stuff.

One issue that arose was "drive-by" support -- when another customer in the area has questions and asks for immediate help. Since our policy says they must call the Customer Support Center (CSC) first, resolving these issues is officially not allowed so we can track metrics and work priorities, and try to solve problems on the phone. But Jason mapped a printer in about two minutes to make one woman very happy. Note to self: If a customer can be helped in under five minutes, the drive-by should be allowed without calling the CSC. But we still need to track those tickets.

Speaking of the CSC, that's my next stop in 10 days. Seven more areas to go, but there are already some lessons learned:

1. Staff are sending me unsolicited e-mails and thanking me for taking the time to experience their job. Others have invited me to hear their problems firsthand.

2. We have dedicated professionals who care and have good ideas.

3. Management reports are coming to life. This experience will help in setting priorities. I'm asking myself why I didn't do this a year ago. It's definitely worth the time and effort. ¨


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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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