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Ohio CIOs Share Wisdom on IT Leadership

Ohio CIO Stu Davis and city of Columbus CIO Sam Orth both say they never planned to lead government tech agencies but have embraced the scope of possibilities within the work.

COLUMBUS, OHIO — On Dec. 28, 2010, Stu Davis found out he was being tapped to be Ohio’s next CIO under then-incoming Gov. John Kasich. When the call came, Davis was surprised; he hadn’t been seeking the CIO role at all.

“I never really aspired to be a CIO,” Davis said. “I kind of fell into the chief operating officer circle. I always thought I was much better at taking hills than finding the hills that need to be taken.”

Since his appointment, Davis has spent the time guiding efforts to modernize the way Ohio’s state government uses technology, sowing innovation and culture-change in its 26 state agencies, and preaching the value of sharing data with the state to public servants in its 88 counties, among other projects. Davis currently ranks among the most productive and accomplished state CIOs in the nation.

Considering that the role of CIO is one of the newest and fastest-evolving leadership positions in state government, Davis’ experience can be taken as an instructive one, and he spoke about it in detail on Monday at Government Technology’s Ohio Public Sector CIO Academy 2018. Davis sat on a panel at that event, sharing the story of how he landed in his job as well as the resultant insights. Davis was joined by Sam Orth, who was Ohio’s CIO before Davis and is currently the CIO for the city of Columbus, Ohio.

Both men talked about their prior stints in the private sector, about bouncing between technology and managerial roles, and about ultimately returning to state government, where they were tapped to lead tech initiatives by elected officials.

Being in the vanguard of government CIOs, Orth and Davis had similar stories: they had track records as productive technology project leaders in other parts of government, and they simply focused on their work and accomplished goals as instructed until they were called upon to serve in a higher office.

In discussing the future of CIO roles in state and city government, both CIOs also noted that a large part of their job has become preparing their offices for those who come next. CIOs are often hired or appointed by the top elected officials in government — mayors and governors — and so as administrations change there is often turnover of CIOs. That means they must build a culture of work that will withstand someone new coming into the office.  

“A core of what we do as technologists is lead change,” Orth said. “We will know our value when the work we guide outlives us.”

The last point the conversation touched on was what the CIOs would have done differently if they could go back to the start of their tenures. Government often has a tendency to focus entirely on the cost versus savings value of work. Davis said if he could go back, he’d work harder to view the success of information technology through a different lens, one that incorporates intangible efficiencies that bypass that simple financial equation.

At its core, however, being CIO is similar to most other positions, regardless of the route one takes to get there.

“Focus on the things you control and getting stuff done,” Davis said, “and they’ll find more stuff for you to do.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.