One of America’s longest-serving IT chiefs at the local level is moving from one D.C. suburb to another, bringing decades of experience and recognition to a new county government role in Maryland.
After more than 20 years heading IT in Fairfax County, Va., Wanda Gibson is moving on.
Not far — across the Potomac and Washington, D.C., east of the city to Prince George’s County, Md. — but it’s a farewell to decades of work for one of the nation’s longest-serving IT chiefs at the local level. Effective July, Gibson, 64, will retire from Fairfax County and become CIO of a government that encompasses more than 900,000 people, roughly comparable to her current role. As has often been the case in Gibson’s career, she was recruited for the new position. She said her decision was a matter of timing and personal convenience, as it will shorten her commute by an hour, keep her closer to family and coincide with retirement from Fairfax.
A fourth-generation native of the Washington, D.C., area, Gibson has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an MBA from Howard University, and a certificate in software engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She said she started her career as an industry consultant at AT&T before being recruited by Howard University to be its executive director of university computing. In 1996 she became CIO of Arlington County, Va., where she served for three years until being recruited to Fairfax County by longtime county official Anthony Griffin in 1999. She’s been chief technology officer there ever since.
Looking back on two decades of work during a transformative period for government technology, Gibson was hard-pressed to summarize her accomplishments, but she cited many: a complete overhaul of technology architecture and infrastructure from the 1990s, including network, storage and applications; implementation of SAP enterprise resource planning; a complete set of new applications serving 911, police and fire; several agency-specific applications in the human and social services arena; and several regional initiatives, such as the implementation of data exchange for computer-aided dispatch systems among six agencies in Northern Virginia, and leading a project that tied together fiber networks across 23 governments in the capital region.
According to a mini-bio she provided by email, Gibson has also been a member of over half a dozen professional groups such as the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments CIO Committee, National Capital Region Homeland Security Advisory Committee, National Capital Region Interoperability Working Group, the Commonwealth of Virginia Interoperability Advisory Group, Virginia IT Leaders, Metropolitan Information Exchange, Government Management Information Society, the Commonwealth of Virginia IT Symposium and the Federal Office Systems Expo.
In 2003, Governing* magazine named her Public Official of the Year; in 2007, she made Government Technology’s list of the nation’s top-five women CIOs; and in 2010, she was one of GT’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers. Under her leadership, Fairfax County has been among the top-five digital counties recognized by the Center for Digital Government* for 14 years.
Gibson said one of the structural changes that helped her keep pace with the industry was treating upgrades as operating expenditures instead of capital projects. It gave her department the freedom to update systems with fewer obstacles and will continue to do so for her staff, as the county transfers its systems to offsite data centers.
“When I got to Fairfax, one thing we decided to do is not have the basic foundational technology as part of capital projects. We baked it into operating, so the staff could continually enhance as they go along,” she said. “There are a whole lot of strategic things underway. We’re moving different systems out to the cloud, we’re doing some really good things with AI and digital assistance on our websites … We’re getting out of the infrastructure business, so [Fairfax County staff] will no longer be managing an onsite data center.”
Awaiting her in Prince George’s County are several large initiatives that county staff recruited her to tackle, including a new 311 customer relationship management project, updating and modernizing the county’s website, and new enterprise resource planning software.
On the differences between IT at the county level in 2019 versus state or city, Gibson pointed out that county officials are sometimes less tied to elections and therefore have some longevity. But otherwise, in a big-picture sense, she said most of her peers recognize the same obstacles.
“The technology industry is pivoting so quickly that that causes a challenge for anybody in any of these governments to keep up with the investments, and the ability to change into the new technologies,” she said. “It’s a challenge for anybody in government.”
*Governing and the Center for Digital Government are part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.