Colorado CIO Brings a Private-Sector Mindset to Government

In office since January, Chief Information Officer Theresa Szczurek is tackling big projects like cybersecurity, broadband, telehealth and even blockchain with an agile, “it’s OK to fail” philosophy.

by / April 12, 2019
Colorado State Capitol Shutterstock

With a customer base comprising some 31,000 state employees and 5 million citizens, Theresa Szczurek respects the monumental scale of the task before her.

“It’s a big job and an important one, because IT is involved in all aspects of keeping the state of Colorado functioning. We keep all the systems running, the information flowing, the technology advancing securely,” she said.

Szczurek came on board in January as Colorado’s chief information officer and executive director of the Office of Information Technology. She took the helm after a 10-year run as CEO of Radish Systems, a tech startup she co-founded.

She’s here to support the governor’s priorities: free kindergarten, affordable health care and renewable energy. While these may not be high-tech endeavors per se, all have an IT component. In health care, for example, she’s working to expand broadband access in support of telehealth and rural medicine. Broadband factors into education, too, as a means to help teachers access online training and certification.

Other top agenda items include a big cybersecurity push, like an effort to implement dual-factor authentication across government entities. “Cybersecurity is one of our top priorities,” she said. “We have an office for information security and we are constantly looking at ways that we can be more innovative to address these big risks.”

Blockchain also ranks high on the to-do list. Szczurek serves on a statewide council exploring that technology, and she says her office is actively working to identify potential use cases.

That’s a lot of irons in the fire, and one of Szczurek’s first tasks will be to put these various projects into some kind of order. “There is so much to be done, so we need to prioritize and figure out our wildly important goals,” she said.

To guide that effort, she’ll be using a metric she brought over from the private sector: customer satisfaction, or as she prefers to put it, “customer delight.”

“We want to meet and exceed the expectations of the consolidated agencies within the state and the other stakeholders across state government. We need to understand the needs of these customers and then leverage technology statewide across multiple agencies,” she said, pointing to e-licensing as one likely example of a technology that could benefit multiple agencies. “Rather than having each of them come out with an independent solution, the Office of Information Technology is looking at ways to provide a solution that allows everyone to access that.”

That sounds like private-sector thinking, as does Szczurek’s approach to evaluating technologies.

“We don’t have the resources to chase everything,” she said. “So we start by doing a limited proof of concept, a minimal viable product with some lean and agile approaches, to actually develop a case study. We know that not every proof of concept will deliver the right kind of results, but we have to test it in order to find out.”

While this "it-is-OK-to-fail" philosophy has come into vogue in private industry, it still isn’t spoken very loudly in public-sector circles, where accountability looms large. Asked whether she worried about conducting small-scale failures in the public eye, Szczurek expressed little concern. She works for an entrepreneurial-minded governor, she says, and anyway, this is just the right way to do things.

“You have to very willing to try new things and learn from them. You have to be curious and grow,” she said. “Fail fast and fail small. You have to be willing to risk.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.