Raleigh, N.C., CIO Gail Roper Succeeds in a Field that Fewer Females Are Entering

Gail Roper discusses the decline of women in the IT work force, working in local government and turning the job of CIO into a truly public service role. 

by / February 11, 2008

Editor's note:
IT leadership in local government is perhaps the fastest-paced job a CIO can find in the public sector. Decisions made today can literally end up in tomorrow's news. Interaction with citizens and businesses is a daily occurrence. Small budgets and a voracious demand for services require a CIO who is both resourceful and entrepreneurial. Many hold the job of local CIO, but only a few stand out and make their mark.

One of those exceptions is Gail Roper, CIO of Raleigh, N.C. With more than 25 years of experience, Roper has been active in IT from the early days of COBOL programming to today's Web-based world of XML and service-oriented architecture. But her abilities as a local government IT leader are most evident at the strategic level.

In Kansas City, Mo., Roper significantly increased the applications of technology both internally and externally, and gained national recognition for her efforts. Her solutions have been cited by both the Taubman Center for State and Local Government, and the Center for Digital Government.

Roper's leadership on the soft side of technology is also well known. A signature piece of her work includes helping disadvantaged communities connect digitally with government and businesses. Overall, Roper has been widely lauded for being both a compassionate and professional leader in public-sector IT.

She has been named Administrator of the Year by the American Association of Public Administrators, received the Black Family Technology Leader award, the Technology Leadership Award from Public Technology Institute, was one of Government Technology's Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers and most recently named one of Government's Five Most Influential Women CIOs.

In this essay, Roper writes about her experiences breaking into a male-dominated industry, the decline of women in the IT work force, working in local government and turning the job of CIO into a truly public service role.
-- Tod Newcombe, editor, Public CIO


In the Beginning
IT has changed dramatically since I entered the field several decades ago.

I went off to college not really understanding what data processing was all about. My dad didn't work in corporate America with access to a mainframe computer -- a fairly common advantage for many of my fellow classmates, most of whom were men. There were few women in data processing classes back then.

The talk of the classroom was punch cards, bits and bytes. Back then, I evoked so much of the code's glitter in my programs that my professors found it humorous. I sometimes felt like the "Flo Jo" -- Florence Griffith Joyner, the flashy Olympic gold medalist -- of my COBOL programming class.

The creative side of my brain drew me to the programming aspect of data processing, and I later developed a knack for business applications and desktop tools like Lotus 1-2-3.

I was charged with teaching the first generation of Lotus to the accounting department, and I dazzled them with Lotus macros to save time on complex calculations. I wasn't as interested in the programming logic as much as the final product's feature-rich capabilities and its applicability to the real world of efficiencies and productivity gain.

I advanced my career around my natural talent for understanding what the tools could do for people and having a great deal of patience with the users. An individual with this kind of ability became indispensable to the organization.

Men Build, Women Share
In some ways, I feel I've come full circle in my career. I'm still very interested in how technology can enable people to do their jobs better, be more informed and have information that aids in their quality of life. And the development of the Internet creates even more opportunities to add value.

My male counterparts were interested in building applications from the ground up. I had little interest in that aspect of data processing, and might have ridden the transitional evolution from data processing to IT without knowing it. In the early years, there was little opportunity for women to lead teams. I was placed in positions that required much analytical talent, but leading men was typically not an option.

There were few women in the public sector managing men in the computer center, and even fewer black females providing leadership. This position's benefits included allowing me to work with individuals with whom I could share my knowledge and help them be more successful in their jobs. It was an excellent introduction for me to managing and influencing individuals whose job performance I had no authority over.

Fewer Females in IT?
For a period of time, the number of women taking roles in IT noticeably increased, but a current snapshot shows few women at the top of the IT organizational chart. As I look at the body of the Public Technology Information CIO Council, which I chair, women representatives in the public realm are beginning to decline.

According to a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, women filled only 26.7 percent of computer and mathematical positions in 2006. A January 2007 article in InfoWorld referenced the report, stating that the percentage has been declining for some time, and the descent has been nearly universal across all IT job categories. For example, women accounted for 16.6 percent of all network and computer systems administrator positions in 2006, down from 23.4 percent in 2000.

At the management level, the imbalance persists. Among computer and information system managers, for example, 27.2 percent were women in 2006. By contrast, women held 66 percent of all social and community service management jobs in the same year. The result of these waning statistics will limit the diversity of skill interests that has become the foundation for business-driven thinking in our industry and will greatly impact the public sector. I believe I unknowingly created a career for myself by combining my interest in technology and business sense with my parents' lessons of social responsibility and involvement.

The Rise of Soft-Skill Talents
 Many women in the IT field -- like me -- are baby boomers in the last 10 to 15 years of our careers, and young women's academic interest in the field languishes.

Today the so-called "soft-skill" talents -- building relationships, influencing others and the ability to negotiate situations -- are significant to the public-sector IT environment and how successful we'll be at the rapid adoption of IT.  Having the responsibility for social and community involvement is linked to the success of the CIO's office. Soft-skill talents have become competencies that must be considered as the CIO establishes the strategic view from the top.

Many large-scale multimillion dollar IT implementation strategies fail due to lack of emphasis on the soft-skill requirements associated with preparing people for the impact of technological change. In one of my CIO roles, I drove hard to gain funding for the organizational readiness strategy for a major enterprise resource planning implementation.

The role of the new public-sector CIO, whether male or female, requires more diverse thinking, communication skills and interaction with people we didn't need to interact with in the past. In the old days, we built systems based on what we thought was most desired and the functionality's limitation.

My success in the IT field has been based on my ability to lead, and my desire to define and understand the advantages of having access to IT. My philosophy is that open access to information correlates to social benefits, and it can enhance lives by providing health information, social information and economic development -- all of which lead to quality-of-life benefits for young and old alike.

A Passion for the Soft Side of IT
The public-sector CIO is more of a servant to the people than ever before. In the last five to 10 years, we've had to put on our community-thinking hats and lead the development of public portals to provide information to citizens. To truly understand what the citizenry wants to consume, we've had to use skills not taught in the data processing classroom of yesterday.

Defining information priorities for public-sector access, and implementing off-the-shelf commercial systems to enhance business process re-engineering and change management in the government sector has become the CIO's responsibility. For example, I spend time meeting with my local community advisory boards and sharing the IT vision with citizens. My office has opened up to forums with cross-functional teams, brainstorming on public-private opportunities with vendors that share the desire to impact consumers' quality of life with technology solutions.

My passion for the soft side of IT is becoming a vital commodity in the catalog of services offered by public-sector IT organizations. Business alignment is key, and you won't understand that significance unless you're dealing with the people.

The public sector is losing some seasoned CIOs -- those who grasped the importance of relationships, marketing, team building and citizens as consumers of public services -- to the private sector as firms develop their public-sector practices.

The public-sector CIO is looking for opportunities to identify citizens who are underrepresented by the benefits of technology. Health departments, community service organizations and emergency management coordinators are all trying to reach the community to share information and services.

The CIO must become a bridge to technical solutions, and an interpreter of sorts on how to get there in a timely and cost-effective fashion. I recently attended a meeting where each representative was defining his or her desire to enhance services. The presenters were leaders from across the city spectrum, economic development, community services, environmental and human capital management officials.

The objectives of administrators who presented were driven by the various consumers of public services, and IT is the heartbeat of these organizations reaching their objectives.

The public CIO title takes on new meaning.

The public term defines the obligation to venture out of the data center into a dialog with the community. Those who got in the game to program applications certainly have a place in the industry, but so do those like me -- who were interested in the human side of IT. The public-sector CIO's role is changing, and we are challenged with a diminishing talent pool of both retiring baby boomers and a declining interest by women in the IT field.

Today's Role
Today, as I survey my role as Raleigh's CIO, I see it provides with a plethora of opportunities that match my interests. I am committed to youth initiatives and want to work toward programs that engage young people to explore IT.

Young women, much like me years ago, must be exposed to the field so they can find their place in the industry. Raleigh's summer job programs give us the opportunity to participate at the secondary school level. I also know that I have to do more in all segments of the city, including the underserved areas that want to be on a level playing field. IT solutions that cross governmental boundaries are also important. Getting the right people to the table to define opportunities to build digital inclusion strategies takes time and forethought, but the outcome is immeasurable.

On a Sunday evening, I am reviewing my schedule for the week, and see it is laced with opportunities to build relationships, share ideas and help solve business-related gaps in the organization. This week I have a regularly scheduled meeting with the county CIO and the school district chief technology officer, who both happen to be women. Together, we work to find ways to share solutions, build relationships and benefit our community. It's a different era from the one I started in so long ago, but also much more promising.

I guess my COBOL skills will have to go on the back burner for now.


Gail Roper is CIO of Raleigh, N.C. She has more than 25 years experience working with IT in the public and private sector. Prior to her current position, Roper was CIO of Kansas City, Mo., and worked for Austin, Texas. She has received numerous awards for her technology leadership and is the chair of the Public Technology Institute CIO Council.

Gail M. Roper Contributing Writer