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Undercover CTO Part 2: Spending Time on the Front Lines (Opinion)

Learning about an organization from the inside out.

by / October 18, 2010
Dan Lohrmann, Chief Technology Officer, Michigan Photo courtesy of Dan Lohrmann

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series covering columnist Dan Lohrmann’s experiences as the “Undercover CTO.” Part one appeared in the August issue. 

My second role as an “undercover boss” occurred on a busy Monday morning at our Client Service Center (CSC). I made the mistake of stopping by my office first, so I strolled into CSC Director Teresa Spalding’s office at 8:10 a.m. Uh oh, she’s not happy.

“You’re late, and Bobby Adams is waiting for you.” We rushed over to a cubicle and observed a smiling middle-aged man leaning back in his chair. He was simultaneously viewing several monitors, typing something on a cool-looking keyboard, talking into his headset and motioning for us to join him.   
“Glad to help! Call back anytime.” He’s persuasive — but do we really want them calling back?

“Welcome, sir,” Bobby continued as he shook my hand with an even broader smile. “Have a seat and let’s jump right in.” He handed me a headset and immediately pushed a few buttons and started talking with confidence. “Good morning. Client Service Center, this is Bobby. How can I help?”  

A flustered woman proceeded to describe several application problems. Bobby seemed unfazed as he pulled up her account and communicated at me with facial expressions while nodding his head. He knew just what was going on.

“Tough Monday, eh? Well let’s just get this taken care of. But first, we need to find out if you’re smarter that a fifth-grader.” What is he talking about?

The caller’s voice changed as she answered several security questions. Her problems were fixed within a few minutes, but more than that, her tension seemed to dissipate. By the end, she was actually laughing at Bobby’s jokes, and I was laughing even harder. Good thing my line was muted. Wow! This guy is a natural on the phone. He makes this fun. Bobby just turned her day around.

Over the next eight hours, I learned a ton answering customer laptop encryption questions with Carol, looking at call-metric reports with Jonay, analyzing new software requests with Brandy, prioritizing tickets with Doug, issuing SecurIDs with Linda and discussing Tier 2 support with Zach. Along the way, it became obvious that call wait times were too high on Monday mornings. Note to self: Redeploy more staff to answer phones during peak times.         

A few weeks later, I spent a day on the front lines in Detroit. Although I had previously been to conference rooms within Cadillac Place for meetings, I had never walked the floors or mingled with our support staff in their workspaces. Now I was helping to install and fix PCs in blue jeans. Needless to say, several technicians and customers were shocked to see me. One acquaintance even stopped me and said, “Whoa … I can’t believe it. I never thought I’d see you, here, dressed like that!” Ouch. Still, he thanked me for coming and praised our staff.

The visit was well worth the time. I learned that our new scheduling processes were working, but still needed more adjustments. Trouble tickets were closing faster and customers were generally happy. And yet, some of our best and brightest told me they weren’t feeling motivated. My mind raced. Can I offer anything?

On the two-hour drive back to Lansing, Mich., I had a heart-to-heart discussion with two mid-level managers, Vickie and Duane. During the morning drive, we had talked about dozens of work-related problems. But on the ride home, it was more personal — discussing life experiences, families, hobbies, church activities and more. I remember thinking, “That conversation was really different.”   

There’s much more to tell, and so little space. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a telecom installer named Rick St. Charles. He is a humble pro with extensive technical knowledge in the public and private sectors. Rick does outstanding work. His comment to me: “We’re the forgotten guys in the organization who sweat on the front lines every day. Our team is rarely acknowledged.”

Rick was right. If I had to choose just one takeaway to share from this summer, it would be this: Recognize our people more. They make technology tick. Where to start? Listen to their stories. Understand their perspectives. Act on their good ideas. Learn from past mistakes. Thank them. And yes, walk a mile in their shoes.

Dan Lohrmann is Michigan’s CTO and was the state’s first chief information security officer. He has 25 years of worldwide security experience, and has won numerous awards for his leadership in the information security field.

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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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