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Job Critical Advice: How Incoming CIOs Can Hit the Ground Running

A strong CIO must be a big-picture strategist who can also keep day-to-day operations running smoothly. Here's advice from several state and local CIOs on how newbies can do just that.

by / March 20, 2015
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The 2014 elections installed 11 new governors in statehouses across the nation. These state leaders will bring in a new crop of chief information officers who will take over the reins of an increasingly complex and crucial position in government.

Today more than ever, the role of the CIO is evolving. They’re not simply asked to deliver streamlined, user-friendly e-government to citizens. They also must create efficiencies across agencies, grapple with legacy equipment, deliver accessible information out of complex data, maintain cybersecurity while also preparing for disaster recovery — to name just a few of the job requirements.

A strong CIO must be a big-picture strategist who can also keep day-to-day operations running smoothly. He or she must stay abreast of new technologies and be an innovator, while integrating old technologies into the system.

Sound like a big job? It is. That’s why Government Technology's Public CIO recently asked several state and city CIOs to offer up job-critical advice for incoming IT leaders. The queried CIOs delivered, making suggestions ranging from regularly meeting with agency heads face-to-face to crafting a culture of innovation and change.

Here is some advice from IT leaders who have been walking the walk.

Get Out of Your Office, Meet Your Agency Heads, Build Strong Relationships

By far the most oft-cited piece of advice is that incoming CIOs must meet face-to-face with agency heads and other customers on a regular basis to learn the needs, strengths and operations of the multitude of agencies that make up state or local government. The overarching idea is that building strong relationships pays huge dividends in everything from developing efficiencies across agencies or departments to quickly identifying issues that need an immediate fix to sharing technology and expertise.

Three Operational Issues You'll Face

1 / The Evolving Technical Landscape. IT organizations must create new delivery paradigms that embrace cloud services and mobile technologies. Customers have become quite tech savvy and will go elsewhere if enterprise IT cannot deliver economical, scalable, flexible and resilient solutions.

2 / Cybersecurity. Securing the enterprise is becoming more difficult for a couple of big reasons: We continue to see increases in both the number and the sophistication of attacks, and there is no expectation that the upward trend will stop. At the same time, we are evolving to a technology infrastructure that is less centralized. The use of cloud services and the explosion of mobile computing mean that the CIO and CISO have less visibility and less control of the overall security framework. 

3 / Disaster Preparedness. It is not a question of “if,” it is a question of “when” the next disaster will come. We need to improve resiliency and recovery capabilities. At the same time, IT needs to engage with agency business leaders to ensure that recovery plans and training are tightly coupled with business continuity plans and training. It is a challenge to maintain funding levels and focus on preparedness when no immediate threat is looming.

“If you are new to your role, it is very likely other agency commissioners are also new,” said Mark Raymond, CIO of Connecticut. “Get out of the office and go visit them. I’ve found that if you immediately share a perspective that as the CIO you understand that the sole purpose of technology is to enable their agency business outcomes, you will set the foundation for all your future conversations.

“If you are invested in their mission, you are more likely to become the trusted partner through future transformation efforts,” Raymond added.

Paul Baltzell, CIO of Indiana, also advocates building strong relationships early.

“The most critical thing as a new incoming CIO is to form relationships with your fellow agency heads,” he said. “Get to know them and understand their business needs and how you can help them. This will go a long way in making your IT organization and yourself successful.”

A strong relationship and regular communication with the governor’s team also are important, said Chris Estes, CIO of North Carolina.

“Be at the table. Move IT from the back room to the board room,” Estes said. “Sit at the table with the governor and agency heads. Make sure the governor sees the role [of IT] as a key part of the administration. Promote IT as a business enabler, rather than as a cost center.”

To foster greater communication among IT professionals, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory issued an executive order in 2013 requiring all agencies to appoint cabinet chief information officers to whom all cabinet agency information technology personnel would report. In turn, those CCIOs would take part in a ONE IT Executive Leadership Team that meets regularly to discuss IT operating models, shared services, innovation, security, project management and other issues.

Support a Culture of Innovation and Strategic Thinking, Balanced with Maintaining IT Operations

With so much new technology available, it’s important to stay abreast of products and trends to create efficiencies and innovation. To do so, CIOs must create a culture of innovation and change within their organizations in order for staff to feel supported in looking for and proposing changes. If  CIOs view themselves as a strategist and an innovator, that energy will disperse throughout the organization, several CIOs say.

Estes has worked to bring innovation, targeted strategy and cost efficiency to North Carolina’s information systems.

10 Priorities for New CIOs

Atlanta’s Samir Saini is a new public-sector CIO himself, after becoming commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology last August. He offers these recommendations for other incoming IT leaders.

1 / Build very strong relationships
with your business partners.

2 / Get intimately familiar with the business’s strategic priorities, objectives, initiatives and day-to-day operations.

3 / Immediately address any technology issues that may impact business continuity.

4 / Develop your IT strategic plan in direct alignment with the business’s strategic plan and priorities.

5 / Assess your entire team and develop a  comprehensive workforce plan aligned with your IT strategic plan.

6 / Assess your budget and restructure as appropriate to support your priorities.

7 / Staff any critical and time-sensitive IT positions you require to effectively support the business.

8 / Ensure effective project portfolio and technology governance structures are in place and fully operational.

9 / Deliver immediate value to the business by executing high impact, low effort quick wins within your first 100 days.

10 / Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Those efforts are advanced by the state’s new iCenter, a 10,000-square-foot “try before you buy” innovation center where state employees, members of private industry and students can try out new technologies before the state commits to contracts to buy them. Since it opened about a year ago, the iCenter is credited with savings of about $1.4 million in storage costs and $7 million in renegotiated IT contracts.

Estes said the iCenter has about $6 million in technology on demonstration, featuring everything from workspace design modules to second screen technologies. Hoping to spread the resource to other states, Gov. McCrory announced in October that North Carolina would lead a National Innovation Community, a coalition of 25 states that would collaborate, sharing innovative ideas and practices regarding government IT. CIOs in other states might want to come on board too. Texas already is looking to open three similar technology testing centers, Estes said.

Fostering a culture of innovation is critical, CIOs report, but it’s equally as important to balance that quest for innovation with maintaining functional IT operations. Developing an overarching strategy of operations helps to meet both goals.

Anne Roest, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, cautions that maintaining smooth operations with innovation is a balancing act.

“Assure your customers that you know how to balance your attention between IT operations and IT innovation,” said Roest. “Innovation is important, but you will not survive if your customer’s IT systems are frequently disrupted or ineffective.”

Consolidate to Control Costs

While keeping an eye out for new technology and innovation is critical, it’s also important to consolidate to control costs, said Dickie Howze, CIO of Louisiana.

“Given the cost of technology, if you’re not looking at consolidation, you are behind the curve of controlling expenses,” Howze said. “Louisiana realized $6 million in savings in the first few months of operations and plans to drastically increase savings over the next eight months.”
He elaborated that “identifying standards and reducing the number of software technologies supported is key to lowering costs.”

A,B,Cs (and Ds) for IT Leaders

Chris Estes has been CIO of North Carolina since 2013. He says successful public CIOs understand these imperatives.

Accelerate. Accelerate the team and get things done quickly. The consumption of IT is happening so fast, you need to keep up.

Balance. Make sure people on your team have balance in their personal lives.

Collaborate. This job can’t be done alone so you have to work with people across agencies. State government is very siloed. IT has to work across those boundaries.

Deliver. It’s wonderful to talk a good game, but if your websites don’t work, it’s all for naught.

“The consolidation of hardware, such as mainframes, storage and virtual tape, is an easy target for cost savings and provides for an increased number of qualified resources for your support teams,” Howze added. “Finally, the procurement process offers many other opportunities to further standardize what is purchased and provides for volume discounts previously not considered.”

Build a Strong Staff and ‘Be Bold’

Ultimately strong operations come down to strong staff and leadership, several CIOs offered.
“IT is about people, so go and find the best ones you can afford,” said Estes of North Carolina.
Roest of New York City agrees. “Surround yourself with smart, energetic people and empower them,” she said.

And in terms of leadership, Roest advises to “be bold.”

“Make decisions. It’s better to make many good decisions, and a few not so good, than to not make any decisions at all,” said Roest. “When you make a poor decision, own it and learn.”
“Finally,” she said, “lead by example.

A strong leader should be firm, but should also be fair, honest and humble.”

The Connected CIO

The relative newness of the public CIO position and the volatility of technology itself continue to drive debate over how to structure the job and where it should sit within an organization. But CIOs have thrived — and failed — all over the org chart. One factor that separates successful public CIOs from the rest of the pack is relationships, regardless of how their positions look on paper.

Effective CIOs forge relationships and build credibility with key constituencies — and they do it fast. Here’s advice from a handful of state and local government CIOs on crucial connections for incoming IT leaders.

First things first. No big surprise here: The most important relationship for any CIO is with his or her direct superior. Learn the boss’s priorities and start building trust. For most public CIOs, this means understanding the platform of the incoming mayor or governor. “You’ll need to know how your technology plan can help them succeed on the issues that they talked about during their campaign,” said Bryan Sastokas, CIO of Oakland, Calif. “Not only did they run on those issues, they were elected on those issues.”

It’s also a good idea to meet the chief of staff and key members of the campaign team, since they’ll probably play roles in the new administration. And while you’re in the boss’s office, find out how you’ll be evaluated. “That’s a question I asked within 10 minutes of spending decent time with my boss,” said Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, Calif.

Follow the money. Much of what CIOs do involves spending money, so effective technology leaders build partnerships with officials who hold the purse strings. “There are lots of folks after the CFO looking for money,” said Bill Oates, former CIO of Boston who is now CIO of Massachusetts. “The CFO needs to understand that you’ll deliver if they invest in your projects.”

Also learn the mechanics of using the money in your budget. Spending public dollars often isn’t simple. Understand the procurement process and find out what’s worked well for your IT department in the past.

Meet your customers. Public CIOs serve a wide range of stakeholders — elected officials, cabinet members, senior managers and others. Winning their trust and support is fundamental to your success.

In some cases, this involves letting them blow off a little steam, said Usha Mohan, CIO of Jacksonville, Fla. “They may want to vent. Be very open and don’t take a bunch of people with you to that meeting,” she said. “Establish a rapport and then you can move on from there.”

Talk to your team. Some of your best resources are right down the hall. Spend time with your new team and get their input. You’ll build credibility with your staff and gain crucial information. “Talk to your troops about what’s going on; what’s working and what’s not working,” said Oates. “You may have an idea of what your vision will be, but it really has to be done in the context of who you are and where you are.”

Look outside. Technology isn’t just an internal function anymore. Community engagement is a growing part of the job for many public CIOs. “It’s always good to know your Chamber of Commerce and other community leaders, along with religious and mentoring communities,” Sastokas said. “Tech is more outward these days.” — Steve Towns


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Pamela Martineau Contributing Writer

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine. She moved to Portland in 2019 after a 30-year stint living and working in California. A UC Berkeley graduate, Pamela worked at numerous daily newspapers including The Sacramento Bee. As a freelance writer, she has written about health care, education, technology, climate change, and water issues. She has two adult sons and a mischievous cocker spaniel.

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