California Public Sector IT Academy Lauds Top Leaders

Attendees of the California Public Sector IT Academy gathered to honor their peers during an award ceremony in Sacramento Feb. 28.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California’s public-sector IT community gathered to acknowledge the contributions of scores of leaders in the space as well as four current and former CIOs that stood out from the crowd, during the 2018 California Public Sector CIO Academy Feb. 28.

The awards program, hosted by Government Technology, focused on individuals working to innovate and propel state government IT forward. Among the more than 44 people receiving Leadership awards, three were recognized as CIOs of the Year, and one former CIO was given a Hall of Fame award.
Russell Nichols, CIO and director for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, was named a CIO of the Year for his efforts to improve critical services inside and outside of the state prison system.
Alan Cox, publisher of Government Technology
, said the CIO has demonstrated a commitment to fostering an effective and modern department, all while taking a modest approach to the role he plays.
“Russ will never say, ‘I accomplished this.’ He prefers his team receives the accolades. Although he may lead the effort or spearhead the idea, Russ knows that his title makes him the chief information officer, but his team makes him the leader,” Cox said while presenting the award.
One of the more notable projects Nichols and his team spearheaded was the development and deployment of Virtual Integrated Mobile Office (VIMO), which allowed parole agents the flexibility to work more efficiently from the field.
“The only reason that I can stand here is because of them. I’m like the hood ornament on a car, I may be the piece that gets there first, the first thing that you see, but I actually add almost no value,” Nichols joked in his acceptance speech. “They’re the ones that are the powertrain and the tires and the suspension, the folks that actually do the real work.”
Despite the challenges of his job, Nichols said it offers the ability to tackle a wide range of issues — from pulling Internet cable in buildings with 30-inch-thick walls to briefing elected officials on highly political issues.
“Some days I wear a suit, I’ll be standing in the governor’s office talking to somebody who was elected about some really high-level political issue; and the next day, I’m standing in a prison, wearing a stab-proof vest,” he said. “There are not many IT people who get that opportunity, and it makes my job very exciting, sometimes more exciting than I want.”
For San Joaquin County CIO Jerry Becker, recognition came as the result of a public service career spanning more than 32 years. For the last 11 years, Becker has served as the CIO for the county focusing his energy on creating lasting partnerships with leadership and throughout the larger county organization.
Cox lauded Becker for instilling this culture of IT innovation and recognized his efforts to work with internal county customers to improve support services for at-risk youth.
“It is truly an honor to be recognized today. It is really my good fortune to work for San Joaquin County, a county where the board of supervisors, our county administrator, elected officials and our department heads all foster and encourage an environment of innovation and ongoing investment in technology for the benefit of our community,” Becker said. 
The last to receive a CIO of the Year award was Jason Piccione, with the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). Like Nichols, Piccione’s position requires a certain level of political savvy.
The department is home to 38 boards, bureaus and commissions, each with gubernatorial appointees to convince and work with.
“Imagine an organization where the 38 senior people, 38 of them, were all appointed by the governor. This is a challenge in terms of effective management and leadership for someone like Jason to navigate,” Cox said during his introductory remarks.
But Piccione was being recognized for more than his ability to navigate the political landscape and focus soon turned to the successes with the California Cannabis Initiative.
“This year, his efforts to work with the cross-departmental California Cannabis Initiative to establish as licensing and enforcement platform for the bureau of Cannabis Control, ahead of their aggressive Jan. 1 deadline,” Cox said. “He also established a structure for effective business modernization for 18 of the boards and bureaus within the department with many early signs of success.”
“This award represents all of the great work we have done in the past year with the agile development in the California Cannabis Initiative. This award represents all of the great design that went into our microservices that feed our DCA license search. This award represents the innovation that drives the containerized infrastructure serving our growing continuous development, continuous improvement infrastructure. And finally, this award is for every resolved service desk ticket that aids in the day-to-day operations of our department’s 38 boards, bureaus and commissions.”
The Hall of Fame award, and last of the evening, was given to former state CIO Carlos Ramos, who dedicated some 27 years to public service. Among the many contribution made by Ramos, Cox drew attention to the role he played in mapping out the state’s IT strategy and its culture of innovation and collaboration.
“Under his leadership, California established itself as a leader in mobile computing, the use of geospatial technology, data analytics, cybersecurity, virtualization and the public-sector adoption of cloud computing,” Cox said. “In addition, Carlos led creative initiatives to professionalize the state’s technology workforce. He established the first-ever statewide IT project management office, created a project management academy and partnered with Silicon Valley to train the state’s workforce.”
During his acceptance remarks, the former CIO gave a nod to his family and the collective IT community in the state. Though he joked that he never meant to wind up in the public sector, he said the work he has done was fulfilling.
“This really is a humbling experience and quite an honor to be here.” Ramos said. “In my career I was very fortunate to have the experience of working at a number of different agencies in a number of different capacities, with the last half of my career in the technology space.”
Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at