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CTO-less in Seattle: Advice from a Former CTO to the Next

Former Seattle CTO Saad Bashir looks back at his years serving the city and challenges ahead for the next CTO. Pushing agencies to embrace a collaborative, cross-government view of IT may loom large on the agenda.

Saad Bashir
Former Seattle CTO Saad Bashir
Seattle will be seeing a new CTO following its November mayoral election. Whoever the next mayor appoints to the job would do well to focus on fostering connections with staff, said former CTO Saad Bashir, who spoke this week with Government Technology about his more than two years in office.

Bashir stepped down from the post in July, and former deputy CTO Jim Loter is filling in on an interim basis until a permanent replacement is selected.

“The advice that I would give myself, if I were to take that role again, would be to focus even more on the people who make up the Seattle Information Technology Department,” Bashir said.

CTOs often have responsibilities like attending conferences and speaking at events that prompt them to take a high-level view — but finding ways to connect and check in individually with IT team members is essential, Bashir said.

Seattle’s next CTO also is likely to face several challenges, including that of selling various agencies on the value of the IT department providing them with many of the same, shared technologies, rather than each department requesting its own unique setup.

“One of the things that I very naively thought when I came in that I’d be able to do was create this ‘one city, one team, one Seattle IT’ type of spirit. Otherwise, everyone wants a mini-Seattle IT of their own for their own business,” Bashir said. “The hardest part is to get very independent-minded stakeholders to come together on this front. We made some very good improvements … [but] it didn’t become part of the DNA.”

Bashir departed city government to join a private Seattle-based technology firm that’s involved in financial and retail sectors. Uncertainty about whether the next mayor would choose to retain him — as well as a desire to explore new things — prompted him to keep an eye open for career opportunities like the one he ultimately took, he said.

BUILDING EMPLOYEE TRUST


Bashir said he tried to maintain personal connections with the members of his roughly 800-person department even as the workforce went remote. The distance and sheer number of people made this more challenging, but he said he found holding virtual office hours and directly reaching out to chat over Microsoft Teams helped.

Other challenges ran deeper.

Bashir said he found that failure to fully acknowledge and address IT employee grievances had hurt morale and productivity, which in turn damaged the IT department’s relationship with its internal customers.

The issues “were huge distractions for this group to do their job,” Bashir said.

Among the issues: employees wanted to be sure they were being paid fairly, at competitive rates and without disparities solely due to their age, gender or other job-irrelevant characteristics.

The city planned to conduct a wage study but had yet to do so, Bashir said. Getting that effort moving again by creating a formula for assessing pay helped send the message that “we were serious about the people we were working with,” he said.

DECENTRALIZATION CHALLENGES


The next CTO needs to look at not only how they work with their own staff but with other departments as well, Bashir advised.

Seattle’s government structure gives each agency more autonomy than Bashir was used to seeing from his time as CIO of Ottawa, Canada. Large Seattle departments often managed their own human resources, finance and procurement processes, and expected tailored IT processes, too — something Bashir said was not possible.

“We don’t have the resources for 30 different IT departments,” he said. He wanted agencies to instead take a more holistic, cross-government view of technology.

Having the IT team procure shared tools that it could then offer to all departments would be more efficient and help create a more cohesive experience for residents across different digital services they might use, Bashir said. In contrast, many agencies believed they needed uniquely tailored tools to serve their particular operations.

Bashir said he was able to get agencies to collaboratively discuss particular IT topics, but that much remains to be done to shift thinking in a more lasting way.

“I think it will be a big challenge for the new person coming in,” he said. “A never-ending type of journey for any CTO in that job is to keep getting your stakeholders in the room to talk about IT as one city.”

MODERNIZATION AND INVESTMENT


The city’s investments in digitizing departments and modernizing their technologies paid off when the pandemic hit, helping agencies and key services go remote “very seamlessly,” Bashir said.

But more legacy applications still linger in city government, preventing agencies from getting the best performance. The next CTO will need to continue updating these tools and helping agencies adjust their business practices to best take advantage of the new offerings.

Resources are also often in short supply in public agencies and something Bashir said his IT department struggled with.

“There was a lot of pressure to cut down expenses in my two and a half to three years over there,” Bashir said.

Finding ways to comply was no easy task, Bashir said. He urged governments to put more priority on funding IT departments because of the agencies’ roles in enabling many operations.

“Without it, very few things are possible,” he said.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.


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