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Steve Nichols Reflects on Lessons from 20 Years in Government

As Georgia's longtime chief technology officer moved to the next phase of his career, Steve Nichols offered advice to other public sector IT professionals looking to make the most of their time in government.

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Government Technology/David Kidd
When former Georgia Chief Information Officer Larry Singer asked Steve Nichols to assess the state’s IT architecture in the early 2000s, it wasn’t a paid gig. Nichols worked for a consultant at the time and found out later that Singer had his eye on Nichols for the CTO spot. “Larry made a big pitch on the value of public service, really impressed that upon me, said it just gets in your blood,” Nichols said, “and he was not wrong.” Nichols thought he’d work for the state for a couple of years, but he ended up staying for 20. Turns out Singer was onto something.

During his time with Georgia, Nichols earned a reputation as a trusted adviser with deep technical knowledge paired with the gift of effectively translating deeply complex topics into language that makes them accessible to a variety of audiences. And he is called upon to showcase these skills much more often than when he first got the job — which illustrates how roles like his and the state CIOs who served as his bosses have changed from the early days. Conversations with legislators, for example, have gone from “rare” to “routine,” according to Nichols. Those decision-makers now expect an answer to their inquiries on what the Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) has planned for cloud, 5G or self-driving cars, to name a few.

The heaviest lift of his tenure was the big outsourcing project in which Georgia enlisted IBM and AT&T to deliver technology services to state agencies as well as manage its infrastructure. This massive organizational change enabled GTA to offer enterprise-class IT services to the state. Largely hailed as a success, the effort did bring a human cost which Nichols cites as the most challenging part: rebadging people who expected to spend their career with the state to more specialized positions with service providers.

“People really enjoy being a generalist and you just can’t run a big enterprise shop quite that way,” he explained, “so some of them moved on to go work for smaller governments that still had that generalist model.”

Two decades as a state CTO make Nichols uniquely positioned to offer advice to gov tech leaders. He first points to the principle of Chesterton’s Fence, which is to avoid dismantling something until you know why it’s there. “If you’re going to reinvent a process or move a function around or something, you should probably understand why it got the way it was and spend a little time understanding it before you propose to break it or move it,” Nichols said.

He also suggests that turning things off is a difficult but critical part of an IT leader’s job. Having the courage to make hard decisions on when a system is end-of-life, after all, gives you a fighting chance against the growing accumulation of technical debt that can hamper forward progress.

Nichols viewed every day in government as a civics lesson, and he racked up a lot of those over the course of his career with GTA. He was plugged in enough to be a resource to nearly everyone he encountered in his daily life who discovered he worked for the state — most of them were, after all, a customer of the state in some capacity.

One lesson in particular stands out for Nichols: When he first arrived, he embraced the idea that government should be run like a business. Over time he came to understand many key differences between the private and public sectors. In industry, there are choices aplenty: scope of work, customers, location, timeline, etc.

Not so in government. “Often your customers are mandated by statute. The amount of resources you have to solve a problem might be set by the state budget office, also by the legislature, and they might have arbitrary deadlines, and all of those really shape what you’re going to end up having to deliver.”

Like anyone who has spent a significant amount of time at a job, Nichols has amassed a long roster of “other duties as assigned.” On his list as he plotted his transition was finding someone to take over as the department’s records retention officer. Nichols is anxiously anticipating the clean slate he’ll encounter at his new position (with Gartner Consulting).

“If I can spend 100 percent of my time just thinking about new things and new problems versus remembering old problems … that’s really the biggest thing I think I’m looking forward to, being able to devote 100 percent of my energy to all things new.”

Noelle Knell is the executive editor for e.Republic, responsible for setting the overall direction for e.Republic’s editorial platforms, including Government Technology, Governing, Industry Insider, Emergency Management and the Center for Digital Education. She has been with e.Republic since 2011, and has decades of writing, editing and leadership experience. A California native, Noelle has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history.