One of the most innovative states in the nation loses one of its innovators today. Eric Ellis, North Carolina’s chief technology and innovation officer (CTIO), will log his final hours with the state today and begin a career in the private sector on Monday.
Ellis began as CTIO in January, after having served as chief technology officer for the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Cultural Resources & Commerce and the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources. Before that, Ellis spent five years as a business technology analyst for the Department of Environmental & Natural Resources. Ellis is known for assisting in many of the state’s recent forward-thinking technology initiatives, including management of the North Carolina Innovation Center, or iCenter.
North Carolina’s loss is a gain for SHI International, a corporate IT reseller. Ellis will assume the role of director for strategic solutions, focusing primarily on the public sector. Ellis said he’s going to miss working at the state a lot, but the new position will enable him to continue some semblance of public service from a different vantage point.
“I want to be able to do what I’m doing a little bit in state government at the national level,” Ellis said. “And I think [this company] has afforded me the opportunity to be able to go and help other states around the nation — cities, counties — to be able to have access to technologies that will make their public sector better.”
North Carolina is frequently showcased in the state government IT world for its innovative projects. When Ellis looks back at his time with the state, it’s not the individual projects that stand out, he said, but North Carolina’s contribution to the public sector IT zeitgeist.
“I could point out this little device or new technology or that one, iBeacon or VR, our 360 project that we’ve been working on,” Ellis explained. “There’s so many little things, but I think the biggest thing is that we’ve really started that national conversation that I think people wanted to have.”
The national conversation Ellis is talking about is one in which governments stop resting on old ways and begin looking toward tomorrow’s possibilities. The state’s iCenter, which provides a space for such testing, is an integral piece of the state’s effort to adapt new technologies and thought leadership for a national conversation.
“Let’s not wait and just use tried technology that’s three years old,” Ellis said. “Let’s keep our lens out for what the next greatest thing is and make our delivery of service to citizens up to their expectations. I think what happened during the last four years is we were hitting this phase where consumer expectation of technology was pressing on IT enterprises, both public and private sector and almost stressing them to a degree.”
People have access to tools like Amazon, Netflix and Uber, which can deliver the services, goods and entertainment they want at the literal press of a button. Citizens can’t help but expect the same from their governments, Ellis said, and North Carolina’s executive support — from the governor and the legislature — enabled that paradigm to enter reality. The iCenter was a remarkable achievement, Ellis said, because it shows what can happen when people collaborate across institutional islands.
“We stood up the building in four weeks,” Ellis recalled. “That was the Department of Environmental & Natural Resources. … People were doing it behind the scenes already, but I think this was probably the most visible example of breaking down silos that you can imagine. Someone has the nicest building in state government and of course their employees aren’t going to like it if they get moved around a little bit but they thought, ‘Yes, I want IT on the first floor working hand in hand with them.'”
Upcoming innovation projects for North Carolina include work around data analytics and the Internet of Things, Ellis said. Chat bots, he added, are one of the most under-appreciated technologies available today.
“I believe that chat bots, they really will revolutionize how government services are delivered and I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight and suddenly we realize that we’re all using them,” Ellis said. “I think slowly there’s going to be this service and you’re going to realize that’s a really good way to get at this and I look forward to watching that unfold as a citizen now.”
Though Ellis departs, he relayed a feeling that his cohorts will continue the state’s emphasis on innovation and customer service in his absence.
“I’m going to miss it a lot,” he said.
Ellis will be replaced in an interim capacity, he reported, by iCenter Deputy Director Deante Tyler.