West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced in a press briefing Wednesday that state Chief Information Officer Joshua Spence will step down at the end of the month to be replaced by Heather Abbott, the state Office of Technology’s chief operations officer.
Spence, who has 23 years of experience in the Air Force and still serves as a cyber operations officer in the West Virginia National Guard, joined the state government in 2015 as its chief information security officer. Spence was promoted in 2018 to chief technology officer — then the state’s highest ranking technology role. Justice in 2021 approved legislation renaming the CTO role to chief information officer, a change that also brought Spence new authority, including authorization to provide IT training, stand up a committee to oversee agencies’ IT projects and work with a new project management office.
Justice said Spence — who’s “done incredible work” — will take a new role in the private sector. Officials weren’t available Wednesday to provide further details. Abbott starts as CIO on July 29.
As a former state CISO, Spence often tried both to boost cybersecurity’s profile in state government and educate other officials about cybersecurity. In a 2018 interview with StateScoop, he imparted an analogy he sometimes shared with other state leaders.
“Let’s pretend I’m the fire marshal,” he said. “Ask me if the building is fireproof. So what do we do to prevent a fire? We put responsive measures in if there’s a fire. That’s exactly what cybersecurity needs to be. Of course it’s far more complicated than protecting a building from a fire, but the core principles of risk management still apply. That’s a very important lesson that can demystify cybersecurity within the state government.”
Like other state CIOs, Spence’s role is expansive, also covering initiatives of broadband, digital services and IT modernization, a perennial issue for state governments that operate many old computer systems. When Spence’s role gained additional authority in 2021, he told StateScoop one of his main goals was to get officials thinking critically about proposed changes before projects had a chance to go awry.
“What we’ve really been trying to press upon the culture of state government here is to really think hard about why you do something, not necessarily how you do it,” Spence said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges. We find the subject matter experts will naturally go to the process they use to reach the end, but we don’t spend enough time focusing on why we even do it. And what that does is drive modernization efforts to replicate the existing instead of being open-minded to the possibilities of overhauling in a way that brings significant efficiency, significant benefit.”
Abbott, Spence’s replacement, joined the West Virginia Department of Transportation as a programmer analyst in 1996. She joined the Office of Technology four years later, serving in various roles over the years, including cyber security operations manager, before being named chief operations officer in 2018.
During Wednesday’s press briefing, Justice called Abbott “a very adequate replacement” and “very, very, very qualified.”
“She has 27 years of technology experience and has assisted with IT operations throughout the state and everything,” Justice said.