Meet StateScoop's 'Up and Comer' award winners

In recent weeks, top leaders in state and local government have discussed their roles as technologists and managers as they helped steer their organizations through the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, StateScoop publishes the interviews of a younger cohort of technology officials — winners of the 2021 StateScoop 50 Up and Comer of the Year awards. Here, officials discuss their roles, what they love about working in the public sector and what they learned from the health crisis.

Reporting by Emily Bamforth, Benjamin Freed, Ryan Johnston, Jake Williams and Colin Wood. These interviews were edited and condensed.

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Loren Gonzalez, communications, outreach and engagement manager, Virginia

Loren Gonzalez, communications, outreach and engagement manager, Virginia

Can you describe your role?

It’s such a new office and was such a small team, so there’s an opportunity there to establish the brand and the communications for our office, which was so cool. So last year, we built the website, we launched the newsletter, we started a blog and it’s cool to see how people interact with all the new things that were built from a communication standpoint and to see the awareness raise for the type of work that we’re doing because we are so new — the chief data officer was just appointed in August 2018 — so we’re still to this day telling the state agencies what we do and how they can really harness what we’ve already built and at no cost to them.

What do you love most about your job as a public servant?

In state government and public service sometimes you can see a lot of projects or initiatives for the sake of appearance. But I think I love the work that we do the most because it’s so grounded in data. Nothing we do is anecdotal, whether it’s the decisions we make for our office, internally or externally.

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

It was a reinforcement of the “luck favors the prepared mind” because while the pandemic did slow down some things for us, it actually accelerated quite a bit of other things. If you can get in front of your work and start to get prepared with the processes and the technology, when the need arises, which is sometimes sooner than you think, you’re ready to take advantage of what you’ve already been working on.

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Kristina Hagberg, chief transformation officer, Ohio

Kristina Hagberg, chief transformation officer, Ohio

Can you describe your role?

Ohio has an IT innovation technology strategic plan, so the CIO and leadership team is really focused on that plan. My role as the first chief transformation officer for Ohio is that I’m focused on collaboration, strategic investments, service quality and IT projects success. I’ve introduced and applied best practices and standards to ensure consistency for on-time, on-budget and goal focused program and project delivery, increasing our success rates and improving cost effectiveness.

What do you love most about your job as a public servant? 

I am very happy to be in state government. Much of my career has been in financial institutions and the private sector, so I am happy to be here and honored to serve the great state of Ohio working to deliver Gov. [Mike] DeWine and Lt. Gov. [Jon] Husted’s administration technology goals. I feel like I’m contributing to a larger purpose, the interests of Ohio’s people, helping others, and a chance to make a positive difference to the lives of others here in Ohio.

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

We were required to act fast among the mess of rapid change. We went from working from an office every day to working from home for what we thought was days that turned into weeks that turned into months. And in state government, this was unprecedented: We had to quickly figure out how to set up our employees to be successful with working from home, we didn’t have a rulebook. For me, as a manager, it became necessary to be flexible and understanding to be successful in this new way of working.  

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Joann Harbison, client services manager, Missouri Information Technology Services division

Joann Harbison, client services manager, Missouri Information Technology Services division

Can you describe your role?

My role is to facilitate IT services for the department, so initially that took the shape of getting everybody distributed, taking them out of physical office locations. Second was as we moved through pandemic and testing became the necessity, working with the department to develop epi-tracks to get that implemented so that we could bring in that lab data electronically so that we were not manually entering it from our laboratory partners, because that was absolutely not going to work. We got those brought into a system so that we can manage the cases and got that data aggregated for dashboards to enable decisions.

What do you love most about your job as a public servant? 

It’s not often that we get to say that we helped save lives. In this case, I think we did. We very much impacted how quickly folks got the information to get people quarantined, so that they could make policy decisions. It was all based on the ability to move that data. So, that’s what I enjoy most — being able to deliver the technical support, the tools and enable public health to serve Missouri.

What lessons will you take with you from the pandemic?

The ones that echo loudest are that data is empirical to decisions. We can successfully work in alternative locations, and teamwork is essential. Working across state boundaries is absolutely necessary.

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Derek Larson, acting deputy chief security officer, Michigan

Derek Larson, acting deputy chief security officer, Michigan

What have you been working on lately?

I’m continuing to work on a lot of external-facing areas in terms of expanding the state of Michigan’s protection in the digital ecosystem. That’s moving beyond the traditional defense of state networks to defending the state from cybersecurity threats more broadly. That’s our work with county and local governments to provide them with information and threat intelligence as well as support should there be an incident. That’s helping K-12 institutions better improve their cybersecurity. That’s helping develop a cybersecurity talent pipeline. But it’s also continuing to manage those traditional areas of protecting state networks, ensuring that not only are we ready to go when something does happen, but making sure we’re as prepared as possible for anything that might.

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

The thing that was most evident and most impressive was the resiliency of the state’s workforce in quickly shifting from an overwhelmingly in-person environment to a remote one. As we move out of pandemic response and into returning to the office, we’re trying to figure out what the security realities are, and how do those mesh against the ones we’ve traditionally faced in in-person office environments, and what are the new tensions created by having a workforce that combines those two? The workforce has proven capable of doing it, and there are a number of things that are easier when you’re in-person or remote, and as we move to a more hybrid environment, dealing with the challenges that presents is going to be interesting.

How are you anticipating the adoption of a hybrid workplace?

It is very much still a mystery. Even for things that seem fairly innocuous, like meetings. They used to be all in the conference room. For the last year, they’ve been all in virtual environments. Moving to a situation in which you have large numbers of participants in both is going to be a challenge. Making sure we’re providing a security environment that can support both sets of employees is another dynamic piece in the state cybersecurity model.

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Ashley Laymon, chief experience officer, Maryland

Ashley Laymon, chief experience officer, Maryland

How did your role change during the pandemic?

At the onset of the pandemic, there were a lot of technical challenges that had to be resolved. A lot of the state employees report every day to an office, and they’ve done that every day for 20 or 30 years. So when they’re forced to work at home and they’ve never done that before — that’s not really part of their world — we’re setting up things like VPN across the state and having to purchase thousands of laptops to distribute to state employees that need to work from home during the pandemic. Those types of technical challenges, my office played a critical role in communicating to agency leadership, helping to determine the best strategies to accomplish an efficient and effective remote workforce.

What do you love most about your job as a public servant?

I spent most of my previous career in the private sector and joined the state about two years ago. And the thing that I have found most rewarding is that until I came to work at the state, I didn’t realize how passionate people were at the different agencies working on their particular mission. One thing I feel that’s very important to my role is that sometimes people look at IT as a commodity and they don’t remember that the people working here at this organization are just as passionate about their mission as other agencies are. Part of my role is not only to make sure the technical solutions are being delivered to my customers, but also reminding people that technology can be transformative both in their professional and personal lives, and helping increase that excitement about IT innovation here in the state.

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

I already knew that communication and relationship-building was important, but I think what this has done is remind me how important those interpersonal relationships in the workplace and the effectiveness of your communication plays a part in your day-to-day work life and in trying to meet the objectives of your agency’s mission. When you’re sequestered and have a telework mandate and aren’t able to go and meet face-to-face, you really have to rely on keeping continuous contact and being someone with whom your customers can have a pleasant interaction with. It’s not just about the technical or the mission-driven conversations, it’s also about maintaining that sense of camaraderie at the state and feeling like you have a partnership with the people that you work with.

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Joe McIntosh, director of service delivery, Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services

Joe McIntosh, director of service delivery, Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services

What does your role entail?

I’m responsible for delivery of solutions to the 110-plus agencies we support. So within the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, where I’m stationed, we are central IT for the state. My areas of responsibility include licensing and development and then it’s anything custom mapping and custom solutions. I’m responsible for enterprise systems and services, so anything around human resources, finance, accounting and supply chain, and anything around data services. So anything development-related across those areas, that’s what I’m accountable for.

What do you love most about your job as a public servant?

It’s definitely the impact we have on our citizens and really enabling the agencies to provide citizens with the vital services they need. Without question, that’s what I came here to do, and I’m very passionate about that and passionate about using technology to solve those problems and challenges and create great experiences for our citizens.

What lesson will you take with you from the pandemic?

I think it’s about readiness. The pandemic is the current fire we’re fighting, but at the end of the day, what it should have taught us is if we’re prepared for that next event and what does that actually mean from a technology perspective? Do we have the people, processes and technology in place to proactively address that next shift that occurred? Hopefully, as we come out of this and take lessons learned, we really look at each agency and think about what transformation and preparedness means for that agency.

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