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StateScoop's Top Women in Technology 2017

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Kelly Samson-RickertDirector of Workforce InnovationState of Maine

As Maine's director of workforce development, Kelly Samson-Rickert has one goal that runs through everything she does: "Find 'em, hire 'em, train 'em, keep 'em."

In addition to dealing with the complex personnel issues of that approach, Samson-Rickert also knows that she needs to make sure the workforce she's trying to attract and keep has a safe and secure place in Maine's Office of Information Technology.

"We thrive in the land of managed chaos as the technologies are evolving at a lightning-fast pace," Samson-Rickert told StateScoop. "We need to adapt and remain flexible to meet our workforce needs."

From serving on advisory boards at universities to attending career fair events to be available in the office to offer perspective on the workforce development field to internal Maine staff, Samson-Rickert is taking the lead on changing Maine's information technology workforce one step at a time.

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

Gosh, we have reached many milestones this year. We put in place a new online recruitment tool to modernize our approach to recruit and we are now 100 percent paperless. As a result, we not only saved time and money for our organization, but we are able to fill our positions with quality candidates in nearly half the number of days to fill with the manual processes. A 50 percent reduction in the number of days to fill our positions is a significant improvement and we are still in the early stages of analysis regarding cost savings. Hiring managers are able to review the candidate’s materials as soon as the information arrives and we can reach out to talent where they reside — online. We made this change in an environment where only a short time ago, all applications were being sent in via paper and in the mail. This is a huge change, and I don’t believe it was recognized as a big deal, which is all the better. We modernized recruitment to maximize talent management efforts, improved our branding image, use social media connections, and we got up to speed with our competition who also aggressively recruit in the IT field. We have more work to do, as this is the bare minimum expected by candidates, but by far, this was an achievement that involved the support of many stakeholders and could not have been done without collaboration and teamwork.

This year we won a national award — Best Train the Trainer Program as part of the LEAD Award — for our IT Intern and Mentorship Program. This award is a direct result of the partnerships we have developed with our university and college administration and faculty, students, veteran resources, agencies, and our leaders, supervisors, and staff who relentlessly support the program. We received second place in the Best of Train the Trainer. This was an exciting award for us because the competition was among some very large private companies. It was most special that this is a result of teamwork in our organization. We also placed 8th in the Best Use of Team Building.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

Say “yes” to projects and opportunities that make require stretch and require learning new skills, develop relationships and network with role models in the IT field, and try new things without asking for permission. Being cognizant of where you work, listen and learn, know the culture, environmental influences internal and external, know the stakeholders, and political arena — laws and legislation changes that may impact the organization. Learn and understand the business and technical acumen and join the conversation. This is critical to advancing your career and the organization. Always moving forward and seek best practices, don’t look back on issues that did not work out or were not handled well. Learn and obtain new skills, and go back at the work, one step at a time, keep pushing the initiatives that are important to the IT workforce and future workforce.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

We reach out with a Women4IT initiate — a small in-house program to promote women in IT. The goal is to create opportunities to mingle our senior women leaders with all levels of the workforce with network opportunities and promote programs of common interest. We aim for quarterly events. This April we have a special job shadow event for girls who want to know more about IT careers. We will pair young women with our IT professionals and bring in outside speakers — make it exciting and use this to develop our staff as well promote the profession.

Molly ScharExecutive DirectorNational States Geographic Information Council

Molly Schar is approaching her first full year as the first executive director for the National States Geographic Information Council and she's only just begun to craft the new model for what the association will become.

"I spend a lot of time connecting with a diverse group of leaders in the GIS policy space — state GIOs and managers, federal agency representatives and NSGIC's private sector partners, as well as colleagues in other geospatial organizations, local government and academia," she said. 

Schar works directly with the association's board — made up of state GIS leaders from across the country — and the association's management group to chart a path forward for the future of the organization.

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

When I was hired last summer, I came on as the first executive director in NSGIC’s 25-year history. Over the course of these last nine months, the board and I have pushed and pulled each other into a new model that is supercharging NSGIC’s reach and impact. Right now, we’re working on rolling out a new online platform that is going to make important, thoughtful policy discussions more accessible and more streamlined than ever. Leveraging this technology to propel NSGIC to the next level will be a big accomplishment for us all.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

Show up. Stay curious and keep knocking on doors. When you hit on your passion, find ways to work it into everything you do. Identify someone — woman or man — who you admire. Study her style and try on her leadership tactics to see if they work for you. When it comes to putting yourself out there, a little “fake it ‘til you make it” can go a long way. When you’re driven by public service and making the world a better place, your effectiveness and success will ripple out for great impact — own that.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

At NSGIC’s Midyear Meeting in Annapolis, MD, we just launched a new “GeoWomen” program. I’m really excited about this initiative to promote women’s leadership in GIS, attract more women into state/local GIS careers and encourage greater NSGIC involvement by women. NSGIC is actively building the state/local GIS leadership pipeline and we know how important it is to make sure we are intentional about being inclusive.

Jayne ScofieldIT AdministratorState of Nebraska

In Nebraska, Jayne Scofield has oversight over several telecommunications and network pieces of the state's information technology infrastructure.

From public safety and field services, to voice, wireless, mid-range and the state's open systems and networks teams, Scofield also works in tandem with the state's information technology commission on policy, strategy and oversight.

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

Having the opportunity to be part of an IT consolidation has been a once in a career type of project for many of us. I have a team of really talented employees and knew there was a lot of IT talent in the agencies. We have always believed that the state could reap some great efficiencies and cost savings by using what we own and standardizing. When our CIO, Ed Toner, started talking about a hybrid approach to consolidation and doing it in phases, it was exciting, and scary, to think of the large project ahead of us. His support has been tremendous and he has only had to talk me off the ledge a few times. 

Breaking it down in phases really made a lot of sense. We have successfully navigated through Phase 1 — which was consolidation of the network and Phase 2 — which involved server administration, active directory, storage, etc. type of work. It has been a lot of work to coordinate all of the facets of a project of this size and we have learned a lot. The agencies have held us accountable in maintaining the same level of service they currently had but we have had a lot of opportunities to start providing them with position redundancy, standardization, the use of enterprise solutions and just the benefit the impacted IT employees get by working in the same building as their peers. Although this did not involve my entire team, those that were not directly impacted by this picked up any pieces that maybe we were dropping, gave us great ideas, supported us and plowed ahead with the multitude of projects they were already working on. As mentioned earlier, I have a great team.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

I don’t necessarily attribute the opportunities or accomplishments I have had to being a woman but more toward just working hard, knowing what I am statutorily charged with accomplishing each day, keeping that “care factor” strong and yet having fun with the team and the job. Working in a job where you have strong support from your management and your peers also helps and is something I try to reciprocate back to them.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

My goal is to always encourage others to go ahead and try what it is that you think you might want to do. To work with them to put them into the right slots so when opportunities come along, they are prepared and knowledgeable.

Grace SimrallChief of Civic InnovationLouisville, Kentucky

As the lead of civic innovation for Louisville, Kentucky, Grace Simrall spends a lot of her time where government always says it should be — with citizens.

"[My days] include meeting with community-based partners and entrepreneurs, reviewing status updates of pilots underway, planning community engagement events such as hackathons, providing technical input to projects and engaging with innovation officers in other cities to share our success stories and lessons learned," Simrall told StateScoop.

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

We were able to design pilots for two projects that originally developed at hackathons (wireless smoke detectors and Most hackathons don’t necessarily result in projects that have potential for piloting at the city level. These pilots not only resulted in real solutions to challenges our community faces, other cities are interested in either learning more or have taken the steps to roll the solution out to their own community. We’re very proud of that.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

We need your unique voice and perspective present at the table: don’t let the first “no” you receive stop you.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

The LouieLab is a civic innovation hub for public-private collaboration. We opened the public innovation laboratory to bring city employees and all members of the community (civic hackers, community-based partners, anchor educational institutions, startups, enterprise businesses) together to discuss, collaborate and build solutions to challenges facing Louisville. As a co-working space with daily registration that does not charge membership fees, we aim to provide equitable access and inclusion of diverse groups in our community. I encourage women leaders both within Louisville Metro Government and in the community to participate in the co-working space and attend our public events.

Kendra SkeeneDirector of ProductState of Georgia

Kendra Skeene holds one of the more uncommon jobs in state government — director of product for Georgia's online portal. 

At GeorgiaGov Interactive, which is housed within the Georgia Technology Authority, Skeene and her agency provide state agencies with an in-house developed Drupal enterprise web publishing platform that operates as a software-as-a-service, allowing agencies to focus on their tasks without getting bogged down with web development.

The move to the Drupal-based system has been a notable one for the state. Just five years ago, Georgia was the first state to move to an open source enterprise platform, and has received national recognition and regularly consults with other states who are going down the Drupal path.

"I believe that what we're doing is worth sharing, and that we all grow faster when we're lifting each other up," Skeene told StateScoop. "In sharing what we're doing with others in similar roles in the public and private sectors, our team not only encourages growth in others, but we can learn more about why we do what we do."

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

In 2013, we made all of our sites mobile friendly using responsive design and in 2015 we improved our platform code to meet WCAG 2.0 (Level AA) accessibility guidelines. This is the same standard on which the upcoming federal Section 508 refresh is based. We received a NASCIO award for this work in 2016.

This past year, the focus has been on institutionalizing and communicating the value of those same development principles as the base expectations for all new development across all stages of the product lifecycle — from content, to design, to development, to testing. We’ve also prioritized maturing our processes around the full product lifecycle to smooth out expectations and be able to increase the velocity of our updates. This has been critical as we have also rolled out some significant improvements to how customers can add and lay out content on their sites and built out location and mapping tools.
But probably the greatest impact we will have this year will be in two initiatives we expect to complete in the next quarter. One is security based — we’re currently preparing our platform to be fully served over SSL (https protocol). The other is a focus on matured content and branding — we have developed a content specialist certification course series to train and empower the content managers at each agency to have a better understanding of their audiences and how to write for them. We’re acutely aware that the product we deliver is only as useful as the content that the agencies are publishing on their sites. So our team is passionate about doing anything we can to help make their jobs easier.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

Always look for opportunities to improve what you do — whether that’s soliciting feedback from peers, reading blog posts and articles about what you’re interested in, or taking classes. Assume that your work could always be improved and learn to relish advice that will help you grow. The people I respect most are the ones who haven’t been afraid to tell me hard truths — even when they hurt.

Share what you know. The more you share what you’ve learned, the more you will learn. Every time I write, I learn more about the topic I’m writing about, and every time I speak, I learn about someone else’s challenges or ideas and that gives me an even better understanding of the topic. 

Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and push yourself to explore new things. Public speaking is terrifying for me, and it takes me five times as long to write a blog post as I think it should. And as much as it hurts, I know it’s more than worth it.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

The majority of my team is female. This isn’t intentional — it’s just worked out that the candidates who have risen to the top when we hire have happened to be women. They’re all amazingly hard workers with positive attitudes. One thing I’ve always done is ask them in our one-on-one meetings a couple times a year to think what they want to be learning and working towards. Then I try to find opportunities to give them more responsibility in the areas they are most interested in to give them a chance to explore and grow in those areas.

This looks different for each person, but may mean asking our support specialist to research a design problem, asking our testing lead to develop an accessibility testing plan or advocating for our training and support lead to have an opportunity to project manage an upcoming project. But I’m a perfectionist, so sometimes it means that I have to stop providing so much oversight! I make sure team members know what they “own,” and give them the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them — knowing that our workplace it’s a safe environment to learn and to make mistakes.

I’ve been working with GeorgiaGov Interactive for 10 years, and in that time I’ve held many different roles within the team as a junior member before growing into the position I hold now. This means I have a deep understanding of the work each of my teammates does, and the struggles inherent in their jobs. I’ve found opportunities to help the team grow and mature, to turn fragments of ideas into fully realized systems, and to develop plans and processes that have helped us succeed. Those opportunities have been very gratifying. My hope is for every team member to do the same, to find opportunities to grow and take more ownership over what we do as a team — wherever I can facilitate that and encourage it, I do. There is so much we want to do! To be successful we need a team that’s all in — who know they’re supported and who are excited to grow together.

Elayne StarkeyChief Security OfficerState of Delaware

As Delaware's chief security officer, Elayne Starkey has cybersecurity oversight over the entire state government. 

Whether that's disaster recovery or other cybersecurity programs, Starkey oversees the cybersecurity across all three branches of Delaware state government and the state's K-12 networks. 

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

We had a busy year, with a lot of energy going into standing up a brand new security operations center, rolling out a new log correlation tool, and selecting a new COOP Tool. I am so fortunate to work with an amazing team, and I was happy to see them receive two important recognitions last year. They received the 2016 Best of the Web Award for our cybersecurity website (3rd in a row), and the SANS Difference Makers award.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

Think about what your personal passion is and figure out how to turn it into a career path. If you pursue a career that aligns with your passion, it will never seem like hard work to you. Technology is a great career choice because it is fun and exciting, always changing, and provides lots of job opportunities in lots of different directions. And, don’t worry, being smart is cool.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

I love to meet with young women and encourage them to consider a career in STEM. In May, we will host our 8th annual DigiGirlz day for Delaware students. We partner with Microsoft to offer a full day experience to 8th and 9th graders, including hand-on “fun” activities. We have reached over 1,000 girls over the last 7 years. In addition, I mentor aspiring female CISOs and mentor a sophomore at our local high school, and we have been together since she was a first grader.

Michelle SummersWindows Compute ManagerState of Oregon

The staff members of Oregon's Enterprise Technology Services office are responsible for providing the compute power for more than 1,800 applications in use across the state.

As the Windows Compute Manager, Michelle Summers manages a team of 14 staff and is responsible for delivering virtualized Windows servers to Oregon state employees. In addition, Summers and her team maintain the state's enterprise email system, support active directory domains and generally lend their expertise to state employees who need it.

"My team is responsible for third level triage support for the Windows Server, Enterprise email and active directory environments," Summers told StateScoop. "I am very busy keeping my part of the organization running and supporting other managers and teams in the organization."

In addition, Summers serves as the Western Region President for the National Association of State Technology Directors.

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

My team, which I have only managed for one year, has gone through a lot of change. We have been reorganized and have moved to a focused service delivery model for Windows services which has allowed us to improve our processes and the our speed of delivery of compute to our customers, while increasing our customers capacity. We have several big achievements over the past year, a major achievement is being able to deliver a server in a day where two years ago the average was two weeks. This allowed the team to deliver over 725 servers last year with more than 3800 vCPU and over 16200 GB of RAM, which is a 154 percent increase from what was delivered in 2014. We have also increased our service capacity by migrating seven state agencies and boards into ETS’ Enterprise Exchange email in the past 6 months, with two more agencies planning to migrate in the next couple of months.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

About a year ago my administrator, Sandy Wheeler, shared a book with me that I have found very helpful called “Lean In," by Sheryl Sandberg, who is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. The best takeaway from the book was make sure you “sit at the table” and are present during meetings and actively lead and/or participate in the discussions, believe in yourself, give it your all and “lean in” — don’t “leave before you leave."

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

I proactively look for opportunities to encourage women, not just in my team, but in our organization.  As a manager, I think it is important to acknowledge and empower all of my staff. Currently, I have four members of my staff that are women. In order for these women to be successful and enhance their abilities, it is essential to listen and provide guidance when necessary as they learn new things in an ever-changing environment. As a manager I try to empower, listen and inspire my staff. I must be able to lead, be available and most of all provide an environment in which the staff can thrive. It is my hope that these women feel accomplished in the work they do and understand the importance of their roles in the organization.

Teri TakaiCommittee MemberFirstNet

For Teri Takai, public service didn't end when she stepped down as the chief information officer for the state of Michigan, or for the state of California, or for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Instead, Takai now plays several roles in the state IT community helping companies and federal agencies with everything from cybersecurity to best practices. Takai is a board member for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) — a project hoping to stand up a nationwide network exclusively for first responders and public safety.

In addition, Takai serves on the public sector advisory boards for Palo Alto Networks and Adobe, and advises startups in cybersecurity, big data analytics and the Internet of Things.

Takai also participates with nonprofits and academia, like the University of Michigan, Junior Achievement and other Michigan-based organizations focused on women in technology and technology leadership.

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

I am very excited that we are nearing the award of the FirstNet RFP to select a partner to build and operate the public safety broadband network. It has been a difficult and lengthy process, but we are getting close to an important next step.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

I recently gave a speech on the role of women in technology. Unfortunately, we are still not seeing the gains in the percentage of women in senior technology positions, regardless of the type of technology company.

These are some key messages for women as they look to their future:

  • It’s not about what qualifications you don’t have — it’s what you bring to the table. Sometimes women are self defeating — they don’t give themselves credit for their skills and talents.

  • It takes courage to have a seat at the table. Women often want to be sure that they are most prepared, smartest before they move ahead — and in today’s changing world, that is not always possible.
  • The journey is not always smooth — sometimes you have to be a survivor to get to the next opportunity.

  • Women may progress at a different speed and cadence from their male counterparts and that is OK. They need to embrace their varied roles with family and work and continue to look ahead.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

I continue to speak on the topic of leadership in technology in many different forums. I hope that the visibility of having a woman speak to many different topics sets an example for others. I am also active in Michigan based women in technology and technology leadership organizations to provide guidance and mentoring.

Amy TongChief Information OfficerState of California

It's been nearly a year since Amy Tong took the reins of California's information technology operation, but she's hit the ground running.

Since stepping in in an interim capacity following the departure of the previous CIO, and then being named the permanent CIO months later, Tong has predominantly spent her time planning for the future of the department.

"I hesitate even to use the word strategic planning, like this is some pipe dream that we're doing," Tong told StateScoop. "We're very much looking at how do we position this Department of Technology, knowing how fast the technology is evolving."

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

I think the biggest thing that I believe we achieved over the last year, and I'm very proud of, is working with the executive team here to redefine ourselves, redefine our identity, as a team and as an organization.

This department has gone through so many reorganizations — not to anybody's fault, but just years until the formation of this department. I feel like the department has lost its identity. This past year, I had the opportunity to come in and really listen to the senior team here. What do they really like? What do they want to do? What would motivate them?

Over the past year, we really started to create what is called a One Department of Technology. We call it One CDT, to identify our North Star goals. What is our existence? We're here to deliver, to innovate and to deliver quality assurance for everything that we do. From there, what's our common goal? It's to help the state deliver their business through the utilization of technology.

I really feel the team element is more cohesive. The ownership of this organization by the executive team — you can see it, and I feel like the people, the engagement and spirit — everything — is just high.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

I think making a difference in the organization will probably be a little bit different advice to the greater tech community. I'll explain why.

My focus right now is really how to make a difference in the organization, and I'm treating this organization that just happened to be specializing in technology, but running an organization should be the same regardless. From that aspect I would say for any aspiring women leaders, just be real. Be genuine and be kind. That's a leader.

I mean, none of us are perfect. Me, far from it. Have the ability to be very transparent of where your flaws are, where your strength is, and surround yourself with a trusted group of folks that all have a common interest to just simply get things done and help each other out. 

I would say in the tech community specifically, I know there's a lot of effort to bring women into the STEM program, and to date, in the science and technology field it's still a very much dis-invite kind of world. In this community, it's even more so to bring a level of a decision making that involves both passion and objectivity.

I believe that's a very important trait for folks, especially for women. We do need to find a good balance of making decisions based on factual information, but also have good compassion and be passionate about the decision, and what impact it would make in order to have a good outcome.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

I'm focusing on just being very transparent of what I'm going through right now so that I could be a case study for others. I feel like every person is going to find their own unique way to become successful. I know that's how I learn — from the people that I'm watching and from the mentors and those individuals who are willing to be my mentors. I'm a believer of learning from doing.

I don't want to go and say, "Hey, tell somebody you should do this, or you should do that." Instead, I'm just being very transparent of what I'm going through. People will form their own opinions.

I just encourage each woman to find her own path. Be flexible. For me, it's not a straight line. I have a lot of detours. I have a lot of setbacks as well and those are okay. Embrace those. End of the day, things will work out. Just be content and confident.

Archana VemulapalliChief Technology OfficerWashington, D.C.

In Archana Vemulapalli's daily work life, she's got one requirement: making sure her phone is charged and ready to go at all times.

"I don't know when that thing is going to off, and the things I'm going to need to run to," Vemulapalli said. "I am always on the clock."

As Washington, D.C.,'s chief technology officer, Vemulapalli could be attending a launch event for the Pennsylvania Avenue 2040 project one day with Mayor Muriel Bowser, and flying to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest the next. All the while, Vemulapalli is responsible for the district's information technology environment from the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO).

What's the biggest thing you and your team have achieved over the last year?

I think our biggest achievement is that we have built a team that I trust and that we have a level of honesty and a level of integrity and commitment to the city. And the work and the effort that we've been putting in has been done in that spirit, and that's a big thing that we've done.

In OCTO, we have close to 700 people across the board, but in our core team we have all critical functions, for data, for security, for network, for applications and for all of our central operations.

We do it because we have that level of trust and that level of motivation to really push the envelope and that's what I'm really proud of. I'm really proud of the team we built.

What piece or pieces of advice do you have for aspiring female leaders on making a difference in their organizations and the greater tech community?

Don't take no for an answer. If there is something you want to do, and if you see a clear path for success, map it out and find the right people to advocate it to and get moving on it, and don't take no for an answer.

How are you working to empower other women to follow in your footsteps?

I think one way you motivate people is by pushing and persevering. When people see success, that makes you want to succeed. When you see someone that worked hard, maybe come up the hard way, it motivates you and you say, "OK, there's a path for me, too." It's making sure you set the standard and you push yourself maybe a little more than you'd even like to, because that could potentially motivate and drive somebody else.

The second is to always engage and make yourself available. I extensively go to events, especially if they're women data science organizations, women hackathons, even regular events. Even if they're events that are not specific to women, I go there and I engage with people because one of the things you need to do is as you're moving up, you always need to engage and make yourself accessible to those that aspire to move up. Because that's how they move up — they learn pitfalls, they learn what to do, they sometimes will ask you for advice. Sometimes it's a job opportunity, but you always have to make yourself available and I think that's the one way you can get it done and that's how I've been doing it.

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