New state CIOs should 'slow down to go fast'

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You are months into your new role as state chief information officer. My previous article advising CIOs highlighted the importance of rallying around a mission that matters, listening before you lead, and building many outside relationships. With these tasks underway, it is time to “slow down to go fast” and develop a budget, roadmap and strategy.

In reviewing the IT environment in North Carolina, it became clear to me that many systems had been left with limited funds and were broken. In the first few weeks in my position we had a fire in a server closet in the governor’s office that set the tone for how broken IT was in the state.

Time and money to modernize the operating model, remediate underlying systems and build foundational capability was needed. Fortunately, we were entering the biennial budgeting process and were able to describe to the governor and general assembly the efforts required to fix and modernize our IT environment.

Within six months of taking my position we had secured more than $60 million through a special IT reserve fund that covered a portfolio of eleven programs. This became the initial roadmap of priorities for our team.

We needed a more encompassing strategy to anchor our IT professionals and develop a shared vision. It became known as our ABC strategy:

  • Accelerate our consumer focus
  • Balance innovation and risk
  • Collaborate as one IT

The IT industry was — and still is — experiencing unprecedented change. The consumerization of IT meant our IT professionals needed to change from backroom technologist to front-office customer-focused IT professionals. We had to accelerate our customer focus or some other company would come in and do it for the state. It was this change to focus on the citizen experience that helped move IT from the backroom to the boardroom and established the CIO as a member of the governor’s Cabinet. Two years later, that change was written into law with the creation of the Department of Information Technology.

Our server closet fire was symbolic of the fire across state IT and the risk we had with desktops, applications, and the network. We needed to make changes quickly and do it with innovation. That’s one reason we started the North Carolina Innovation Center to help move quickly and make sure the solution we deployed would work before we bought them. This became foundational in our ABC strategy through the “balance innovation and risk” item.

For our IT professionals in North Carolina, the governor helped shape our mission by directing us to make doing business with state government as easy as checking the scores on your smartphone. This required us to change the core IT governance model and “collaborate as one IT” as outlined in our “Cabinet Unite IT Strategy.”

This why I encourage you to “slow down to go fast” at this juncture. As CIO, you will need to secure funding, have a roadmap and strategy to help lead the IT professionals needed to implement the vision. These steps help align with the vision of the governor and the other elected officials you will need to support you through this journey. Well wishes.

Chris Estes is the former chief information officer for the state of North Carolina and currently works for Ernst & Young’s public sector business in the Carolinas region.

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Chief Information Officer (CIO), Commentary, North Carolina
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