So You Think You Want to Be A Government CIO?

Here’s my disclaimer – this isn’t an ego trip. This is just me, talking about what I know, namely being a government CIO. But most of what I am saying is applicable to most technology jobs in government. If you disagree, please feel free to use the comments section below – I welcome any and all constructive debate!

Being a government CIO is not an easy job. Last year, NextGov reported that the average tenure for agency CIOs is only two years.  For state CIOs, it’s only 20 months! It’s not a job for a slacker, a underachiever or a clock puncher. It requires time, energy, creativity, patience and a strong stomach and spine.  And to make matters worse, the job is constantly evolving. Many recent articles (see for example CIO’s Role Shifts From Managing Information to Promoting Innovationhave described the evolution of the CIO role – moving from a technology operations manager to that of a change agent. Of course that technology management role doesn’t disappear (see my earlier note about NO slackers). But the focus shifts to broader topics, stronger integration into the business strategy of the organization. A recent article from paints a broad picture of the next decade:

CIOs can expect their jobs to change dramatically by the end of the decade. Expect an increased role in everything from business planning and cybersecurity to robot management and, of course, the cloud.

Wait. Robot management?  Wow. Now that has some serious potential, but I digress.

The simple point is this: CIOs must be willing to innovate or die trying. We’d better be sharp and solid. We are the catalyst for change and improvement. We got to be nimble but we also need to put down roots when necessary. We’ve got to have the guts to boldly venture out into the darkness but also know when to hang back. And we’ve got to remember that you cannot do it alone. Gloryhounds, techno-dilettantes and those not willing to share successes and opportunities with the innovators on your team who are backing you up and pushing you forward will fail. End of story.

You’ve got to balance leadership and empowerment; be a coach, a student, a listener, a talker and a counselor. Like I said…not easy. And in government, with stretched funds and dozens of individual lines of business, the pressure is tenfold.

That being said, I love my job. I am only a few weeks into my third municipal CIO gig, but I can already tell that I am meant to be here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but in this hotseat. The energy in a well-run IT shop, percolating with talent, is practically intoxicating to me. It’s like a raw diamond that I get to help polish into a thing of beauty. We build the things that people need – to do their jobs, to run their business or to live their lives.  And I am a part of it…and they pay me too? Sign me up!

If you are a private sector CIO, you are missing out my friend. Yeah, I bet you’ve got gobs of money and you’re on the short track to early retirement, but I’ve got a few things that I bet you don’t. Government CIOs have a leg up in many ways.  You gotta be in it for the “right” reasons, but here’s a few things to think about when it comes to being a government techie:

Stewardship – we are entrusted with public funds. We are living off of everybody’s taxes, so we must constantly challenge ourselves to do the most with the least.  We can’t/don’t/won’t just toss cash at a problem to make it go away. We’ll think it through and get all kinds of creative on it. The gauntlet has been thrown.

Teamwork –The best projects come from a team – a team of customers, techies and maybe even a few quality vendor folks as well. Bringing together a team of independent players around the war table to solve a common problem or reach a shared goal is a very good feeling.

Collaboration – We have a giant network of peers across the globe.  Fellow techies on a similar mission. And guess what? We don’t have trade secrets. We’re all about sharing – best practices, projects, people and ideas. We are in competition with ourselves, not each other, so we can build and share and maximize whatever limited resources we’ve got.

Diversity – Governments are dozens of independent businesses wrapped into one organization. They patrol the streets, they loan books, they put out fires, they help you vote, they teach you to swim, they [INSERT A HUNDRED OTHER ACTIVITIES HERE]. And each of those functions uses IT. They need automation. They need project management. They need business process re-engineering. They need databases. They need mobile apps. They need phones. They need radios. They need [INSERT A THOUSAND OTHER SERVICES HERE]. Keep it fun. Keep it fresh. Keep it moving.

Creativity – The economy has shrunk. Recovery might be on the way, but it won’t be quick.  As budgets shrink, agencies turn to IT for cost savings – let’s automate these manual processes, let’s upgrade to self-service, etc. Our funding is reduced too, yet the project load doesn’t shrink accordingly. Demands go up but funding, staffing and resources dwindle or if you’re lucky, they stay level. If necessity is the mother of invention, government IT must be the father. We stretch, twist, pull and mold ideas out of best practices, what our neighbors are doing or even some dark and squirrely recess of our mind.

Evolution – The only constant in technology is change. Today is no different. Yesterday, the cloud, open data and BYOD were all theoretical. Today, we are living through them (like it or not). Tomorrow they’ll be resolved and we’ll face new challenges and adventures. At the 2012 North Carolina Digital Summit, Dr. Shannon Tufts from the UNC School of Government said that we should not have technology projects; there should only be business projects with technology components. Point taken. Platform is irrelevant. Service, information and processes should rule the day.  Stay open, stay involved, and communicate with customers if you want to stay relevant.

To all my fellow government CIOs and technology types, did I do this justice? I welcome your debate and feedback; I am always up for a fresh perspective! What have I missed? Where do we differ? Where do we agree? Since our roles are so dynamic, let’s make this an ongoing conversation!


Query Letters & Proposals – Hard Vs. Soft Copies

As I work through the process of submitting my query letters and proposals to literary agencies, I have discovered that most of the agencies will accept unsolicited proposals in either hard or soft copy.  Most (~75%) encourage you to send soft copies, but they still accept the hard copies too. Perhaps as a long-standing tradition dating back to those ancient pre-email days?  However, I have come across a few agencies specific to my genre that will not accept emailed copies of even the query letter.  A hard copy is mandatory, no exceptions.

It may be to my detriment, but I dismiss these as potential agents immediately.  No, not because I am too lazy to print out a hard copy or too cheap to spring for a stamp.  I strongly feel that an agency that steeped in tradition is not the right fit for my work.  My first story (and probably my future ones) features technology as a focal point (big surprise from the computer geek I know).  My work also incorporates unconventional roles and a juxtaposition of the traditional symbols of the positive and negative aspects of faith. I am not suggesting my ideas are revolutionary, but I don’t think they’d be well-received in such a traditional agency.

Personally, I also think it is short-sighted to be so rigid when technology provides us with such improvements in speed and communication.  Of course, speed may not be a determining criteria for the way these agencies operate and that is certainly their prerogative. They’ve been at this game much longer than I have, so I will respect their wishes by not bothering them with my query.

What do you think?  Am I being close-minded?  Short-sighted? Impatient?

Confessions of a Government Twit

twitterread.jpgOkay, technically in the hyper-jargon that has emerged surrounding Twitter, the alpha male of the micro-blogging world, I am considered to be a Tweeter.  But for some reason, twit just seems to work better for me.  I get a lot of ilTwitterate people asking me why I consider Twitter to be so valuable.  Granted, I don’t really care so much to hear that you are currently picking belly button lint (yours or someone else’s).  Nor do I need to read your tweet railing against the driver next to you who is texting while driving. (The nerve of some people, eh?)  I do, however, need to find an easy way to keep up with some of the news that affects my world – government, technology, Web2.0, life here in western VA, etc.  Who has the time to keep up with all that is going on in the world around us today?  How many good articles and links have you had to pass up simply because it was the only way to keep your Inbox from a massive melt down?  As much as I like to think I am not chained to my job, the truth is, I’ve got the shackles on and if the cage door was ever left open, I think I’d probably shut it myself, just to keep the other freaks out.  Bottom line, I do not have enough time in the day to keep up with all that I should or would like to.  So, I turn to the Twitosphere and rely on my Tweeters to keep me informed.

There are three crucial parts to an effective Twitter engagement:  the Followers, the Following and the Posts. 

First – the Followers: I welcome any and all followers (except for those rare yet mega-annoying Tweetspammers).  I welcome followers not because I am vain (I mean come on – look at the photo I chose for the header of this column!)  Nope, tis not vanity at all!  I welcome followers because it is an opportunity to build community, albeit a community that speaks in 140 characters or less in a sometimes cryptic language of abbreviations and tinyurls.   But, those tiny posts can often speak volumes and lead me off in new directions of information sharing and news from the world around me.  It can change my thinking and I certainly meet new and dynamic people who are in no obvious ways akin to me.  Honestly, I love it when I see that new people are following me.  I presume it means that they dug in a little bit and saw that I had something relevant to say to them.  Perhaps it was a topic I posted or a question I posed.  Perhaps it was simply that I said the right thing, at the right time, in the right way that answered a burning question they had.  Then again, perhaps they were just drunk-tweeting and clicked on me by accident.  Regardless, the point is, I see it as a sign of interest in the work I am doing and any connection is an opportunity to expand on the group symbiosis I gain from Twitter.

So that brings me to my Following list.   I’ve had to cultivate the list of people I follow.  I do not automatically add someone just because they choose to follow me.  I do not mean offense by this, but with the overwhelming amount of information out there, I have to be a little picky lest I get overwhelmed with updates that don’t do much for me personally and what I am trying to get our of Twitter.  So until I see the Binford Do-It-Yourself Cloning Kit on the shelves at the local Walmart or learn how to manipulate the time-space continuum, I have to try to line up the most applicable, prolific and accurate Tweeters I can find.   I’ll generally do a quick scan for a few key words of the updates and make sure they seem to erupt on a fairly regular basis and somehow fit into one of my loose info categories and with the click of a Follow button, a new tributary to the Greever Tweetstream is born!

Finally, in order to get some real value out of the Twitterverse, you need to be sure that there is a communal send-and-receive habit within your own personalized galaxy.  Invest some time and energy in following those links.  Answer the questions that are posed by those in your stream – if you can help out, do so and in return you can expect the same treatment next time you are stuck! Also, keep it real. Say something if you think it needs to be said, but be mindful of the context and that you are still a representative of your organization (unless of course you are doing this on your own time with no reference to your day job).  Try to be useful.  Trust me – it is much harder than it sounds when you only have 140 characters in which to hurl some useful info chunks at your Tweet tribe.  As with all 2.0 tools, there is no harm in checking this out.  I personally never have made any promise that my Tweets will be interesting, informative or even coherent.  I was a fly on the wall for a while, started making some comments and my own posts about the work I was doing in the 2.0 and slowly it became for me an invaluable tool to learn, educate, inform and communicate.  Every day new tools are emerging that make Twitter a more valuable and effective tool, but the true burden and the value of the tool relies on you and what you want to get out of it.  Like Luke Skywalker rocketing down that trench on the Death Star, you are in complete control of whether or not the tool works for you.  You don’t need the computer to do it for you.  Use the force to…okay, you get the point.

So, for those of you visual learners out there, here’s a sampler platter of the loose categories of people I choose to follow on Twitter. Given the amount of people on Twitter these days, I am confident you can find your own peeps and get your very own Tweetstream flowing in no time!

Web2.0 in Action (Shout-Outs to: pbroviak, sarahintampa, GovDelivery, govloop,)

Information Security & Technology
(Shout-Outs to:  govtechnews, Bwoolley, vcuinfosec)

Government/Education Leaders
(Shout-Outs to:  Bill Schrier, ujdmc, bashley, egvick, webgoddess)

Govts on Twitter  (Shout-Outs to: RoanokeCountyDowningStreet, LAFD, Blacksburg_Gov)

Insight & Generally Thought Provoking
(Shout-Outs to: LPT, lewisshepherd, careerdiva, queenofpith)

Star Wars Humor
(Shout-Out to: DarthVader - his twitticisms are as funny as his soul is dark)

Virtually Yours,