THE BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT facing public sector IT managers has changed dramatically in the past few years. Decentralized, insular IT operations have given way to federated computing models, outsourced IT functions and public-private sector partnerships. Ironically, the trend toward centralized and standardized technology in government computing has created a growing need for more-versatile people skills.
It’s a case of déjà vu all over again, according to Michael Mittleman, New York State’s chief information officer. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, he notes, all IT resources were big, expensive and centralized. The people who ran the mainframes were virtually a caste unto themselves.
“They were almost like high priests,” he recalls. “IT folks were viewed as geeks, geniuses and wizards because they could do miraculous things. There was a premium paid for their services, and great deference was given to their opinions.”
Then came the personal computing revolution, and widespread familiarity with technology bred feelings of near contempt for the technological priesthood. The remote and mighty director of information services became “the IT person” — the one to call when your mouse quit responding. The prestige of an in-house IT career declined, not just in the government sector, but across the business world.
With PCs outnumbering wastebaskets in many offices, IT staff were hired and treated like custodians. Each department had its IT person who supported the group’s mission but wasn’t really part of it. There was no way to promote an IT person in an accounting department. His or her job was simple and relatively unchanging: Keep the hardware up and running.
“Some people like that kind of job,” acknowledges Teri Takai, CIO for the state of Michigan and director of the state’s Department of Information Technology. One person’s dead-end job is another’s destination, a comfortable spot in which to bide time until retirement rolls around. However, starting in the late 1990s, life changed for government IT workers.
Government IT resources are being consolidated and standardized. Redundant and underutilized desktop PCs are being replaced by shared server farms. Isolated IT workers are being unified under governmentwide information services and technology departments. The prestige, power and career opportunities of government IT workers are growing again. But this trend does not signal a return to the glory days of the all-mighty high priests. In contrast, today’s IT worker requires more than esoteric technical skills.
“Michigan today needs and wants more management and leadership from IT employees,” Takai says. “Technical folks who want to join an internal IT organization must recognize that the required skill sets have changed. Project management, leadership, negotiation and people skills are needed. Pure techies will find themselves limited in promotion opportunities.”
Federated computing models require a deep understanding of departmental business processes and how they relate to one another at the lowest and highest levels. Consolidation of IT resources requires diplomatic management of competing demands. And outsourcing requires skills in vendor selection, contract negotiation and managing relationships with people who do not report to you.
Then there are the customers who are not the least bit awed by technology experts.
“Entry-level workers today know nothing but a digital environment, and they know what technology should be able to do,” says New York’s Mittleman. “Anyone in a professional discipline knows computers and has all kinds of expectations.”
The IT worker that government needs today combines the technical and people skills of a systems integrator and consultant. Indeed, government IT shops find themselves competing for such employees with the very contractors with whom they work closely.
Clark Kelso, CIO for the State of California, agrees. “We’re actually competing with consulting firms for talent,” he says. “For instance, we have a new payroll project in the works. We have 40 new positions to fill, and our integrator needs to hire 100 similar people. That’s not a surprise. We use consultants for surge projects, but we have ongoing needs for the same kind of people. Occasionally, we do hire people from our contractors.”
So how do government IT shops compete with private contractors’ higher pay, fast management tracks and variety of leading-edge project work? By appealing to the more mature values of the latest generation, say the IT managers interviewed.
The dot-com implosion of the late 1990s was a boon for government IT recruiters because it forcefully highlighted the job advantages of public sector careers over those from the private sector. Of course, governments, like other enterprises, are subject to layoffs, but they are not going out of business tomorrow.
Also, notes Kelso, “We won’t be taken over by a competitor. That’s a big stress factor for employees. Other advantages include retirement plan structures and health plans. To people who are thinking more than two years out, that is a significant benefit. We also offer opportunities for lateral and upward mobility without moving across the globe.”
“Individuals who get into consulting often find it is not conducive to other quality-of-life issues, such as family,” agrees Michigan’s Takai. “Government offers a better work/life balance. We are seeing job applicants’ perceptions change in this regard.”
“The biggest change I’ve seen is we’re no longer the backwater of technology,” says Bill Marion, director of the 18-person Information Services Department of Milpitas, Calif. “You’ll find that government is now on the leading edge of many things, such as handhelds, wireless networks and GPS [global positioning system]-enabled vehicles.
“We have the same group [of employees] that we started with six years ago. I hope that’s because what we’re doing is exciting, challenging and rewarding.”
Technological innovation is also a recruiting advantage in Anne Arundel County, Md., where Bill Ryan, acting information technology officer, employs 87 full-time and 20 contract IT workers. His group maintains a fiber-optic network of 200 sites in a 480-square-mile area serving all schools, libraries, community colleges and public buildings. His budget is $26 million per year.
“We’re responsible for all hardware and software, networks, geographic information systems [GIS], telecommunications and cable TV services,” he says. “We’re very progressive technically.”
For example, Anne Arundel County was among the first to deploy a mobile command and control center featuring Internet Protocol technology, which enables interoperability of emergency responders’ radio, telephone, and wired and wireless networks. Ryan’s team is creating Web-based applications for as many government-citizen interactions as possible, such as GIS-based land records retrieval, inspection and permit applications.
Whether large or small, government IT shops offer the satisfaction of community service. That’s a big consideration for many workers today. Creating systems that help single parents collect child support, enable nurses to take better care of elderly patients, protect families from crime, and empower citizens with information and digital services can be very rewarding.
“Our team gets great satisfaction when they see their projects doing something,” says Marion of Milpitas. “For example, they got to see a 911 call tied to a GPS plasma-screen display, showing the location of the caller and the closest emergency response unit. They even got to track the unit’s progress via a wireless network.”
When you work for the government, “Your customer is your neighbor,” says Michigan’s Takai. “Once folks get into the public sector and see what a difference they can make, it gets under their skin and changes the way they see their job.”
The retirement of baby boomers isn’t causing major crises among the government CIOs interviewed. For one thing, they say, improvements in technology help them do more with fewer people, so replacing retirees is not as critical as it was in the past. And they don’t have a lot of legacy technology that only a few veteran staffers understand.
“We have four people in the retirement zone during the next six to seven years,” Marion of Milpitas says. “With technology changing, we may not have to replace them. Our phone switch, for instance, will become VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol]-based.”
“We’ll be challenged to really take advantage of convergence, because we haven’t done it,” says California’s Kelso. “We have some VoIP installations, but they don’t take advantage of the marriage of all [voice, data and video] technologies. It will take upgrading and integration of legacy systems to take advantage of convergence. A big challenge will be legacy updating because we need people who know both [legacy and new technology]. The legacy people are retiring, and we haven’t installed the new technology yet, so we haven’t hired the people.”
“Where we have vulnerable legacy applications, we are moving them to modern technology before the old expertise retires,” says Michigan’s Takai. “A service provider is hired, and the integrator must transfer knowledge to the staff before leaving.”
Despite years of streamlining and automation, the challenges and rewards of public sector IT careers have never been greater. Government CIOs need to get that message across to the new generation of IT workers.
Ongoing training and professional development are other benefits that are important to prospective employees. IT workers, in particular, are anxious to keep their technological skills current, while simultaneously adding people skills to their credentials. Smart government CIOs provide educational opportunities.
At the Information Services Department of Milpitas, Calif., four of the 18 staffers possess advanced degrees, says Director Bill Marion. Certifications on standard applications from Microsoft, Oracle and other software companies are routine. “Project-specific vendor training is also valuable over the long run,” he says.
“Recruiting is getting more difficult because we need both tech and people skills,” says Clark Kelso, CIO for the State of California. “If you have gaps in the skills base, you have to do a lot of training. Seventy percent to 90 percent of our training programs are devoted to leadership and understanding the business case.”