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CIO: Technology Can Play a Part in Avoiding Risk

An image of Cecil Lawson, IT manager for the city of Campbell, next to a quote that reads: “I think a lot of the risks that are in our future can be averted simply by embracing some of the technologies that make sense but may entail some degree of risk.”
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As part of Industry Insider — California’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT leaders.

Cecil Lawson is information technology manager at the city of Campbell and a member of its city manager’s executive staff, a role he has had since April 2017. He has extensive executive-level experience in technology across the public, private and education sectors. Lawson has served as executive director for economic mobility and diversity at Microfacturing Institutes in Palo Alto, a public benefit corporation, since July 2019, and has been associate professor for Internet of Things, data science, artificial intelligence and entrepreneurship at Evergreen Community College District in San Jose since January 2002. He also served as chief information officer/IT program manager at the San Jose Police Department from 2002-2017.

Lawson has a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and a Master of Business Administration in management from Golden Gate University. His professional licenses and certifications include a certificate for Data Science Professional Project from edX; certification in data science via the Microsoft Professional Program; and certification in programming with Python for data science, also from edX.

Industry Insider — California: As IT manager at your organization, how do you describe your role? How have your role and responsibilities changed in recent years in terms of their intersection with IT and innovation?

Lawson: Our job is to make the entire city more efficient using technology as a leverage point. We make sure tools are working. We make sure tools are integrated. We make sure that our costs of operation are staying where they are or going down and ensure that productivity is increasing with the use of tools. There’s two components of productivity. One is, how can I make more widgets with the same amount of people? And the other one is comparative advantage or competitive advantage. Competitive advantage, we don’t use that often in government. There are some instances where technology can do things that people cannot do. For example, our application with law enforcement, some applications do extend the capabilities of our officers. Others are just simply extending our own capabilities, making ourselves more efficient. This is a smaller city. I was CIO of the San Jose (Police Department) for about 15 years prior, and before that I was in the service industry at three startups here in Silicon Valley. So, I was kind of fortunate, around 2001 or so, I kind of retired and decided to go back after 9/11, but back into government. I’d never been in government. And this is quite an interesting last 20 years now.

IICA: Does your organization have a strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? How big a role do you personally play in writing that strategic plan?

Lawson: The city itself has a strategic plan. We meet once a year with our elected officials, mayor, council members, and we lay down from a higher purview what we’re doing here as a city, what are we trying to improve? And it really starts from the lives of our residents, but there’s a nexus, there are federal, state and local tangents to that. You can’t look at the board behind me, but I had the strategy that boils down to my actions and how can I support other organizations within the city? For example, we had a strategic goal of making it easier for our residents to submit permits — building permits, augmentations to buildings, existing housing and so forth. And so, we automated that whole process. We have a strategic goal to allow our officers to be on scene or provide the technologies to be on scene more efficiently. So, we’ve deployed computer-aided dispatch, which is a 911 system, and records management systems that are leaning more toward GIS systems and leaning more toward commercial cellular at a higher speed. If you go to our website, even video on YouTube, you’ll see some of these strategic meetings where we’re talking about this at a very high level. And then we pair off and we figure out, okay, what’s the police department going to do? What’s the community development department going to do? What’s the recreation department going to do? What’s the public works department going to do? What’s the city manager’s office going to do? I’m part of the city manager’s office, and I always thought, why is the IT organization part of the city manager’s office? I guess it was a perfect fit, so I could leverage evenly across the operational parts of the city. But the strategic plan, what we’re doing at a very high level, even at a more tactical level, you can see within our budget documents, it kind of spells it out, what are we doing in the strategic plan? And that kind of boils down to what my objectives are each year, what are my major milestones.

IICA: What big initiatives or projects are coming up? What sorts of developing opportunities and RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Lawson: I guest lecture from time to time at Carnegie Mellon up at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. I have a good friend there that’s a professor. He and I had lunch maybe a couple months ago, and he said one of the components of COVID that really has benefitted IT is, it has accelerated the acceptance of technology by at least five years. We have a lot of public meetings. And during COVID, we couldn’t do that. So, we had to embrace products like Zoom or Teams. And that’s accelerated. So, what that forced me to do is to take over an area I had never touched before, which is our ability to broadcast. If you look at my office, I have a screen over here that shows me my live broadcasts going on right now, it goes into four different areas. Now, we’re streaming 24/7, all the older meetings are being queued up and streamed and we have these programs going on. So that kind of changed. The other way we communicate is, our website was redesigned to incorporate or embrace some of the heavier (audio-visual) AV capabilities. What projects do we have coming up? I wanted to give you that precursor. We’re going to change our council chamber to remove people from having to manage cameras and microphones. One of the bigger projects we have is changing out all the AV equipment within our council chambers. We’re kind of taking a double leap forward. We’re trying to automate that process right now. We’re doing a lot of what I call “big iron replacement.” We have been migrating to the cloud for a number of years now, moving from on-prem to cloud applications. We did that with our planning permits and code enforcement applications. We’re doing that with our law enforcement applications. We’ve done that with Office 365, we’re starting to move our data stores to SharePoint, but also, downsizing and replacing a lot of our data stores or storage area networks that need to be replaced. I’m replacing my UTM (unified threat management) system. We’re doing our standard 25 percent desktop replacement per year. We’re in the process of deploying an HRIS (human resources information system), the nexus there into our finance system, and really the big changeout is going to be the payroll. That’s the thing that bridges the finance system with the HRIS. The big one on the horizon is replacing our finance system. We’re gathering information right now.

IICA: In your opinion, what should local government be doing more of in technology?

Lawson: I have an interesting background. People ask me why I’m here. I think I’m kind of finishing out my career, but I worked at the White House for a couple of years. I did quite a number of startups and I’ve continued to teach. I’m a professor of computer science at three colleges locally, I do that part-time. One of the things I’d love to bring to government is less risk aversion. Government is almost like a ship that goes at the same speed, at the same cadence, in the same direction with very little movement in any direction. Leadership has to have some degree of risk. Otherwise, it’s called stewardship. And stewardship is at the helm of government, keep it going the same direction, keep it going at the same rate. I think a lot of the risks that are in our future can be averted simply by embracing some of the technologies that make sense but may entail some degree of risk. So, I think government can do a better job of logically embracing certain types of technologies, processes and risks. Businesses do this all the time, they try to anticipate certain types of risk. Government should too. I think we learned a lesson with COVID. There were (beneficiaries of) COVID and technology was one of them. I would love to take less of a defensive posture, if you can take more of an offensive posture strategically and make those investments ahead of certain perceived risks.

IICA: How do you define “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Lawson: Digital transformation has three lakes to it, I think. There’s people, process and technology, right? It’s a big Venn diagram where all three of those have to come together. And where they come together, you have success. The challenge is the people. The technology is there. The process, I would say, is a secondary challenge. But that’s tangential to the first challenge, which is people, their ability to change. Technology’s now evolving faster than our ability to embrace it. And I think the rate of technology changed specific to COVID, because that moved things forward very quickly. I think the people part is a challenge because of the rate of change spawned by COVID. The process part is, technology can change some of the processes or even get rid of many of them. We’re just discovering a lot of that and how those change our processes internally here and make us even more efficient and effective. We not only have to be public-facing, open book if you will, but we also have to demonstrate to the public that we are spending every dollar they give us as efficiently and effectively as we can. And I think technology often leads in that show-and-tell.

IICA: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Lawson: The overall city budget is around $43 million. My budget is very small. I have four employees, one of which is dedicated to the police department. And my budget runs below $2 million a year.

IICA: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Lawson: Oh, go to our website. I think they can take a look at our website and they’re going to get a lot of information. Take a look at one of our council meetings. There’s many examples of me pitching something, some network or something, to our City Council, and you can understand what our struggles are. If you look at our budget document, you’ll see what our initiatives are, what our strategies are, what our goals are for the year, and having that knowledge, I think, would be beneficial. Contacting me via email is fine. And I’m on LinkedIn of course.

IICA: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Lawson: There’s three. One is, we got our city manager to deploy, early on in IoT, a smart lighting system out in our parking lot. And it was an experiment, “How can we save money and how can we make the campus more secure?” That was a proud moment for me. The proudest moment, I think, was this whole AV thing, this metamorphosis, this evolution of our audio-visual broadcast capability. I believe we are the only city within the region that does a hybrid in-person and/or online-at-the-same-time meeting capability. The biggest thing I’m proud of is the sheer amount of technology change in a relatively short amount of time. ... Our website was redone, permit system, computer system. We completely replaced all desktops and servers. Our network was completely replaced. Our Wi-Fi system was completely replaced and extended out to our community centers. The Internet capability, we have duality there, we have redundancy, we have a (software-defined wide area network) SD-WAN. I just celebrated my fifth year here. I celebrate, I guess, that I’m able to sell the idea and to deploy the idea, all these ideas, very quickly. So I’m proud of that.

IICA: What has surprised you most this year in government technology?

Lawson: We did an RFP of what is called a permit system, but it’s really multiple systems in one. And I got the usual suspects. And they’re usually on-prem applications, you spin up a couple servers, you get a Microsoft SQL license, and you have an application layer, and you’re done and you’re paying a lot of money. What’s surprising is, there’s a company — it’s not even a company, it was a consortium — that got involved after Hurricane Katrina. And they produced a product called MyGovernmentOnline. This is commercial-grade software that was created by a government entity. They put in a bid, and ... I remember, we brought them in and that blew me out of the water. We ended up purchasing the product. I see that as a beginning of something.

IICA: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Lawson: I read for two reasons. One is because I have to teach this stuff. And I read for my trade, whatever people are doing. I meet with the CIOs of about four or five other cities around here, because I know them. And so we meet once a month and we talk turkey. There’s a lot of trade magazines online. I get emails, probably 10 a day. I’m really looking at regional reports, from the FBI, that keep me abreast of recent targets of ransomware and other attacks. I read a book called The Light at the End of the Tunnel about technology, which is an interesting book. I have a stack of books at home that I go through. My wife also teaches and she goes through a stack of books. She says, “Here, read this, you’ve got to read this.”

IICA: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Lawson: My hobbies are DevOps because I teach DevOps. And so, I have a server at home. I have, effectively, a whole network, I have a replicated network ... at a smaller scale. What I’ve been doing lately is playing with a product called Anaconda, doing machine learning. I teach Python, so I’ve been writing Python code. I’m working on an experiment with a couple of universities on predictive (technology). I kind of love what I do ... because it’s so transformational to real people’s lives.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.