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Correspondence from the IT Front Lines: Lead (Humbly) or Risk Being Led

Leaders from across the state talked through challenges that public-sector IT shops face when striking a balance between emerging technology and business needs.

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From left: e.Republic's California Conference Director Corey Bruins; KPMG Partner Bindiya Khurana; Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross; and Department of Community Services and Development CIO Maisha Dottery.
Eyragon Eidam/Industry Insider — California
How do you navigate the challenges posed by what has been called the “next industrial revolution”? That was a question asked of public- and private-sector IT leaders in Los Angeles last week.

The mounting challenges confronting the IT space were compared to early efforts to bring water to the arid, unforgiving desert that would eventually become home to millions of people.

New tools and expectations are coming at government at an alarming rate, and much of navigating the “shifting sands” comes down to leading with humility and a willingness to learn, city of Los Angeles CIO Ted Ross explained during a Los Angeles IT Leadership Forum* panel discussion on Thursday.

Ross pointed to conversation about AI as a prime example. Before teams can have a discussion about its capabilities or risks, they need to first work through what it is and isn’t.

“But that can be said for almost any technology. I think clarity is extremely important, direction is extremely important, and it all has to be done with … gratitude, the empathy, and even the trust factor of it,” he said.

Ross went on to emphasize the importance of being a part of conversations around new and existing technologies, warning that failure to be proactive will force IT teams into a reactive situation, or worse still, into a situation where the technology does not meet business needs.

“Increasingly, because technology is involved, we're being asked to take a leadership role. We shouldn't avoid that conversation because we do want a seat at the table,” Ross said. “But we're also going to need to know how to be able to empower business leaders to also be at the table with us, because if IT is leading this conversation top to bottom, we’re all in trouble.”

These conversations need to include a range of stakeholders, panelists pointed out. Maisha Dottery, CIO for the state’s Department of Community Services and Development, said reframing the conversation is a necessary step to engage departments that might otherwise ignore technology-centric issues.

“One of the things we realized when we started reaching out to our program managers — right, non-IT folks — is that they believe the job of a generative AI and artificial intelligence was only for IT,” Dottery said.

“We’re carpooling together wherever we’re going. That was one of the things that really heightened my awareness in terms of how we work today,” she added.

But AI is only the most recent in a string of technologies that has had a disruptive impact on government. Ross pointed to the cloud, the rise of big data and analytics tools, blockchain and even social media as relevant examples.

“In a lot of ways, what we're hearing presented before was the importance of having a growth mindset. We need to apply that growth mindset,” he said. “AI may be the conversation — we’ll be talking about for the next few years, it's guaranteed, there's no way to avoid this — but we were talking about blockchain before, we were talking about cloud before. And so, the reality is we need to continue to raise the digital IQ of our employees.”

KPMG’s Bindiya Khurana echoed these sentiments, noting that a growth mindset and the ability to adapt as technology changes is the new reality. Gone are the days of learning and perfecting a single skill set to hold down a job for decades.

“In today's workforce, the research shows we have to reinvent ourselves at least four times, right, which means we constantly have to be in that learning mindset,” Khurana said. “We have to get comfortable being uncomfortable, because there is no other way around it.”

Dottery said giving employees an opportunity to learn and test new technologies in a lab environment has been a successful model within her department. Access to technologies in a low-risk setting has helped identify tools to solve operational problems in a safe, controlled and secure way, she said.

Industry Insider — California will have continuing coverage of this event.

* The Los Angeles IT Leadership Forum is hosted by Government Technology, Industry Insider — California's sister publication. Both are a part of e.Republic.
Eyragon is the Managing Editor for Industry Insider — California. He previously served as the Daily News Editor for Government Technology. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.