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Industry Insider One-on-One: Emergency CIO on Shifting CIO Role, Importance of Collaboration

Beth Cousins is chief information officer at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), a position she has held since Feb. 18, 2020 – less than a month before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. As previously reported by Industry Insider – California, she will step down from her role May 20 to join Yellow Wood Recovery in Rancho Cordova as chief operating officer. Her daughter is CEO there.

Before joining the state of California, Cousins had a lengthy tenure in public- and private-sector IT, including more than nine years as deputy CIO and director of IT business development at the city of Minneapolis. She served as IT development manager in Target Technology Services at Target Corp. for more than two years; and before that, spent more than 13 years at more than a decade at IBM, ending as project manager.

She holds a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Minnesota and an executive MBA from the university’s Carlson School of Management; and in 2017, graduated from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business’ Design Thinking Bootcamp. In a conversation with Industry Insider – California, the CIO offered her perspective on IT at Cal OES and what the future holds for CIOs.

Collaboration is key to IT at her organization, she said, and “forming relationships and continually working to strengthen them” is a very high priority.

“My message has always been we have to be collaborative. We are here to serve our programs. We’re here to understand what they need and deliver to them what they need, and we need to do it quickly if we are going to be relevant as an IT organization. Because if we don’t do it quickly, they can go get it from somebody else quickly,” Cousins said. “We’ve got to make it easy for them to get things from us, and we’ve got to develop relationships and we have to be forward-leaning.” Staying curious is important as well, she added, to understand what partners and customers of an IT entity need, via good communication and empathy.

Asked by Industry Insider whether she sees the role of CIO shifting or growing, Cousins said she does see it shifting – but not growing. CIOs need to be business leaders first and IT leaders second, she said, noting that as an entity’s tech leader, the CIO is naturally more outwardly focused. This may not make it easy for staff, but that outward focus ultimately can benefit all – although positive changes may not immediately be noticed. The CIO role is shifting as entities work to balance the “consumerization of IT with enterprise risk,” the CIO said, highlighting how accustomed we all have become to simply downloading apps to our smartphones. At the enterprise level, CIOs sometimes must say no to “DIY technologies” – but not always. But when they do say yes, it should be clear to program partners that IT may not necessarily support every piece of tech the partner possesses. “We can make sure that the application is running, but in terms of knowing how to use it, we don’t have to be that,” she said.

Human-centered design is something she really believes in, Cousin said, indicating it’s crucial for entities to “have to have people exploring emerging technologies and working with strategic innovation partners.” That process may not always work but developing competencies and learning how to do it right is vital.

Areas of focus and potential challenge for CIOs are:

  • The hybrid work model – a reality, but one that can be problematic for those who enjoy working face to face. Ultimately, CIOs must figure out how to lead their people whether they’re onsite or remote.
  • Bringing technology to bear on collaboration and engagement, and staff retention – a pivot, Cousins said, on the people focus. “It’s always something about people, right, because they have to come first to do anything,” she said. “I’ve been lucky to get highly skilled people and I’m also lucky because the word is out about what I’ve been doing at Cal OES, and so IT at Cal OES has been re-energized.”
  • Digital transformation – a process that likely began for entities during the COVID-19 pandemic if it wasn’t already underway. “We need to continue that automation and leveraging platforms and we need people focused on doing innovation, proofs of concept, developing partnerships, exploring possibilities,” Cousins said.
The CIO offered three key lessons learned:

  • Lean on the vendors. Money is tight, and sometimes technology vendors will go the extra mile and do a bit more when their government partners are in a pinch.
  • Building networks is crucial. During her time at Cal OES, Cousins said, a key focus was on ensuring the office was a good partner to other entities, and made the effort low for other programs to seek technology-related services and products.
  • Improved work-life balance exists in government – and more so than in the private sector, said Cousins, whose time there has included years at Target Corp. and at IBM. Government works very hard, too, she said – but not quite as hard as the private sector.