IE11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Industry Insider One-on-One: State Environmental Tech Leader on Role, Pandemic Impact

This story is limited to Industry Insider — California members.
This story is limited to Industry Insider — California members. Login below to read this story or learn about membership.
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.

Steve Fong is chief information officer at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) within the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), a role he has had since September 2014. A veteran state employee, he previously was at the California Department of Technology (CDT) from 2011-2014 where, as a member of the CalCloud email services team, he enabled migration to Microsoft Office 365. Earlier state roles include time at the California Department of Justice and at the California State Board of Equalization.

Fong is a Sacramento native and John F. Kennedy High School graduate. He studied at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, for a Bachelor of Science degree centered on computer engineering technology.

Industry Insider — California: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role? How have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Fong: I’ve been the CIO of OEHHA since September 2014. I’m a transplant from the California Department of Technology. I was on the CalCloud email services team ... migrating from on-prem to what is today Microsoft Office 365. And prior to that I was at DOJ (Department of Justice) and I was at BOE (Board of Equalization) for ... a little more than 10 years (before that). While at BOE, everybody thought I was a lifer. I’ve been at OEHHA for about eight years now. We are a smaller office of about 145 employees, so the role of my staff and I are similar and (so) we wear a lot of hats. What I mean is that we all pitch in doing a lot of different things. For example, I may, one day, do my CIO duties, the following day I may be helping our information security officer, and another day I may be helping some of our staff preparing laptops for some of our users or running cable or comparing numbers. I was actually working with the network team last week, preparing a set of numbers which is for one of our district offices. So, we wear a lot of hats. And inversely, my team helps me out quite a bit as well. I have a supervisor and I have a vacant position that’s another supervisor and they help me out quite a bit on the other side of the house. So we kind of help each other out. Not (being able) to have face-to-face interaction can make some of these responsibilities difficult. We were able to go through a digital transformation to accommodate the telework environment such as providing more opportunity for face-to-face interactions through programs like Teams. Teams and Zoom, we’re utilizing that quite a bit right now. This allowed OEHHA to create a collaborative environment where staff and I were able to thrive within the roles that were given to us. We used Cisco Webex and we were also using GoTo Webinar at times.

Industry Insider — California: 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?

Fong: So, we do have a strategic plan. OEHHA’s strategic plan has a primary focus on scientific work. My role is more of a technical contributor or technical resource for IT, for those portions of the plan that involve information technology. We provide IT solutions or technical information needed so that OEHHA can meet its goals and achieve its scientific mission. I’m more of just a technical consultant; I’m more of a resource. They come to me if they have any technical questions for the strategic plan but mostly, the strategic plan is based on our scientific missions and goals.

Industry Insider — California: How often do you update your organization’s enterprise catalog?

Fong: I refer to the enterprise catalog as like a service catalog. We’re always updating our enterprise catalog or our service catalog to provide the tools needed for OEHHA staff to complete their tasks to meet our goals and our missions. We’re always updating it and refining it and adding new tools to the tool shed so that our staff will have the tools they need.

Industry Insider — California: 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?

Fong: So, unlike many larger agencies that interact directly with the public, we do not have a large-scale customer service operation like DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). Nor do we collect any type of payments like the Franchise Tax Board. Our IT projects are much more modest in scale and focused on providing staff with the tools that they need to do their job. For example, we recently awarded a two-year maintenance and operations contract for OEHHA’s three websites. It’s unusual for an agency of our caliber and size to operate the websites, so simply keeping them going is a major commitment for us.

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

Fong: This is actually true for, not just the state of California or the federal government or any business, but a large majority of employers, everybody, have transitioned from a traditional brick and mortar work environment to a telework or hybrid work environment. Because the COVID pandemic really hit us, right? Everybody had to really think out of the box, they had to go in a different direction, nobody was really going into brick-and-mortar offices anymore. You had to communicate somehow, you had to have your meetings and everything. That’s where Teams, Zoom, Goto, BlueJeans, all the platforms, they really took off and they really helped everybody out. My interpretation of digital transformation is moving anything from an on-premise to a cloud basis or anything that’s an app. A good example is, when I was at CDT, we migrated all the on-premise exchange systems onto the Office 365 system, that’s cloud-based, and then we just recently migrated — we’re utilizing CalCloud at CDT but we migrated all our three websites to an (Amazon Web Services) AWS web farm, so we actually reduced costs and then we moved everything over to the AWS web farm. So, that’s the way I would interpret that. Any time we can move anything to the cloud, then that’s digital transformation. We’re using e-signature right now; we were one of the first departments to roll out DocuSign within CalEPA; we did that pre-pandemic to save paper and to allow e-signatures on documents, and now we’ve spun off and gone on to Adobe Sign, where now we utilize the standardized platform. Again, digital transformation, that’s not really cloud-based but it’s still moving from paper to an electronics solution. It’s ongoing. ... Prior to the pandemic, we were already ahead of the curve. OEHHA, we migrated OEHHA staff from traditional desktop workstations to laptops, creating a mobile work environment, years ago ... before I got there. The prior CIO was way ahead of the game on disaster recovery, your security plan. She gave a lot of thought to that; her thought was always “What would we do if the building were to get leveled? How can we somehow allow our staff to work remotely?” And so, moving from a stand-alone desktop workstation to a laptop was a great solution because again, it created a mobile work environment, people could take their laptops home with them; people who were scientists who worked in the field could take their laptops with them and they could actually work like they were in the office and have a mobile work environment.

Industry Insider — California: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Fong: I have eight staff including myself in the IT branch. OEHHA is small; it’s about 145 members. In turn, we have a smaller IT budget and a smaller IT staff compared to medium and large departments. We’re always updating our service catalog and we’re always adding things to it and we’re also replacing things. So, obviously, laptops break, or somebody needs parts or something like that or we have to update our network. So, our IT budget can fluctuate year to year. And for the annual budget you were talking about, a great portion of the annual budget includes the equipment we purchase. Besides just the staffing and the benefits the staff receive ... a large portion of that is the IT budget. And as it fluctuates year to year, our annual budget will fluctuate from year to year.

Industry Insider — California: 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?

Fong: I (use) LinkedIn, I use Facebook, Twitter. They can send me an email; most people call me on the phone. I get a lot of phone calls from vendors. I have a lot of vendors who send me emails and I have a lot of people (who) will send me notes on LinkedIn but I’m actually surprised, maybe because of the pandemic right now, a lot of them call me on the telephone. ... But I’ve been doing IT for over 26 years, so I have quite a few vendors whom I’ve worked with and so this is why they reach out to me. How can they best educate themselves? Probably look at my LinkedIn profile, and the best place would be our OEHHA website. There’s a lot of information out there; it tells you a lot about OEHHA. And you can find a lot of information about our technology posture there.

Industry Insider — California: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Fong: When I first got to OEHHA, within a month of me starting there, my previous admin chief said, “Hey, I hate to throw you right into the fire, but we have this project and we really want you to get it going. We need you to pick this up and continue on where the previous CIO had started.” So, this would be the Prop. 65 warnings website, your right to know, project to project, went live in 2016. We were able to get the Prop. 65 warnings website complete, on time, on budget and within scope. The project had all of the oversight you would see at a bigger department. We’ve been in maintenance and operations ever since; we’ve gone through three state templates and just finished updating our content management system to Amazon Web Services. The URL for the website is featured on most of the Prop. 65 warnings seen by the public on product labels and at the entrances to many stores and public buildings. California has seen the warnings. The website is one of the 10 most visited websites operated by a California state agency, which is interesting given that we are one of the smallest state entities in the government. So, I’m quite proud of the Prop. 65 warnings website.

Industry Insider — California: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Fong: Sometimes I wish that more vendors were registered with the California Department of General Services. We work with a lot of vendors obviously and sometimes we’ll get a quote from them and they’ll say “We don’t have a CMAS (California Multiple Award Schedules)” or “We don’t have a leveraged procurement contract with the state of California. But we really want to do business with you.” And they’re a sole-source provider, possibly, so we provide them with the necessary forms to fill out. Sometimes there’s a little bit of a delay on getting the product, especially if it’s crunch time or we need something really quick. But I think if more vendors were to be pre-registered with DGS, I think that would speed up the process.

Industry Insider — California: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Fong: Obviously, I read Industry Insider — California, I’ve been a subscriber for quite a long time, and I read the articles. And I do read ... GovTech*, CIO magazine, and I subscribe to some of the trade magazines. I also watch YouTube a lot. I think YouTube is a great resource for information. I look at it for IT stuff, for how to work on things that are IT-related; I catch up on ... Microsoft puts out their training materials on YouTube. A lot of times, that’s the best way to learn and stay abreast of all the new technology that’s out. Because technology is changing every day.

Industry Insider — California: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Fong: In my spare time, I’m an avid bowler. I’ve been bowling since I was 7 years old. And I bowl league every year. I used to bowl two leagues, but I cut it down to one. And I bowl the season, so winter league just ended, that was 35 weeks. I’m bowling, now, 16 weeks of summer league and I go to bowling tournaments as much as I can. And I’m actually learning — and my kids give me a hard time ... so, private labels of wines are really big right now. I’m developing a private label — I want to market a wine that’s my private label. I’ve been doing some research and my kids have been helping me try to develop a wine label so that ... I can be the next “two-buck Chuck.” I told my wife I would sell my stuff at Costco, stand right next to the sign and sell my bottle of wine. And I’m a big Tom Clancy novel fan. A couple of books that come to mind — Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears. The Sum of All Fears, I think, is my No. 1 book. And I’m a big Star Trek person so I watch Star Trek: Picard, the new episodes and I like Star Trek: The Next Generation, things like that.

*Government Technology magazine is a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Industry Insider — California.

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