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Industry Insider One-on-One: State Hospitals CTO on Modernization, Electronic Health Record

This story is limited to Industry Insider — California members.
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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.

Chad Corrin is chief technology officer (CTO) at the California Department of State Hospitals (DSH), a role he has had since March 2020. He’s a veteran DSH staffer, having spent his entire state career at the department since beginning in October 2005 as senior software engineer, a position he occupied for more than 13 years. Corrin was previously an information technology manager I from January 2019 through March 2020.

His skills include Microsoft SQL Server, ASP.NET and systems development life cycle.

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

Corrin: I tend to describe my role in short as the person who ensures we are keeping the lights on, the systems running and that we are taking the strategic vision from our (chief information officer) CIO/executive team and performing the actual technical implementation of the products/services needed to help realize that vision. To break that down a little bit more, I like to think of my responsibilities as a modern CTO as broken out into four main areas: business enablement, modernization, IT operations and IT strategy.

First and foremost, as CTO my primary responsibility is as a business enabler by way of technology solutions. This entails really understanding our business, anticipating and empathizing with their needs. Once I understand that, my job is to then optimize the use of our existing technology and oversee the actual building of new programs and services that support the overall mission, vision and goals of our hospital system. I think the traditional role of the CTO was often purely focused on the technical side first, but I like to flip that around and focus first on the business and people side of the job to drive the technical. My focus is not on technology for technology’s sake, but rather on going back to why the business needs IT in the first place. My philosophy is that the primary purpose of IT should be to use technology as a tool to drive forward the goals of the business as our primary way to bring value. For me, everything we do should in some way, however small it may be, make a positive impact for staff and the patients we serve. In my experience, this is one of the key areas in which the role and responsibilities of the CTO have evolved in recent years. I have learned that I must not only serve the department from a technical perspective, but I must also understand our business and the strategic goals of the department so that we don’t look at prospective technologies in a vacuum for technology’s sake, but through the lens of a business need, and this can be extremely challenging. I have learned that by spending more time building relationships based on mutual trust with my customers, understanding and caring about our business units and their unique challenges and actively working side-by-side with business unit leaders, subject matter experts and executives, I can custom tailor technology solutions with them as an extended member of their teams, rather than relying on the standard “order taking” style of traditional IT. I find this collaborative approach as a business partner and enabler rather than a pure technologist leads to much better customer satisfaction and business impact for the services we provide.

Second is modernization. I am constantly keeping my knowledge/skill set sharp as I am relied upon to drive technical implementations across our department, and with that am always looking to discover new ways to modernize and innovate on our information technology programs and services. I spend a lot of time reading, watching videos or getting hands on to stay on top of the latest trends and emerging technologies in our industry and looking at ways DSH might be able to strategically adopt them, either by delivering and building them into existing services or building new ones in a way that specifically impacts the department. Third is my role in overseeing our overall IT operations, both at our five hospital campus locations and in Sacramento. This includes overseeing and taking responsibility for the support and up-time of our hardware, software, infrastructure and internal/external IT systems. Our business now relies on technology more than ever and in turn the smooth day-to-day operations of a vast range of devices, applications, infrastructure and services are all mission-critical to the department. So, in turn, as CTO it is my responsibility to provide oversight and take accountability in ensuring that customer issues are being addressed, tickets resolved, and IT applications and systems remain fully operational, secured, patched, maintained, upgraded, etc. The final area of responsibility I will mention here is strategy. As CTO, ensuring that cloud strategy, analytics strategy, enterprise architecture, API design, automation, road maps and forecasting of technologies align with the business priorities set by executive leadership is also an important part of the role. This often involves looking forward at the future of technology to forecast what’s next, interacting with external vendor and technology partners as well as evaluating which software, products and tools coming up are a possible fit for our organization and the unique challenges we face.

Industry Insider — California: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Corrin: Working alongside my peers on the TSD (Technology Services Division) senior management team, one of my responsibilities is to take the executive strategic direction provided by my CIO and the wider executive team via our department’s strategic plan and build upon that by aligning and integrating our IT/cloud strategies, enterprise architecture, road maps and resources to help ensure alignment and make progress towards the goals outlined by the DSH executive team.

Editor’s note: Find the California Department of State Hospitals’ Strategic Plan 2018-2023 here.

Industry Insider — California: What big initiatives or projects are coming up? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Corrin: We have many large initiatives coming up, many centered around or related to our ongoing electronic health record (EHR) effort. Most recently, our focus has been on the incoming overhaul of our hospital campus wireless infrastructure. The goal of the project is to refresh and overhaul our wireless network at each campus to allow the EHR application itself and the range of likely new IoT (Internet of Things) devices, mobile devices such as tablets and the other wide range of equipment that will be used in the near future to operate smoothly on the same wireless network as our Personal Duress Alarm System (PDAS) for staff safety. The other top-of-mind project for us is a new cloud-based enterprise data platform (EDP). The goal of this effort is to modernize our department’s data analytics capabilities and provide better self-service tools to assist our clinicians and staff in making data-driven decisions across the organization. This is a joint effort between TSD engineers, vendors and business leadership covering formation of data governance and data quality capabilities alongside engineering the tools, pipelines and metrics that will allow for cleaner, more accurate data and in turn more informed decision-making for our business. Modern advances in data analytics and machine learning tools in the cloud have made it much easier for organizations to build out these capabilities, and the end-state of the EDP is envisioned to also encompass future EHR data and grow to become sort of a one-stop shop for DSH data and insights. The vision is a single overarching data platform that our clinicians and business partners can use to harness the power of data science, machine learning and business analytics to make data-driven decisions without going to separate sources of data every time they want to run a report or analyze a data set.

Industry Insider — California: What term or phrase do you use to refer to what many call “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process and how will you know when it’s finished?

Corrin: I think for me, the phrase “digital transformation” can tend to be overused and applied broadly to anything that goes from manual/paper to a technology-driven digital solution. Specifically, I like to think of it as using technology as a tool to enhance the ability for the business to achieve its goals faster and with more agility than traditional non-digital business processes. In short, it is the conversion/transformation of traditional business systems to modern digital-based software or services. It is a prime opportunity for CTOs and other leaders in the organization to partner and take a closer look at existing business processes and perform business process re-engineering services alongside the subject matter experts before building out and delivering a digital equivalent. Often, simply converting an existing business process over to a digital one can lead to frustration and may be inefficient. I have learned that more effective IT has a strong connection with the business. So, we can not only provide programmers and engineers to actually build these systems but can also be a business partner and provide a vital service to use our skills in software engineering and process to eliminate waste or improve on a long-standing business process that maybe hasn’t been evaluated for some time and could be done in a leaner manner. Then we can build out the digital to enhance the new, more efficient business process and the customer gets a better product. I believe that “digital transformation” is the perfect time and opportunity to do this re-engineering work alongside development. This is where the people and process side of IT is so critical and it is just as important to have a strong team of engineers, in order to find success. I may be the strongest engineer there is, but without business process re-engineering skill, I will always be limited in how efficient my new services can grow to become.

How we know when we are finished is an interesting question. I think one of the keys is having reliable ways to measure success and progress. Coming up with a “definition of done” for agile projects or more specific completion criteria as part of an overall portfolio of metrics and KPIs (key performance indicators) that you constantly evaluate/measure is a good place to start. This also reminds me of the importance of using analytics to make data-driven decisions as part of your strategy post-transformation. Once you have converted to digital, your organization has a whole new set of data assets that you didn’t have access to before, just waiting to be mined. So how you will leverage those new digital assets is an important piece of the puzzle, I think. It reminds me of something my CIO always tells me, which is, “You won’t know you’re winning if you aren’t keeping score.” I think this is true and it speaks to the importance of KPIs and metrics as part of your overall digital transformation strategy, especially when you start looking at continuous improvement opportunities and digital optimization down the line post-transformation.

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

Corrin: TSD has a budget of approximately $98.7 million. I currently have four managers, overseeing a team of around 169 total staff including supervisors, engineers and other IT professionals covering functional areas across infrastructure, network operations, hospital operations and application development. TSD currently has 210 staff overall working across our hospital campus locations and Sacramento.

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?

Corrin: I do receive a lot of communications on LinkedIn. I prefer to be contacted directly either via email with an introduction on how a vendor’s products or services might benefit the department or via a referral from another CTO/CIO or department who is familiar with the vendor or product/service. It really helps have a productive conversation when vendors first educate themselves on our strategic plan, department mission and goals. Even just doing some level of research about our challenges and our current budget proposals beforehand can be very beneficial in laying some common ground before our discussion.

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

Corrin: I have been in the role as CTO since April of 2020 and have had the lucky opportunity to spend my entire state career so far since October of 2005 with DSH, starting at Coalinga State Hospital. There have been many things I am proud of in that time, but one of the things that has always been an asset for me is having worked for many years on-site at one of our hospital locations. This gives me the context of having seen the amazing work that our frontline clinical staff perform on a daily basis in assisting patients in a vulnerable population. The things I am most proud of have all had a direct impact, however small, in some way or another on the daily work that our frontline care workers perform or the patients they serve. Most recently in my mind is our response to COVID-19 and the innovation and collaboration that took place in response. Shortly after I started in this role, my teams were met with the challenge of helping rapidly build and deploy technology solutions to help us address not only large-scale telework, but also the implementation of IT systems to help track and report on vaccine and testing data. My team not only rose to the challenge and implemented a very quick scalable remote access solution, and deployed and procured hundreds of laptops at scale, but they also quickly implemented technology solutions to our hospital campus locations. This required incredible agility and collaboration as solutions were needed in days not weeks/months. These included not only new vaccine and testing databases written from the ground up, but also innovative and new solutions such as automated mask detection and temperature-scanning kiosks for staff and visitors entering our facilities, which are still being used today. So far in my tenure as CTO, I am most proud of my team’s COVID-19 response and all of the amazing work they performed in supporting our hospital locations through the use of technology when they were facing the realities of the pandemic on the ground. Every small impact we can make as technologists is a meaningful one.

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

Corrin: I think for me, it would be modernizing the procurement process to be much more agile and speed up the time it takes. Some of the current systems were designed for a time in which there was not as large a reliance on technology. I believe now, with technology playing a critical role in almost everything we do in modern life, this can sometimes make it challenging to procure the IT products and services the business requires.

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

Corrin: Throughout my career as I have gone from individual contributor as a software engineer into more managerial/leadership roles I have always thought it important to keep my technical skills sharp and my love for learning new technology is stronger than ever. Aside from reading publications, I actually listen to a lot of audio books across a wide range of topics as I find this enables me to multi-task or take in new information and learn while in the car or on the train. This means that for me, technology, specifically software engineering, is still a hobby and passion of mine as much as it is my job. I read as much as time allows but also think it is important to build things and challenge myself with hands-on experience.

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

Corrin: I spend a lot of time listening to audiobooks and podcasts as I mentioned, but I will sometimes include some science fiction and fantasy titles when I want to turn my brain off for a little while and get into a good story. I also really enjoy any time spent in the outdoors, so living in Northern California gives me opportunities to go out camping with family and friends to some beautiful locations. Alongside camping, what I really enjoy is fly fishing and getting out on a lake or stream whenever I can. Some of my favorite spots are up near Lake Shasta, and the surrounding rivers of that area offer some breathtaking sights if you’re willing to make the drive. The mountains are always a nice reset for me to get away from being plugged in so often. It is amazing what just two nights in the woods away from technology, sleeping in a tent, can do for your mental health.

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