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Industry Insider One-on-One: Tech Leader on Smart City Work, Procurement

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.

Scott Conn is chief information officer for the city of Modesto, a role he has had since May. He was previously IT division head for the city of Concord for nearly six years, and during that time helped the municipality redesign its security architecture and modernize computer-aided dispatch and records management for its police department. Before joining the public sector in October 2016, Scott was most recently chief information officer/principal consultant at Savant Solutions.

Conn has a bachelor’s of science in business administration from Santa Clara University, and his continuing education includes study of information systems integration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among his professional licenses and certifications, he is a certified Project Management Professional by the Project Management Institute.

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?

Conn: As the new chief information officer at the city of Modesto, my role is multi-faceted. First and foremost, I need to be a strategist and collaboratively design ways of using technology to help all city departments meet their desired goals involving the delivery of superior services to our Modesto residents. Then there is the challenge of implementing and monitoring security within seven different layers of our technology architecture to make the city of Modesto as hard a target as possible for bad actors to attack. Another focus is to ensure we are continuing our journey of becoming a “smart city” where we use information and communications technology to enhance our city’s livability, workability and sustainability. And there is always the leadership and counsel lent to our IT management team whose job involves the day-to-day operation of all the technology utilized for transparency and communication and, in the background, for internal collaboration, billing and logistics. The role of CIO has changed dramatically in recent years – primarily from a caretaker and watchdog over day-to-day IT systems performance (very much in the background) to one of a trusted, value-added strategic adviser. In challenging times, when everyone in the public sector is being asked to do more with less, it has been technological advances that have helped lessen the burden. It has been out of necessity that the CIO position has come into the foreground with a newly offered seat at the strategic table.

Industry Insider — California: Does your organization have a strategic plan, and may we hyperlink to it? How big a role will you personally play in writing that strategic plan?

Conn: The city of Modesto has a strategic plan which is regularly reviewed and placed into alignment with our City Council’s expressed initiatives. Our IT Department has a strategic plan, too, that is designed to support the city’s overall plan. The IT plan is created through a collaboration of all IT members’ inputs and is refined by the IT management team. The actual plan is analyzed for any necessary modifications on an annual basis but is not made available as it contains many security-related items/designs that would make a bad actor’s job all the easier to penetrate our systems. A high-level version of the IT strategic plan might be made available later once we complete this coming fiscal year’s adjustments. As far as my involvement, I am very much in the mix from start to finish. This is IT’s road map and it is incumbent on me to lead my team in the efficient creation of this document and to ensure its alignment with the city’s strategic plan and in support of the City Council’s initiatives.

Industry Insider — California: How often is your organization’s enterprise catalog updated?

Conn: Our enterprisewide catalog of applications is updated in near real time. Once an application is placed into service or taken out of service, our IT Application Division Team updates a planner application that tracks all our applications used across all city departments.

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?

Conn: In the technology realm, we are very excited to have just released a request for proposal to find a new vendor who can move our “GoModesto” resident outreach application to new heights with improved levels of two-way communication between our residents and city staff. The next version is anticipated to have an easier-to-use interface and will work on most smart devices (phones, pads, laptops) using Wi-Fi and cellular data channels. On July 12 the city of Modesto launched our new language access service, Wordly. Wordly is a software program that provides real-time captioned interpretation for meetings streamed over the Zoom platform into over 20 different languages. Residents attending meetings virtually and in person will now be able to view City Council meetings in the language of their choosing. We have been told by Wordly that we are the first city in California to enable their solution. We believe many other cities will soon follow Modesto’s innovative outreach to non-English speaking residents. In keeping with the city of Modesto strategic plan, the city has a goal to promote trust and engagement in order to improve governance and service delivery. One strategy for achieving this goal is to develop a multilingual communications plan, and Wordly is a major component of that strategy. By simply clicking a link or scanning a QR code with their mobile device, members of the public will be able to receive live interpretations of Modesto City Council and standing committee meetings.

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?

Conn: A prominent consulting firm defines digital transformation as “anything from IT modernization (for example, cloud computing), to digital optimization, to the invention of new digital business models. The term is widely used in public-sector organizations to refer to modest initiatives such as putting services online or legacy modernization.” Our IT department is currently embracing many projects that could be considered digital transformation related including our desire to upgrade the GoModesto experience, embrace becoming a smart city in phases over time, and running hybrid City Council meetings (in person in council chambers while simultaneously interacting with residents using Zoom). The pandemic has forced many public entities including the city of Modesto to embrace remote work as well as electronic signatures, as opposed to hard/wet signatures. It is my belief that we will never be “finished” with digital transformation. It is such a broad-reaching concept that touches paper-based and electronic data access, workflow when comparing manual to automated processes, and the overall work environment whether it be in the office or working from home – all of these areas are in a constant mode of evolution. Therefore, we will always be adapting our previously implemented digital transformation efforts to meet the new paradigm today.

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

Conn: Including myself, we have 37 employees allotted to work within the IT department at the city of Modesto. At present, six of those positions are unfilled as qualified candidates remain difficult to find. My department’s budget is considered “bare bones”/base level, and we rely on other departments to help fund any new technology initiatives they might desire. The IT department budget is approximately $10 million including salaries and benefits, which represents about 2 percent of the overall city’s budget.

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?

Conn: That’s a very good question and one that is difficult for me to answer. Cold-calling my office phone will get you to voicemail, and I will eventually listen to the vendor’s elevator pitch. Same thing with sending an email to my work email address. I will glance at the email, but if the pitch doesn’t hit an immediate need, you probably won’t receive a response. What works best is hearing from my peers in other cities who respond to my questions concerning my current needs at the city of Modesto. I utilize the Municipal Information Systems Association of California (MISAC) member forum to ask such questions, then sit back and view the responses. At that point, I initiate the conversation with the vendor(s) that were recommended. On a good day, I do tend to look through LinkedIn posts to stay current with new technologies and trends. If a vendor is mentioned there, I have reached out on occasion. The best way to interact with me and educate yourself about my and the city of Modesto’s technology needs is to get involved with MISAC, attend, exhibit or offer to present at one of their events (the MISAC Annual Conference is taking place on Oct. 2-5 at the Portola Hotel in Monterey). Find me at the event and introduce yourself. I’m always happy to share the positive things we are doing at Modesto, then give me your elevator pitch.

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

Conn: I’ve been at the city of Modesto one and a half months as of July 12. I’m most proud of weathering being fed information through a fire hose, yet still coming back for more each day! Aside from getting to know my IT team here at Modesto, I’m beginning to work primarily on our smart cities initiative, which our entire executive staff and City Council are firmly behind. At my prior engagement with the city of Concord, my legacy there will be the beginning of a rewire and fiber infrastructure upgrade at all city facilities starting with the police department headquarters. That rewire will replace more than 25-year-old wiring and increase data transport speed and bandwidth by a minimum of 100x. As digital transformation continues, this upgrade will keep Concord’s digital footprint fast, reliable and ready to take on new technologies as they emerge in the future.

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

Conn: The most immediate need for the IT department at the city of Modesto would be how much financial resources we have to devote to IT. Residents have high expectations for an organization’s digital footprint and resources, and that is no different when they interact with government agencies. There is always more we can do to improve our residents’ interactions with the city, and many of those are technological solutions. With tight municipal budgets, we simply don’t have all the resources we would like to do all the things we know we need to do. That said, other protections to ensure the city is spending the taxpayers’ money wisely, frugally, yet efficiently should remain the same. The finance/procurement team at Modesto has been very intelligent in how such checks and balances have been implemented.

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

Conn: MISAC Quarterly Journal, all CompTIA publications, LinkedIn posts, and security bulletins (via email). I realize I should mention your Industry Insider — California publication too, but I admit I’ve had limited exposure to it. Now that I’m aware of it, I will be on the lookout!

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

Conn: My hobbies involve anything outdoors. Fishing, camping, hiking, playing or watching football, basketball and baseball with friends and old teammates. I’m slowly working my way into golf and can shoot consistently under 100 now (my goal would be shooting in the 80s). As for reading, anything business improvement-related, sci-fi, Clive Cussler adventure series (very sad he passed away), murder-mystery novels, and the Harry Potter series. How’s that for a mixed bag of reading tastes?

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