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Key State Tech Executive Set to Retire in November

The longtime tech leader has more than 30 years of service to various departments and has been recognized for his achievements with, among other honors, a CIO of the Year award.

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A longtime leader in state technology governance plans to retire in November after more than three decades of state service, which culminated in his current role as the state’s deputy chief information officer and chief deputy director of the California Department of Technology (CDT).

A department spokesperson confirmed Friday that Russ Nichols, an award-winning tech executive who’s a frequent speaker at industry forums and briefings, will step down in November.
Russ Nichols.
Russ Nichols, acting state chief information officer

Nichols was named deputy state CIO and CDT’s chief deputy director in March 2021, and from January through June of this year, he was acting state CIO. He filled that role when former state CIO Amy Tong was named secretary of the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps), CDT’s parent organization. Nichols resumed his deputy CIO role in June, when Gov. Gavin Newsom named Liana Bailey-Crimmins state CIO and CDT director.

Bailey-Crimmins congratulated Nichols on his plans Friday in an email to Industry Insider California.

“In his 32 years with the state, Russ has exemplified the dedication and collaboration that comes with public service. As he prepares to depart CDT in early November, I am grateful for his partnership and support as acting director and chief deputy director. On behalf of CDT, I thank Russ for his leadership and commitment to improving California state government and its delivery of services.”

It’s not clear what Nichols’ plans are after November.

His service spanned several key departments in state government, including management and executive roles with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the State Controller’s Office and, most recently before his CDT role, as the CIO and IT director for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), a department where he served for more than 11 years.

At Government Technology’s* California Public Sector CIO Academy, where Nichols spoke in several forums, he urged state technologists to take risks in managing their careers and to be accountable when they err.

“Sometimes you’ve got to operate outside your positional authority,” he said in an “Owning Your Own Journey” breakout session. “‘Well, it’s really not my call to make.’ But what bad thing happens if you do? Take the risk. Sometimes it’s worth the risk.” And, if something doesn’t go to plan: “Own it. Be willing to stand up in front of your boss, in front of the Legislature, in front of somebody else, and say ‘You know what? That did not work out the way I intended.’ OK. Might cost you your job but you’ve still got your integrity and frankly, I’d still hire you.”

In opening remarks at the CIO Academy, Nichols also praised the approximately 180,000 state employees who quickly shifted to remote work when the pandemic took hold, and he said the subsequent months made clear the value of and the incredible need for digital services. Nichols singled out the California departments of Motor Vehicles, Employment Development, and Parks and Recreation for their remote offerings.

Nichols also gave insights into his management philosophy and his views on technology in an Industry Insider “One-on-One” interview in August 2020, while he was CIO for CDCR.

“In recent years, the CIO has transitioned from the ‘chief technologist’ to a fundamental participant in the executive management of any organization,” he said. “No longer can CIOs rely on their technical abilities or engineering credentials. Instead, CIOs must now be business leaders who understand and appreciate the challenges of the organization, financials, and organizational management.”

Nichols added: “The CIO must lead endeavors that go far beyond technology and take responsibility for the outcomes of the organization. While technology provides the catalyst, a CIO must provide the vision, guidance, the personal investment, and the passion to ensure organizational goals are met using the right technology for the situation.”

In a look-ahead interview in January 2018 for what lay ahead in technology, Nichols predicted several developments that have come to pass.

“Information security problems will get worse before they get better,” he said. “As the amount of data continues to grow exponentially, unfortunately some companies and state agencies will see increased breaches.”

He also foretold the still-burgeoning role of data in governance.

“‘Big data’ will move from buzzword to practical application,” he said. “Agencies that store vast amounts of information will be empowered to leverage its benefits, finding new opportunities for improved services, cost savings and better decision-making. The state will move toward leveraging technology across departments, sharing resources, experiences and best practices to embrace the ‘doing it together’ viewpoint.”

That year, Nichols was named CIO of the Year at the CIO Academy.

Nichols is an alumnus of California State University, Sacramento, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1993 and where he completed the Leadership for the Government Executive program in 2007. He is also a graduate of the state’s Information Technology Leadership Academy, and his professional credentials include Project Management Professional certification from the Project Management Institute and the Scrum Fundamentals Certified designation from SCRUMstudy. He has been active in the Corrections Technology Association, for which he served as president.

Industry Insider — California Assistant Managing Editor Theo Douglas contributed to this report.

*Government Technology and Governing magazine are sister publications of Industry Insider — California. All are part of e.Republic.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.