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State CIO’s Theme: ‘People First, Security Always’

An image of Liana Bailey-Crimmins, state CIO and director of the California Department of Technology, next to a quote that reads: “Having the new executive team, being surrounded by some great individuals ... has given me time to focus on the things that are most pressing and need my attention.”
This story is limited to Industry Insider — California members.
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California’s chief information officer, Liana Bailey-Crimmins, sat down with Industry Insider — California recently for her first wide-ranging interview since she was appointed to the position in June. Bailey-Crimmins, who’s also the director of the California Department of Technology, discussed her professional background, her department’s priorities and vendor relations, among other topics. Herewith is that interview, edited for brevity and style.

Industry Insider California: Tell us a little bit about your professional history, and how your background and your career have prepared you for your current role as the state CIO and director of CDT?

Bailey-Crimmins: I believe that every step in my career has led me to this amazing opportunity to represent the state IT community that I've been a part of for the past 30-plus years, and 15 of those years have been as a chief executive. As you’re aware, I have been a CIO at two different departments. I was the chief health director at the second-largest public health-care purchasing program in the nation. I was also the chief information security officer protecting health and member privacy for 1.5 million health-care members and 2 million pension members. Before being appointed the state chief information officer and the director of the Department of Technology, I was the state chief technology officer. As you probably heard at the CIO Academy, when I was 18, I joined as a student assistant. As most 18-year-olds, I was looking for a job to pay my way through college. Little did I know that the end goal decision was going to really change the trajectory of my life’s mission and my ability to serve people.

So as I worked my way through the technology ranks … I always saw myself as a servant, a transformational leader, where I looked for innovative ways to solve government challenges, but also remembered, at the end of the day, there’s a face and a person that we are there to serve — looking for ways to enrich their lives, like being a part of the first telemedicine program that was launched in the correctional health-care field, building a digital high school that expanded the knowledge of youth offenders, and the data warehouse that we had launched over at CalPERS. ... That was very enriching and rewarding. Really, the state of California has blessed me and given me the opportunity to move from the tape room to the boardroom ... and all the missions that I’ve had the honor of serving.

II-CA: What is your ultimate vision of remote versus in person versus hybrid?

Bailey-Crimmins: Excellent question. I think the industry as a whole is looking beyond the pandemic. The state is looking at what does the modern workforce look like moving forward, and what I see is it embraces both the benefits of in-person and remote offices. We learned that we can be very productive in a remote environment. We want to stay remote-centered, like most departments, but we also see the benefit of in-person, opportunities for onboarding new employees … that education you get, and from a collaboration of something you can do in person, it’s much easier to do in person than it is on Zoom. So CDT is going to remain remote-focused, remote-centered, and in April will officially launch about four to five (in-office) days a month, and in March, we’re doing a soft launch. What we’re looking at is a more outcome-focused approach, a program approach. We’re not just bringing people in to say that they need to be in the office for a specific set of days, but more from a programmatic perspective. We are looking for programs like legal and legislation that come together because they have a tendency to collaborate more often. Or maybe it’s the platform and then the network team. So bringing teams together where they have that opportunity to benefit from true collaboration and not just sitting in a cubicle doing Zoom, which is what they could be doing at home.

When we think of an office, we’ve also taken a different approach. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in an office. It means that you’re out in the community with your stakeholders, it could be at a meeting with vendors, it could be like the CIO Academy. It’s not just coming back and physically sitting in a cubicle, but really taking advantage of that in-person time. I think it’s just important that we look at what the modern workforce is. I think it does take a good balance, and not just bringing people in for the sake of bringing them in.

It is change, and we have to recognize that people have given up day care, they’ve given up parking. We wanted to give enough time to make different choices and make those as you’re shifting. We could have done it a lot sooner, but we wanted to make sure that people had time and understood when their programs were going to come in, so that they can make those life decisions for themselves and make those arrangements. One of the things I find with organizational change is making sure that people are aware. So we’ve have lunch and learns, so people can have brown bags and ask questions. We have an FAQ, so that they can get their questions answered. … It’s just bringing people along for the journey. And just as important, whenever you do an organizational change — if it be a technology project, or if it be looking at a modern workforce — it is just important to remember, at the end of the day, putting people first means also putting our team first.

II-CA: Will the recent spate of tech industry layoffs help state government recruitment?

Bailey-Crimmins: In meeting with the IT Executive Council, which represents the agency chief information officers across all the agencies, recruitment is a top priority. A statistic we had shared was that, at least at the time, there’s about 230 private-sector organizations that have laid off about 76,000 employees. If we could take advantage of that, we do have a significant population of workers who will be retiring. So there’s always the opportunity to recruit. As we were just talking about, that modern workforce is looking for the ability, potentially, to give back and be more mission-driven. And because we can provide telework, it is very interesting to them, maybe in some capacities that they would not have been interested in in the past. We’ve been talking to people who have recently been laid off and tell them about all the benefits that they receive from working for the state, both tangible and intangible, because intangible also means, you know, mission-driven, purpose-driven. That’s kind of at the core that was what drove me to public service. It wasn’t a paycheck. I just believe California state government can be a destination employer for the next generation of technologists and leaders in the state.

There’s a wide variety of jobs that we offer if you’re interested in project management, if you’re interested in engineering, and one of the things I say when I talk to college students is I’ve been able to work over three decades within the state, in eight different departments, and I didn’t lose any of my seniority. I went from department to department, and I just continued to improve and work my way up. That’s what’s allowed me to be successful. When you go from a commercial or corporate organization, every time there’s a merger or acquisition, anytime you go to a new job, you’re pretty much starting from scratch again. With the state, it’s a continual evolution. You can go as far as you want, or as little. In some cases, I’ve known people that have had the same job for 30 years, and they’re very happy with that. So it really gives flexibility to the full gamut of where people want to take their careers.

II-CA: This year and beyond, what big things are on your radar, project-wise or in terms of initiatives? What are you looking at and what should vendors be looking for?

Bailey-Crimmins: Some of the major projects and challenges we are looking to address, of course, include cybersecurity, workforce recruitment and development, and diversity, equity and inclusion. When it comes to cybersecurity, as the threat continually evolves, we are looking for opportunities to continue to mature security operations with each of the departments and ensuring that we are applying the right practices.

Cal-Secure is a big part of that, so that as people continue to mature their organizations, leveraging the best practices of a Cal-Secure workforce, we want to make sure that we’re recruiting the next generation of technology experts and leaders.

And then technology modernization: There are still critical systems that the state is running on that are deemed legacy. We need to look for opportunities to continue to move them and modernize them. There’s quite a few that are underway right now. But (we’ll) continue looking for those opportunities — there are 300 critical systems that are on our list (to assess). Are they ready for stabilization? Do they need modernization or remediation? Are there things that we can be doing in partnership so that departments don’t feel like they’re out on their own, that CDT really is a value-added partner that can help them on their journey?

The other major challenge or project that we’re looking at is diversity, equity and inclusion. One of the numbers that has stood out for me on our recent annual plan was that 33 percent of the state IT workforce, which is approximately 11,000 employees, are women. That’s a fairly low number ... women are 50 percent of the workforce. As I look at LinkedIn, it’s about 28 percent. So California is doing better than the industry. But that doesn’t mean that we still don’t have a way to go. We’re looking at STEM, getting more women interested in a career in engineering, computer science, math, and seeing it as a viable path for them in their career.

II-CA: How will state finances affect the transformation/modernization agenda?

Bailey-Crimmins: Technology continues to move forward. What I have seen is that instead of thinking of modernization as one big system upgrade, there are incremental wins. Departments can continue to modernize. When I was looking at a system, what we’re looking for is maybe it’s workflow and process re-engineering. Maybe it’s one tool to do robotic process automation, or a chatbot, or changing to more of a customer-centric website. There’s ways of modernizing and still not necessarily letting the budget preclude us from moving the state forward. We just have to be creative, and state employees are creative, and there’s ways of continuing to look for those opportunities and still make a difference, regardless of where the budget is. In fact, when we talk about cybersecurity, a lot of the threats are at the human level. So is there more training? Are there more things that we can be doing? You can put a lot of money towards a specific solution, and it doesn’t always necessarily solve the problem. We just need to be really careful to ensure that whatever money we are investing is the money that’s going to be making the biggest difference at the time that it needs to be implemented.

II-CA: Please expand on your theme: “People first, security always?”

Bailey-Crimmins: I’d say my theme for my career, it would be the same as my leadership philosophy, and that is, ‘People first, security always.’ Always remembering that it’s the constituents or residents that we are designing systems for, and always remembering and having them in mind. Also, remember from a people perspective, it is also the teams that we lead, because we can only be successful as much as we invest in them and provide them the resources they need to be successful and delivering the overall solutions for the public. Then, (there's) that wrapper of security. We are trusted with secure and confidential information, and we have a responsibility to make sure that everything that we build, everything that we deploy, has security in mind, and that we look at deployment in a different way. It’s not just getting something out fast and innovative, but also making sure that whatever we’re doing is not going to provide a backdoor for someone to do something nefarious. … It’s an important job, and it takes all of us to make it happen in a way that is economical, that makes a public impact, and that matters to the state of California.

Coming up through the network side of the house, I deployed everything with security in mind. Just as the threat landscape continues to evolve, there ended up being more of a laser focus on security.

Really, putting people first is very important. I obviously feel like anything that we deploy, it’s just very important data we need to protect. So maybe it’s evolving a little bit more laser-focused, but I don’t see it really changing. ... It’s more of a refinement ... understanding that as the threat landscape changes, we have to evolve and adapt and focus and lean in where necessary. I think that that’s going to be something that we’re going to continually have to focus on.

II-CA: Are state agencies’ Vendor Days proving to be a benefit?

Bailey-Crimmins: The Vendor Days have actually been very fruitful. Part of that is because we’ve been able to sit down outside of solicitation; we’ve been able to sit across the table with the vendors and share our thoughts, what we’re thinking about. ... We have been very open and really listened to their feedback. We’ve also been able to have focus sessions, like on small businesses or disabled veterans, (and we’ve) really talked about some of these larger initiatives, like broadband for all, where we may need those large construction companies looking for that opportunity for small businesses to participate. We know a lot of that construction work that is going to happen locally.

Vendor days have just been wonderful, and they give us the information that we need to make sure that whatever does go out into a solicitation is something that is of value to us. Not only are we doing them, but you’ve seen DMV, EDD do them. Some of these (industry) experts bring things to the table that I would have never thought of including into a solicitation. On our Vendor Resources Portal, people can actually look at exactly what CDT does by each program. Then, when they look at, oh, this group does engineering or this group is looking for website design components, they can submit a form and actually talk to the group that would be interested in their product or services. So instead of everyone just kind of going ‘Who do I talk to, and how do I get information out to the right people?’ it’s a way of them seeing what’s available, and then targeting that conversation to that group. Then they have that meet and greet and see if it’s a good fit. If it is, great. If not, at least we might even say we’re not doing it, but we know of another department that’s doing something, and we can really again see ourselves more as a community than an individual department. So lots of good things are happening around the private and public partnerships.

California is a lot of small businesses, and we want to be able to give back wherever possible. For us, when we’re doing some of these job order contracts with the middle mile, we actually in the contract require that they have a plan to show how they are going to utilize small businesses or disabled vets. So it’s not just a number — you need to show us, and you’re held accountable for that plan. The state obviously is leaning in more than it just being a metric that we’re all measuring. But really, how do we hold the community accountable?

I think it’s great, obviously, a lot of great projects like the middle mile (effort) that’s going on, and more around digital equity. That is one of our largest projects that we have underway, and I have the honor of being a chair over the middle mile broadband, you know, basically the Middle-Mile Advisory Committee and also the chair for the California Broadband Council, and so there’s just a lot of great work going on in that arena as well.

*The California Public Sector CIO Academy is presented annually by Government Technology, sister publication to Industry Insider — California.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C.