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State Food and Ag CIO: ‘We Are Very Strategically Poised for Success’

An image of Amar Hariharan, CIO of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, next to a quote that reads: "In my opinion, digital transformation is the process of developing organizational and technology-based capabilities that enable a department to consistently improve its customer experience and lower costs. The key is, how well are we serving the citizens of California?"
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.

Amar Hariharan is the chief information officer at the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), a role he has had since November. After roughly 20 years in the private sector with companies including Accenture, Deloitte and Blue Shield of California, Hariharan entered state service in February 2014 as unit chief at the Department of Health Care Services. He was most recently assistant director of the Digital eXperience Project (DXP) for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, before being named CDFA CIO.

Hariharan has a Bachelor of Commerce degree in finance and accounting from the University of Calcutta, and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix. His professional licenses and certifications include certification as a strategic thinker by LinkedIn and as a Certified Scrum Master by the Scrum Alliance, and Certified Project Manager from Project Management Institute (PMI).

Industry Insider California: As CIO at your organization, how do you describe your role? How have your role and responsibilities changed in recent years in terms of their intersection with IT and innovation?

Hariharan: I’m relatively new to CDFA. I’ve been here for maybe a little more than eight months. I come from a very heavy project management background. I’ve been in the industry for close to 30 years now. I started off as a technologist very heavily into Oracle technologies and then slowly graduated into more architect and management roles. I was doing some pretty interesting and large-scale technology implementations for companies like Accenture, Deloitte and First Data, to name a few, before I joined the state. After I joined the state, I’ve been to a few departments. I started with (the Department of) Health Care Services and then I spent the majority of my time at (the California) Department of Technology (CDT) in the project management office. Even though it was state service, it was more like a consulting engagement where I used to go to various departments and help them implement projects. My current role, though, is slightly different. I have to switch from that project management siloed outlook to a more broad-based spectrum across the entire organization. Project management is just one aspect of it. I have to also look at the various aspects of maintenance and operations, personnel management and budget management. Managing a project budget is different from managing a whole division’s budget. Those are some of the differences in the way my previous roles used to be (from) what my current role is. I am also setting the stage for a successful implementation of our technology as a road map leading the way to help the business with whatever it is that they need. Under the guidance of my manager, (CDFA AIO) Robert Peterson, we split our (responsibilities). My responsibility is kind of internal facing where I work with our internal customers to enhance and support the projects and products that we have, while Rob does more of the stragegy work and the external-facing communications and interactions.

IICA: 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?

Hariharan: We have a very robust and detailed strategic plan. It is a public document, it is on our website, and it was developed before I got here. I did not necessarily play a role in the creation of that document, but I am responsible for ensuring the smooth implementation of that strategic plan and guiding the organization toward achieving the goals that we have set in the strategic plan. I’m really excited about taking that plan forward. It is going to take us a few years to implement the plan. Even though it was created in 2022, we may tweak it a little based on our lessons learned and of interactions with industry leaders businesses. However, we are set to implement the strategic plan as it has been laid out, even though we have set some lofty goals.

Editor’s note: Find the CDFA Strategic Plan for 2019-2022 here.

IICA: 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?

Hariharan: Based on the strategic plan, we have already started with some really large-scale projects. One of them is Emerging Threats Two, which is one of the largest projects that CDFA has undertaken, and we have released the pre-solicitation. We are hoping that we will get comments and questions back from the vendor community. And it is, I believe, set to be released sometime in October. And closely following that is our licensing and payment portal project. That is also a very large initiative that we are embarking on. This year, we are going to be doing the stage two alternate analysis for the licensing and payment portal project. The budget has been approved for that, and this is a very highly critical project for both CDFA and the governor’s office. It impacts all businesses within CDFA; it is set to modernize and automate a lot of our licensing, registration and payment systems. The way we interact with the customers will be greatly enhanced with this project. We’re also doing several small-scale projects. One of them is the CalCloud migration, which, you know, CDT is sunsetting CalCloud, so we have to move away from that. We recently implemented the registered service agents (RSA) portal project leveraging CDT’s technology modernization funds. I hope that with these large projects, we will be able to set the ball rolling to modernize CDFA’s strategic plan.

Editor’s note: Find Emerging Threats Two here.

IICA: In your opinion, what should local government be doing more of in technology?

Hariharan: I would say a little bit faster adoption of technologies — to try and test technologies, and also take more calculated risks as far as implementation of those technologies. I’ve seen some great technologies in play in the past couple of years that are very promising, so I’m excited about those and I really hope that we can leverage all those technologies to enhance our citizen engagement and customer satisfaction.

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

Hariharan: In my opinion, digital transformation is the process of developing organizational and technology-based capabilities that enable a department to consistently improve its customer experience and lower costs. Also, adoption of the latest and greatest technologies for better citizen engagement. With the large projects that are on the horizon for CDFA, we are very critically poised to leapfrog into this journey. We are already underway with the implementation of the registered service agents portal. We moved into a SaaS platform using Salesforce. Using and sharing data for the development of better business intelligence and capabilities, which will further enable better data-based decision-making, is also something that I am a big proponent of, and which is something that CDFA will also be looking into, as a part of this modernization journey while we are implementing these large projects. Digital transformation is a continuous improvement process. It is a continuous improvement process. It is never once-and-done, so it is never really finished. What was the latest and greatest technology even a few years ago, we have something better today, which enables us to make things easier, faster and better. It is a continuous journey. The key is how well are we serving the citizens of California. That is what should be kept in focus, and technology is just an enabler.

IICA: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Hariharan: CDFA is a bit unique than other departments, in the sense that we (IT and Admin) operate under a statutory 5 percent cap of the budget of the entire department. I don’t remember the exact state bill that mandates that. But we operate under that constraint. My operating budget is around $11 million, not including the general funds we get to implement these large projects. The total IT staff is around 72 positions, not including the consultants. We have some consultants working for us as well.

IICA: 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?

Hariharan: I’m fine with email and they can all reach me through LinkedIn as well. Before they do, I would expect that they read up on the CDFA strategic plan, they look up all the (budget change proposals) BCPs that are out there so that they have an understanding of what it is that realistically we are working with. And also educate themselves about CDFA, maybe on some of the bills that impact us and who our leadership is, etc. Have some basic understanding of the organization, where we are, and where we intend to be. That will enable a more pointed conversation so they can also come better prepared to the table as to what they are offering and how it conforms to the CDFA strategic plan.

IICA: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Hariharan: It is too soon for that, but I would say that we are working toward some of those strategic initiatives ... like the licensing and payment portal and emerging threats two. I have a great team of very motivated and dedicated staff, and great leadership. We also have built some great partnerships with external control agencies like CDT and DOF, and I’m really pleased with all the partnerships that we have built. So in the near future, you’ll get to see the fruits of those labors, with these large projects being successfully implemented. We are very strategically poised for success with all our initiatives. And we are building off of the success that we have done with the RSA portal in leveraging CDT’s Technology Modernization Fund. That is the first project that was successfully implemented leveraging the Technology Modernization Fund within the whole state of California. CDT is very pleased with that partnership. You’ll see a lot of great things happening and coming out of CDFA pretty soon.

IICA: What has surprised you most this year in government technology?

Hariharan: I was a part of a few forums this year and the amount of conversations that are happening around automation and (artificial intelligence) AI is very encouraging to me because that is something I am a big proponent of. I was talking in a forum, and I mentioned that ever since I joined the state, probably 10 years ago, we have always been behind the eight ball when it comes to hiring. We always have challenges in hiring qualified people, and we have a ton of openings all the time. It is probably time for us to think outside the box and maybe leverage technology to mitigate some of those issues. Maybe automate some of the mundane, repetitive tasks, leveraging (robotic process automation) RPA or other technologies, taking of course the union and other stakeholders into consideration. I’m glad that we are having those conversations and I’m sure we’ll be poised to serve the citizens of California much, much better in the coming years.

IICA: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Hariharan: I subscribe to your publication, so thank you. I get most of what I need for California from your publication. That is kind of my go-to. I also subscribe to (the National Association of State Chief Information Officers) NASCIO and get their publications. And then, of course, I’m on LinkedIn a lot, so I look at those news feeds. And I have seen the state executives and many state resources being more active on LinkedIn nowadays, which is very exciting, too.

IICA: What are your hobbies and what do you enjoy reading?

Hariharan: I’m kind of an outdoors person. I love hiking, camping, and many outdoor activities. My home office is kind of my world. You can see behind me a yoga mat and some exercise balls. Whenever I get a few moments, I like to stretch and do some exercises in the room. As far as reading goes, I’m an offbeat reader. I like Malcolm Gladwell a lot; he’s an inspiring writer. I listen to his podcast. I also read books like Freakonomics, and I also love to look at data in different ways to enable decision-making in all walks of life. It is something that I love to read up on. I also listen to the Freakonomics podcast that they do. It has really helped me during my career and personal life.

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