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State IT Veteran, Project Director on Takeaways, Ongoing Initiatives

“My biggest lesson learned is that managing a technology project is not about building and maintaining a workable system; it is about the people who use the system,” says Valerie Williams, Centralized Revenue Opportunity System project director for the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration.

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Valerie Williams, Centralized Revenue Opportunity System project director at the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration.
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Valerie Williams is unusual even in California state government: She’s a career state employee with a tenure of more than 32 years – and all of it at a single entity, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA). She began her tenure at the department’s Van Nuys field office, transferring after seven years to its Sacramento headquarters and transitioning from tax collection to information technology. Williams was a team member of the now-legacy Integrated Revenue Information System (IRIS) project, which was replaced by the Centralized Revenue Opportunity System (CROS). She also led and managed various online services projects for both the business and technology teams and worked in the tax policy area.

Since 2019, Williams has been the CROS project director and has served in a variety of leadership roles on the mission-critical project. A major, transformational initiative, CROS replaced IRIS with a customer-centered solution that maximized staff effectiveness, generated additional revenue and delivered expanded, more intuitive online services and better records access. It was successfully implemented in November 2020 – on time and under budget. In March, Williams won a CIO Academy Award at the California Virtual Public Sector CIO Academy, presented by Government Technology* magazine.

Techwire: How long have you been at CDTFA and how would you describe your current role in terms of responsibilities and duties? How large is your current team?

Williams: I have been with the department for more than 32 years. I am responsible for the day-to-day operations and maintenance of the Centralized Revenue Opportunity System. My role is to work with the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration business and technology teams, and the CDTFA leadership to continue to improve CROS and look for opportunities to create efficiencies. In addition to working with our external partners to provide exceptional customer service to meet their needs seamlessly, efficiently and conveniently, I lead a team of 67 outstanding team members.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are you working on currently? What sorts of projects might be coming your way in 2022?

Williams: CDTFA is currently working on an initiative to use data analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities to better analyze and evaluate our tax return data. This initiative will provide our customers with timely return filing assistance to reduce errors and possibly avoid future audits. (In 2022), we will be moving the CROS infrastructure to a cloud computing environment, enabling CDTFA to easily support changing workload needs, boost performance, improve security, increase efficiencies, and reduce maintenance cost.

Techwire: You were recently recognized with a CIO Academy Award for your work as CROS project director. How long did you lead the CROS work and had you previously had other roles on the project?

Williams: I led the CROS work over the past two years. I have been with the project for more than 11 years, starting as business lead for procurement efforts, business analyst manager for the implementation phase, and production support manager.

Techwire: How would you describe the main issues or needs that CROS was created to resolve; and what was the biggest hurdle in the way of resolving those needs, particularly in terms of building the new system?

Williams: CROS meets the demands of our business customers with modern technology. During the initial requirements gathering and design sessions, the biggest hurdle to building CROS was getting our subject matter experts to think about building new processes in CROS and not just “paving the cow path.” CDTFA overcame that hurdle by creating an Organizational Change Management Team early on to help the subject matter experts address their feelings about the change and teach them to use the five building blocks of change: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement.

Techwire: What are a few of your biggest takeaways or lessons learned from your work as CROS project director?

Williams: My biggest lesson learned is that managing a technology project is not about building and maintaining a workable system; it is about the people who use the system. To develop and maintain a successful system, the project director must consistently engage both internal and external users to understand their changing needs and work with the technology team to develop solutions within the system to meet them.

Techwire: How did leading the CROS project help you grow as a project director and what new best practices will you bring to your next initiative?

Williams: Leading the CROS project has helped me expand my leadership capabilities. It taught me to recognize and manage risks early and become better organized to lead my team to a clear path to success. The SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time frame) goals are a best practice that I will bring to my next initiative. When SMART goals are used appropriately, success is guaranteed.

Techwire: In your time at CDTFA – or at another state entity – what IT project or achievement are you most proud of?

Williams: I am most proud of the CROS project. It was the first project I was extensively involved in, from concept to implementation and maintenance. CROS was delivered under budget and on time.

Techwire: If you could change one thing about IT procurement, what would it be?

Williams: I would like to see the procurement documentation requirements tailored to the type of software procured: commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), vs. custom and proprietary, vs. nonproprietary.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the govtech/SLED sector?

Williams: Of course, Techwire! In addition to various publications and online newsletters.

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

Williams: I enjoy barbecuing low and slow over charcoal and wood and inviting family and friends over to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I have been in book clubs for over 20 years, and I enjoy reading fiction mysteries, thrillers, historical and romance books.

*Government Technology magazine is a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Techwire.

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