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Techwire One-on-One: CAL FIRE CIO on RFI2, Challenge and Opportunity of Tech

Jay Song, chief information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, talks about his role at CAL FIRE, the opportunities and challenges of technology today and an important project implementation getting underway.

As part of Techwire’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.

Jay Song is chief information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), a role he has held since February. Immediately previous, he was chief technology officer and chief of information technology at the California Highway Patrol, dual positions he held for six years and in which his responsibilities included directing strategic planning and IT operations for the largest law enforcement operation in the state, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before that, Song was deputy CIO and chief enterprise architect for the California Department of Water Resources, positions he held for four years.

Techwire: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role — and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Song: The evolution of technology advancement has created unprecedented opportunities, but also challenges for CIOs to effectively leverage technology to transform government operations from the physical-centric process to the digitized automation process. The public is no longer looking for incremental improvement of government operation, but leapfrog transformation in the delivering of relevant services at the most convenient time, on their choices of computing devices.

The CIO is not the last checkbox in an organization’s strategic planning and decision-making processes, but a first in the process by viewing technology as a means of imagining and creating new business possibilities. The role of the CIO is the most important business strategic partner, a new business opportunities explorer and a business value creator. The information technology operation is no longer a cost center, but an investment and value creation center.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Song: I appreciate the opportunity to serve CAL FIRE and contribute to the departmental strategic plan implementation and CAL FIRE’s Digital Transformation Plan development.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2020? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Song: The biggest initiative is to implement the state’s first innovative procurement project, “Request for Innovative Ideas” (RFI2). A wildfire management project set in motion last year by RFI2, the “flexible approach to procurement” Gov. Gavin Newsom created in January 2019 by Executive Order, is moving beyond proof-of-concept (POC). CalFire worked with the California Department of Technology, the Department of General Services and vendor Technosylva on a cloud-based subscription product to help firefighters predict the path of a wildfire.

Additional information can be found at Techwire: "CalFire to Deploy Wildfire Prediction Solution."

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

Song: Digitization transformation is not necessarily about technology, but a transformation of government decision-making and service delivery to digitally empowered citizens. It’s a new way of improving and optimizing business operations to be more efficient and effective. Technology plays a critical role as the transformation enabler to ignite innovative ideas and create momentum to speed up the transformation process.

Digital transformation is not about just digitizing paper forms but automating business process such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Business Process Automation (BPA). The government digital transformation will revolutionize the government service offering and delivery. The digitized automation and services have no physical constraints, no dependence on human intervention, and the access of the services has no off time nor physical location constraint.

The digital transformation is not a project but a journey leading the government to the future that all government services are digitized and automated. There is no finish line of digital transformation but projects within the transformation effort.

CAL FIRE is in the process of finalizing an actionable “Digital Transformation Plan” that will serve as a road map guiding the business transformation process and support the department’s four organization goals below:

1) Improve our core capabilities.

2) Enhance internal operations.

3) Ensure health and safety.

4) Build an engaged, motivated, and innovative workforce.

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

Song: I am not able to provide the IT budget considering the current state financial situation. I have 110 employees under Information Technology Services supporting CAL FIRE statewide public safety service operations.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Song: An email introduction is good. I would suggest the vendor do some homework about CAL FIRE by looking up the CAL FIRE website instead of asking what we do. I expect the vendor should know what we do.

Techwire: In your tenure, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Song: My tenure is rather short at CAL FIRE; however, I want to thank our IT staff and business partners for completing CAL FIRE’s Microsoft Office 365 MFA implementation and deploying DocuSign statewide.

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

Song: I would like to leverage the experience of CAL FIRE’s “Request for Innovative Ideas” (RFI2) procurement model.

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

Song: Techwire is my daily must-read online magazine, that I compare to the Wall Street Journal to me, assuming if I were in the financial industry.
I have been working very closely with academia and established an ongoing collaboration with the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI), and the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT), focusing on prediction technology and artificial intelligence.

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

Song: I like to play tennis, and enjoy reading materials outside of IT, such as The Economist.

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