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Techwire One-on-One: CalHR CIO on Driving Digital Transformation, Filling Many Roles

Chad Crowe, chief information officer at the California Department of Human Resources, discusses the many aspects of his work, an ongoing cross-agency Enterprise Human Resources effort, and speeding up procurement.

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.

Chad Crowe is the longtime chief information officer at the California Department of Human Resources, a position he has held since April 2008. Among his initiatives as CIO, he served as project manager for the Examination and Certification Online System (ECOS) project, a six-year, $10 million initiative now used by all state departments, employees and potential state employees to recruit, promote and obtain work with the state. The CIO has also served as project manager for several Web application projects and managed the application development unit for the IT division responsible for procuring IT-based solutions, developing custom apps and maintaining applications.

Before joining the state, he was project manager and software engineer at SRA International from February 2002 to April 2008. Crowe has a bachelor's degree in computer science from California State University, Sacramento, and an associate's degree in mathematics from American River College. He is also a graduate of the California Information Technology Leadership Academy (ITLA), a nine-month program for state IT staff that focuses on developing leadership skills.

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?

Crowe: I wear many hats in my current role, as many CIOs in medium to small state departments do. Primarily I am a leader, manager, mentor, motivator and strategist working toward digital transformation for CalHR and the State Personnel Board (SPB). I work closely with all of my teams and tend to be a hands-on CIO who fills in wherever needed. I track our budget, I assist with database designs, and I am a project manager, a project director, an enterprise architect, a communications coordinator, and a liaison to our customers and much more.

The CIO role in the not-too-distant past was more about keeping the lights on, making sure that the status quo remained, and fixing any interruptions of services. Now CIOs are being heavily relied upon to move business operation forward with automation. Driving digital transformation is the phrase that best describes the CIO role today. CIOs are expected to streamline and automate the various business functions. With this kind of enterprise transformation, they need to have vision, foresight and strategic planning.

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

Crowe: As a division chief, I participate in all strategic planning activities for the department along with the other division chiefs. As a supporting service to all of our business divisions, IT is heavily involved in implementing their visions while keeping the enterprise vision in sight as well. On a more granular level, the department has an IT governance committee that consists of all CalHR division chiefs. This group meets monthly to prioritize the department’s larger IT efforts and make sure they are in line with the strategic goals set by the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps) and the California Department of Technology (CDT).

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Crowe: We will continue our cross-agency Enterprise Human Resources effort that involves CalHR, CDT, GovOps, the California State Controller’s Office (SCO) and the California Department of Finance (DOF) primarily. Today, we have a centralized data repository housed at CDT with two learning management cloud solutions (Blackboard and Cornerstone) exchanging data daily in the first of many HR functions to follow. Currently, we have about 12 departments using one of the two vendors and centralizing their training data, with many more departments expected to soon start using the system, too.

Our in-house, custom-built Examination and Certification Online System (ECOS) continues with DevOps making incremental improvements about every six weeks to that system.

We have started the Delegated Authority Project (DAP). This involves helping departments automate HR management functions that used to be performed by CalHR but have been delegated to individual departments. The departments have to report to CalHR what they are doing, in this regard, and we are helping to create an electronic system to do that.

One large procurement I expect next year is the purchase of a third-party system to assist with some of the state job exams we offer online.

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?

Crowe: I see digital transformation as a continual effort to fundamentally change how business operates by streamlining and automating their business processes.

CalHR has a vision for where we need to be, but getting there is a challenge. We continue to leverage what we can with existing systems and resources, but we do have a long way to go yet.

I do not believe that digital transformation will ever be finished. It is similar to our security posture. When is enough security enough? You can always take it a little further and get better, but you can never reach 100 percent secure. Your security posture is never going to be finished, just as digital transformation will never be completely done, it can always go a step further.

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

Crowe: IT Staff: 34.0. Budget — IT Line Item: $1,905,000. CalHR Budget: $46,293,000 (for operations).

Techwire: 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?

Crowe: Through email is best. I get so many phone calls during the day, I can’t even answer my phone anymore. So, if you call, you will probably need to leave a message. Email is by far the best way, but please understand that I get 25-30 emails a day from vendors, so I might not be able to get right back to you. Rest assured, however, that if we have an interest, I will be reaching out. One piece of advice I got from my previous AIO [agency information officer], Andrew Armani, was to make time to meet with our vendors. They have great ideas, they have a pulse on what is going on in the state, and they can provide solutions to your problems, even when you weren’t looking for them. So, I have embraced this advice by setting aside at least one hour a week to meet with our vendors.

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

Crowe: The Examination and Certification Online System (ECOS) is the achievement I am most proud of to date, and I am hoping our current statewide effort with Enterprise HR surpasses that soon.

ECOS was a six-year, $9.9 million statewide project that we completed in 2017. Today, we continually maintain and improve the system in a DevOps environment. ECOS is an in-house, custom-built solution to meet needs of the highly complex hiring process in the state. The project was a testament to what state IT staff can do. The project was managed and primarily developed by state staff with our vendor providing supplemental resources.

ECOS is the back-end administration side of the state’s hiring process. Our CalCareers state job site is the public-facing side of the system. The primary users of ECOS are state department HR professionals and their hiring managers. There are well over 15,000 state employees using the system.

Each month, the CalCareers side gets over 500,000 visitors and receives over 150,000 job applications. This project affected all state departments in how they do their daily business, and it was accomplished by a very small group of state employees. The ECOS system was recognized in 2019 by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) as a finalist in its State IT Recognition Awards, in the Enterprise IT Management Initiatives category. I am very proud of the work my team and I did, and continue to do, on the ECOS system.

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

Crowe: There are a lot of measures in place today, but for the most part they are there for a good reason. I know sometimes these procurement measures can be difficult to get through, but in general I understand why they need to be there. As public employees, we have a responsibility to maximize the funding we get. I personally want to ensure that my taxes are being used responsibly, and some of these checks and balances help in doing that.

CDT, DOF and the California Department of General Services (DGS) are working to continually improve the process. One thing that could help speed up the procurement process would be making more products available on existing contracts. CDT’s Vendor Hosted Subscription Service (VHSS) is a great example of this, where the product contract has already been negotiated and as a state department, if we decide it is the right product for us, all we need to do is submit a ticket to get licensing. It is that simple. That cuts out a lot of time in the procurement process.

In addition, as a state, we need to continue down the road of utilizing California’s purchasing power. A lot of departments are buying the same licenses for the same products. We should do a better job of combining these purchases to get cheaper prices, instead of making purchases as individual entities. I know we are working towards that now, and CDT is doing a great job of starting us down that road.

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

Crowe: I read Techwire mainly, of course. I also read Government Technology,* GovTech Today, Comstock, and, among many other reputable sites out there. I join in on vendor-sponsored round tables, I talk with other CIOs, and as I mentioned earlier, I take time to talk with our vendors.

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

Crowe: I stay pretty busy in my free time. I coach my kids in their youth sports — basketball (my favorite), soccer and baseball. I enjoy woodworking, and making furniture and doing other small projects. Thanks to YouTube, I do all the mechanic work on my vehicles and I love working on my ’78 Jeep CJ5. I have taken up weightlifting again, for about the past year now. I have set up a home gym in my garage. I like to play video games and I also love to kayak and fish to get me out and enjoy nature. I keep myself plenty busy. When I read for enjoyment, I like to read fiction books, especially military thrillers.

*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.