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Techwire One-on-One: CalPERS CIO on Elevation of Role, Priorities During COVID

“Given the whole environment, we decided to take a step back and much more closely align our work with the overall organization; and rather than do a strategic plan, we said, ‘These are our priorities for the next two years until we can realign with the next CalPERS strategic plan,’” says Chief Information Officer Christian Farland.

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.

Christian Farland is the chief information officer for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), a position he has held for nearly three years. A longtime CalPERS executive whose time at the agency spans nearly two decades, Farland previously served as its chief technology business officer for five years, and as its interim chief of the technology and strategic services division before that. Prior to joining the public sector, Farland’s private-sector career included two years as senior consultant for El Segundo-based Syncata.

Farland holds a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College, where he studied history and political science; and he studied history at the University of Leeds. He is a Certified Prosci Change Management Practitioner and joined CalPERS’ Chief Information Security Officer Liana Bailey-Crimmins to deliver a Techwire Member Virtual Briefing last spring.

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?

Farland: I really see it as pretty straightforward. CalPERS’ mission is to deliver retirement health benefits to the members and beneficiaries and so, as the head of IT, it’s our responsibility to provide secure and innovative solutions that support that mission. When I look at our role in that and my role as the CIO, delivering those benefits is our job. But our contribution is the technology. It’s really a partnership. As far as what’s changed … I’ve been in this job almost three years and they’re probably the fastest and the shortest three years of my career. It’s just flown by. ... But the role is very different than it was for some of my predecessors. Our CEO Marcie Frost, just prior to me assuming the job, added the CIO to the executive team. And so since day one, I have been at the table with the executives, talking about all the strategies, all the challenges, all those things that my predecessors might not have had access to, that direct information. That’s been a huge benefit to us in IT because we can move much more quickly. I’m aware of what’s going on and so therefore the agility for us to make better decisions, to position ourselves against risk or for opportunities is much, much better than it had been before.

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

Farland: We are in the fourth year of our five-year strategic plan. As we’re coming up on the end of that, obviously planning for the next one has started. And that gets driven out of our enterprise strategic planning division. One of the things that we have been doing — and I’ve had a very active role in — is a lot of the, for lack of a better term, workshops — we’ve done a lot of surveying of our internal teams. We’ve been doing an annual engagement survey. We’ve been surveying our stakeholders and having workshops with them — or, at least, the strategic planning groups have, working with our board. But then we as an executive team are getting that information, the synopsis of all that information. But we’ve also been providing our own little kind of … separates, specific to our areas of expertise. Talking about what are some of the risks that we see in our organization, what are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities? What are some of the trends that we’re seeing? In our case, it’s what are we seeing from a technology perspective that might be a terrific opportunity for us to take advantage of. Or, on the converse side, what are some risks that we’re seeing or challenges we’re seeing that are going to make some of the things that the business wants to do more challenging. It’s very interactive, more so than any strategic plan I’ve ever been a part of. To put the assignments on us to deliver presentations to our peers is pretty interesting. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Editor’s note: CalPERS’ fiscal plan should be completed during the state’s next fiscal year, the CIO said.

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?

Farland: We did an interesting thing this year with COVID-19 being the all-encompassing focus. We were at the end of our IT strategic plan last June and we were in the process of ‘What is it that our strategic plan should look like in support of the organization?’ Given the whole environment, we decided to take a step back and much more closely align our work with the overall organization and rather than do a strategic plan, we said, ‘These are our priorities for the next two years until we can realign with the next CalPERS strategic plan.’

We really came up with four. One, not surprisingly, is about being a virtual organization. Since we’ve shifted 90-plus percent of our work out of the building or off-prem, our whole organizational structure within IT from a support perspective, from a delivery perspective, was about being on-prem. Now we have to shift the whole way of thinking and all of our processes and tools and things like that. From a virtual organization perspective, it’s what organizational structure do we have to have in place and mindset do we have to have in place?

The other one that we’re in the process of rolling out right now is (the) Jabber solution. We’ve got limited implementation of that right now; about 300 to 400 folks are using it now. But we’re looking at a much broader rollout in January. That one was … clearly driven from COVID. We moved all these people out of the building and now we’ve got to be able to have a way for them to speak with our members, with our stakeholders, and not have to use their personal devices and those kinds of things. So, how do we translate their phone numbers and connections to something that is a little more public yet private? That’s something that we’re working on right now.

Then the other piece of that is … I don’t know if there will be an RFP, but there will be a lot of purchases — we have been making a lot of purchases of laptops. ... With some significant portion of our work in the future being remote, perhaps upwards of 50 percent of our folks will be, I don’t want to say permanently remote but at least half-time remote. The desktop doesn’t make much sense and so, moving to laptops, we’ve been doing a lot of that. We’re doing a lot of purchasing in that area.

And then the other one — we’re using Webex today. We use Teams, we’ve started using Zoom. One of the things that I’ve found with COVID is every organization, every individual, they’ve got their favorite one. They’re biased towards one or the other. We also had Skype, so we retired that because I didn’t want to be maintaining … multiple solutions. One of the things that we’re looking at now is for that return back to the building, there will be some need — we’re still going to have to have that collaboration service for everybody. But how do we leverage that into now putting it into conference rooms, how do we do it for people who are on the road, people working from home, working in regional offices? We’re looking at all those different platforms to come back with. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a one, but what is the main one that we will truly gel around? 

If you think about that as sort of the hardware side of things, then the flip side of that is what we’re … referring to as digital transformation. All those processes that we had in place that were manual or on-prem required hard signatures, those kinds of things, so it’s really about how can we do business differently, make those much more extensible in the virtual environment. So, I don’t know that we’re necessarily going to be doing any purchases in this area, but we’re doing a lot of work expanding our electronic payment gateway. We’ve done what we call a virtual folder, or VXF. For us, historically, we’ve routed different-colored folders around the building, so the “X” being whatever-color folder. That’s a tremendous help for us as we’ve shifted to routing things and we can do electronic approvals that way and we’re looking to expand that to the rest of the organization in the next couple of months. And then the one that I’m really proud of that I think will have a significant impact on both state and local organizations is that we are going to pilot the ability to do member self-service around selecting your health care. That’s really the process side of things. The other item we’re looking at is what we’re calling cost optimization. We just finished a benchmark, we used Gartner’s budget tool, did some benchmarking against some similar organizations … just to see kind of where we fit. One of the things that we’re going to be … talking to a lot of our vendors on is what are some areas for straight cost savings?

Then the next phase of that is … looking back at the digital transformation, what are some IT efficiencies we can do? What are some … system or app rationalization efforts? Just like the collaboration platforms, everybody’s got their product du jour. … How can we maximize that?
Where I think we’re really looking for the biggest bang for our buck is looking for business efficiencies on the business side of things. And hopefully really doing some heavy digital transformation. … Fundamentally, we’re moving to the cloud for a lot of things. We’ve had a huge presence from a SaaS perspective. We were early on with Office 365; we’ve been a ServiceNow shop for a long time. We have Salesforce in our investment office. … As far as what we’ve been doing (on) infrastructure as a service, I’d said we’re taking baby steps at that point. It doesn’t make sense for us to do a big lift and shift. So we’re really going through our different applications and systems and doing an evaluation to find what makes sense … . I’d say we’re early on in that.

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?

Farland: I don’t think it ever is. For me, digital transformation is really … two parts. One is … where it’s really about driving the efficiencies and effectiveness out of your current business processes. Looking at them, re-engineering them to the extent possible. But really trying to hyper-automate, for lack of a better term, those processes. The other piece to that is really looking at entirely different ways to deliver services of value. … We’ve typically built our systems for team members and people to deliver services as opposed to delivering the services directly to our customers. As far as where we are, our maturity in that, I think we’ve made some significant steps, at least in the first one of those, lately, as far as automating a lot of our internal processes for effectiveness. I think there’s a universe out there to be able to do. CalPERS has been around forever and has all kinds of processes that can be reviewed.

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

Farland: The IT budget … including information security, is $113 million. That’s 591 staff. Eighty-four percent of my spend is on personnel and benefits. That is down: we had 602 a year ago. We’ve been making a big effort over the last couple of years to reduce … the overhead of people… . As technology has changed, as our functions have changed, as our needs have changed, we don’t need to have as many people doing the things they were doing before. For some, the work just went away. So along with that, we’ve been able to reduce our reliance on consultants by 56 percent in the last two years.

Editor’s note: CalPERS' overall budget for the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year ending June 30 is slightly more than $33.7 billion.

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?

Farland: You know, that’s always been an open question since the day I took over this role. I’ve always intended to try to find the best possible way and I have yet to find it. … I’m not very likely to respond to someone if it’s, ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so and I have a product for you to look at.’ And I’m going to highly lean on my direct reports, so my chief technology officer, my chief technology business officer, my chief of applications, to come and have done the vetting beforehand. I don’t like being the guy that comes back and pushes back on them … . To help them, it’s really about helping identify ‘What’s a problem we’re trying to solve?’ And how does it not add one more thing to my tool or application portfolio? What can I do to minimize or reduce that? … From a relationship perspective, one of the things I prefer is that the vendors come work with us to bring solutions to the business (and) not go to the business and come to us. We’ve really spent a lot of time working with our program areas trying to create that trusted adviser relationship.

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

Farland: I’ve got to say the way that our organization, ITSB in particular, responded to the pandemic. Within days, getting a significant number of people out of the building, working remotely when I think if you had asked anybody a week or two before that, ‘Can we do this remotely?’ the answer would have been no. We’re talking  … 5 to 10 percent of our folks on site for the last couple of months. To me, that’s extraordinary. It wasn’t because people just made it happen, but the team members themselves … the managers and the team members, they were very creative. They would fail quickly. There was no — we didn’t penalize people for failing. That kind of created a sense of innovation. It’s kind of one of those weird things where you spend your career planning for something like that, hoping it never happens, and when it does to see it … executed the way it was, I’m pretty doggone proud of that. That’s kind of the short-term of it. This year everything seems to be COVID all the time. If you were to ask me what I’m proud of from a longer-term perspective, … what we’ve been doing in the business relationship management area, really working to improve the relationship and the perspective that people have of IT in the organization, having them want to come to us as the first choice rather than because they have to. We’ve made a significant effort in that area over the last three or four years to stand up a business relationship management function, to really work our processes and try to find those kinds of solutions … and then we measure it every year. We do a business relationship management survey. And we are just extremely proud of the fact that we are in the 95 percent-plus satisfaction rate for our services and products over the last two years.

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

Farland: It’s shifting. As we move more to the cloud, terms and conditions — I wish there was just a quick way we could all agree on the negotiation rather than making it a blood sport. Particularly now with moving things to the cloud, it’s, when I’m in control of my own environment, if I have a breach, if I have a problem, I can control at that point when I know about it and how quickly I notify the people around me. I guess one of the things that I’m kind of frustrated about is I don’t see that same thing in the procurement or the contracting from the stance of vendors these days, the procurement process. You get hung up on T’s and C’s (terms and conditions).

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

Farland: My go-to has to be Techwire, right? It’s funny, I have found that I’ve kind of developed some patterns in my daily routines now and Techwire is the first thing. … There’s a couple others, Government Technology,* I look at, and I’m always following up with Gartner. The other thing I do is, I work hard to cultivate a network of people both in state service and the vendors just to … what are they hearing, what are they seeing? Setting up those meetings periodically just to check in.

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

Farland: I would say my two biggest past-times are that I’m a cyclist and a golfer. Not a very good golfer, but I get out there and do it. The problem with both of those is they both take time on Saturday, so I have to pick and choose. This past year … actually, the last two years, my golf game has gotten my attention. But for 2021, I have set a personal goal to ride from Sacramento to San Francisco before my birthday in June. So, that’s what I’m working towards now. There’s a whole group, a combination of people in the vendor community and people in the state technology community, who I get out and ride with periodically and so I’m trying to get that group to be able to do that.

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

*Government Technology magazine is part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.