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Techwire One-on-One: CalPERS CTO Talks Teamwork, Evolution of Role

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As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT and cybersecurity leaders.

Stephenson Loveson has been the chief technology officer (CTO) for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System since July, and it’s a role he sees as evolving. With a background in the private sector before joining CalPERS more than a decade ago, Stephenson sees his role as an amalgam of “technology evangelist, business adviser and change agent.” He’s evolved in his own career path, as well: He started as a systems software specialist, then progressed through the ranks into management. Now, as CTO, his responsibilities include data center oversight as well as vendor relations.

Stephenson is a graduate of the California Department of Technology’s Information Technology Leadership Academy (ITLA), a program that has propelled the careers of many state technology executives. The trilingual CTO (English, Hindi and Tamil) is a graduate of the University of Madras with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering, and he earned his master’s in business administration with a specialization in IT management and finance from the National Institute of Technology in Tiruchirappalli, India. He is also president of the Asian Pacific State Employees Association.

Techwire: As the chief technology officer of your organization, how do you describe your role – and how have the role and responsibilities of the CTO changed in recent years?

Loveson: As the chief technology officer (CTO), I’m part of the senior IT leadership team led by our chief information officer, Christian Farland. My role is to provide leadership and guidance over technology and infrastructure services that support the CalPERS business. That includes providing endpoint equipment, user access, mobility solutions, connectivity, networking, storage and compute services across all of CalPERS’ retirement, health and investment programs.

The role of the CTO has evolved from just providing technology guidance into influencing and being a strategic partner to the CalPERS business by delivering secure and innovative technology solutions. The CTO is expected to be a technology evangelist, business adviser and change agent. Bringing in new technology is the easiest part of the job; however, the real job is to make sure that the technology that I bring in adds value to CalPERS business and is furthering the mission and vision of CalPERS and adds necessary synergies between business units, products and technology services, including customer technology services and support and data center services.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing CalPERS’ IT strategic plan?

Loveson: As part of the senior leadership team, I, along with the other division leaders and the CIO, play a very big role in shaping the Information Technology Services Branch (ITSB) strategic plan. We are in the second year of our two-year strategic plan that started in 2020. CalPERS will be refreshing its strategic plan for the next five years and we will align our IT strategic plan with our CalPERS five-year strategic plan, which will begin next fiscal year. As a leadership team, we will look to reimagine the way ITSB delivers services to its members and the enterprise through the lens of optimization, digital transformation and security. I’m personally excited about this part of my job as it involves looking at current technology trends, opportunities and threats, and then arriving at a strategy to account for the future state. A big part of our strategic plan initiatives is derived from our annual engagement surveys, internal business partner satisfaction surveys, and our business relationship touchpoint meetings. Our strategic plan always has a way of addressing our customer needs.

As part of the 2020-22 strategic plans, I’m sponsoring three strategic initiatives which are aligned to making our hybrid work environment streamlined and successful with a look into the future. I’m excited to lead these initiatives as they have the potential to have an impact on our organization for a very long time to come.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming from CalPERS in 2021-22? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Loveson: My technology organization has begun executing a few major projects this year.

We are well underway planning to expand our software-defined networking and implementing software-defined WAN and software-defined access.

We are also looking to enhance our public cloud expertise and expand services in the public cloud while enhancing our business resiliency and disaster recovery capabilities. We are looking for some expertise to execute both these projects. They have the potential to drastically improve the way we operate into the future.

We are also revamping our regional office customer flow management system to enhance our member experience when they walk into the regional offices.

I’m excited about these projects. Like I mentioned before, as part of our strategic plan initiatives, we are also looking into different ways we can enhance our hybrid meeting experience and provide dynamic support to team members facing technology challenges. When our return-to-office plan begins in the near future, we want to make sure that team members have all the tool sets that they need to be successful and productive. We do not have any plans for an RFP this fiscal year.

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

Loveson: Digital transformation for me is using technology to solve business problems. As technology changes, matures and evolves, it brings with it many opportunities for influencing the way business is conducted. It has the potential of reimagining the way services are delivered. It is incumbent upon leaders to spot trends early, have a pulse on the business to match these trends to products and services to solve those business problems or to improve and optimize service delivery. This is the era of hyperautomation. I firmly believe that organizations that embrace automation concepts and are open to change are the ones that will succeed in the future.

I would say that CalPERS is much more mature in its digital transformation journey. We are always looking to digitizing business processes and automating workflows. You will see us investing in the public cloud, collaboration technologies and security to enhance our member experience.

Digital transformation is a continuous process. The moment you think that your transformation journey is over, you become obsolete. You continue to optimize and improve on what you have delivered. You can never have enough improvements.

Techwire: How many employees are in CalPERS’ IT organization? Is it growing?

Loveson: We have about 591 team members in our IT organization. We are at a point where we are not adding more team members to our organization. But we are doing quite a bit of consolidation across the board to optimize our resources. As our needs have changed and as we invest in more automation, we have seen that we do not need to acquire more team members to keep up our level of service.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget?

Loveson: Our IT budget including information security is about $113 million.

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

Loveson: There are many projects that I’ve been involved with, but a couple of them really stand out for me since I was involved with them right from inception to execution and to implementation.

We successfully moved our contact center applications from our data center to the cloud. We had a traditional monolithic technology stack deployed in the data center, which required heavy amounts of care and feed. It was hard to make any enhancements, and we were constantly applying patches. We transformed the way we do our business by moving to the cloud, and it has paid rich dividends, particularly during the pandemic. We are now able to spend more time implementing value-adds to the business and keep the business moving forward. I love the project because there was strong collaboration between our business partner and the IT team, and the project was a huge success. The key to success was that we put business needs first and operated from the mindset of solving business problems. Having strategic conversations with the business showed in the product that was delivered.

Cloud Assessment and Migration Services (CAMS) is another project where we demonstrated the value of strong collaboration and partnership. A few years ago, CalPERS started its own public cloud journey. The CAMS project was supposed to provide us with momentum which we could carry forward into the future. So, we started this project as a business transformation initiative rather than an IT-focused initiative. We had participation from all parts of the IT organization. We executed this project with co-leadership with the Core Infrastructure, the Application Development team and Enterprise Architecture. When we all worked together, the final product was amazing. The teams were in the trenches together along with the system integrator, and they made decisions that were right for CalPERS. The overall experience, learning and growth that the team experienced was amazing, and it gave us the confidence to forge our own way forward on our public cloud journey. I want to thank our cloud partners as well, who came alongside to make our project a successful one.

On the operational front, I’m proud of the team that stood up the capability to enable all CalPERS team members to work remotely. The whole process of idea to implementation took mere hours before it was operationalized and rolled out to the enterprise.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors? What should they know about you before they reach out?

Loveson: Recently I got an email from a vendor that really stood out. The vendor had quite a bit of research about CalPERS. They looked at our CalPERS business plans and ITSB strategic plan and objectives and then tied them together to propose a solution that would solve some of my business problems. I liked the way they did their homework before approaching me and aligned it to the strategic plan. I really liked that approach and immediately took a call from them. I’m not someone who would respond to a cold call or an email blast. I get quite a few of those every day already. But if you are able to articulate the value in your email and it makes business sense to pursue that solution, I’m more likely to respond and ask my team to give a thorough vetting of your product or service.

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

Loveson: The No. 1 thing I would change is the velocity of procurements. As much as our processes and procedures are keeping us safe, it sometimes does add bottlenecks to the procurement process. I think there is plenty of scope of improvement there. The speed with which we do business has changed, and IT procurements now need to accept the reality and get better at meeting the demands. The procurement landscape is changing rapidly as well. Vendor management concepts are becoming increasingly complex and important as more services move to the cloud. I think the whole procurement process itself is set to undergo a radical change.

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

Loveson: I make it a point to read Techwire and the daily briefings sent by Government Technology*. They help keep me in the know when it comes to informing me of what is happening in the public sector. I watch the news and bills that pass through the lawmakers which could potentially have impacts on technology. I watch the governor’s budget proposals and see what technology projects are being funded. Most importantly, I stay connected with my mentors across state government and exchange ideas and notes about what is happening in their departments and how they are solving common business and technology problems that we all face.

Techwire: Do you have a “digital hero,” either in the public or the private sector?

Loveson: I do have a few digital heroes. The name that really stands out for me is Steve Jobs. I love his innovative spirit and passion. Steve Jobs was not just passionate about computers; he was passionate about building tools to help people unleash their potential.

I like Jeff Bezos for the Amazonian leadership principles. I try to adopt some of them in the way I approach leadership. At the end of the day our job revolves around creating the best service experience for our constituents, in my case the members of the retirement system.

In the public sector, I have a few present and former CIOs who have been great mentors for me. In many ways they were instrumental starting my leadership journey and growth as a leader. They continue to provide valuable advice and guidance when I need them. I routinely make it a point to learn from other leaders at CalPERS and outside CalPERS, as well. Helps me be grounded in who I am.

Techwire: Personal: Family? Hobbies? Last book read?

Loveson: My wife works with the state as well. We exchange work notes and bounce ideas off each other. I have two kids, one in high school and one in middle school. I’m thankful that they are back in school again. I like watching movies and sports. I’m happy that football season is underway. I also stay connected with the community. I volunteer my time with many community organizations and am generally a fan of giving back to the community. You could see that I love the work-life harmony. The last book I read was The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, And Team With Positive Energy.

*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.