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Techwire One-on-One: Caltrans CTO on Leveraging Tech, Doing More With Data

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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.

Veteran state staffer Mike Nguyen is the inaugural chief technology officer at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), a position he has held since May 2016. In a state career that dates to 1996, when he joined the California Department of General Services as an IT manager, Nguyen has worked at no fewer than six state entities. He was most recently the data center director at the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.

Nguyen has a Bachelor of Science in computer science from California State University, Sacramento. He is bilingual, speaking Vietnamese and English, and his IT skills include business process improvement, integration, strategy and service management.

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

Nguyen: The chief technology officer is an executive position at Caltrans. It is very new to Caltrans because it was only created less than six years ago. And I have the privilege to be serving in that capacity as the first CTO at Caltrans. As CTO, I am responsible for planning, evaluation, adoption; (I) make lots of recommendations to my boss, the chief information officer, who is George Akiyama. But in addition to making recommendations to my boss, I also help him put in technologies for the department. This is very inward-looking, to work with our business programs and districts, to understand their needs ... and to really implement technologies to serve and advance their programs. I have 400 great staff that are under my general command. They are responsible for IT operations in support of planning, design, construction and maintenance of the California transportation network. ... We are responsible for managing that network, and my role is basically to support those operations. ... Part of that is to basically connect our people so that we can give them the proper access to our data, our applications to do their business and to perform their duties. In addition to the network management, we host over 1,300 servers throughout Caltrans. Most of them reside at the state data center, but some of them reside locally because the applications are designed to operate in a local network environment; and so that’s still there and we need to support them until we modernize and replace them with current technology. ... Because we are an engineering firm, we have lots of data. And because we have lots of data, we have to protect the data, we have to make sure that we can recover the data and operations when we have an operational incident ... . And then in addition to that, we have lots of databases that we have to manage, lots of software ... that’s also under my jurisdiction. And of course, you can’t gain access to applications and data unless we have a great secure identity access management system to really authenticate that you are who you say you are and ensure the bad guys and gals don’t get in. Last but not least, we have 20,000 employees, so we have lots of endpoint devices that also are under my jurisdiction ... .

In the past, I think that the CTO was more focused on technology innovation, more about operations, more about talent management as well as optimizing those areas. But today, those have not gone away. We basically have more challenges along the way today and those areas still remain. But the area that is really being focused on ... is helping business transform from what they have done in the past (to) what we can do today leveraging technology to really enhance the business by using more automation.

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

Nguyen: I must say that it is not minimal. I’m very pleased to be part of this whole large effort that we have in terms of Caltrans’ strategic business planning. And we’re very proud of the recently published Caltrans 2020-2024 Strategic Plan. In my role, it is considered that I’m at the division chief level. And just like any other division chief — we have about 40 others in the department — we all were (assigned) to different areas in the strategic plan and helped vet the whole plan. ... In that engagement, we as division chiefs really formulated the strategies in terms of what we need to do to achieve this role, as well as the different actions we need to achieve to get to the expected outcome. ... IT is also very proud that we recently published our 2021-2024 strategic plan. And the reason why we had to do it afterwards is to ensure that the IT strategic plan is well in alignment to support the business strategic plan. We have different goals that we also came up with, and strategies and actions that we need to take action to achieve those goals ... . I was a lead executive leading the goal that I’m overseeing, which is really partnering with our business program and ensuring that we have a great partnership, a trusted partnership in transformation.

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

Nguyen: I wish you asked me this six months ago because we have a lot of birds in flight already. We have a lot of active projects that have gone beyond the RFO (request for offer) point. Looking forward, there are two things that come to mind that I can share with you. Our department believes that business intelligence is really a game-changer, to help the department use our data assets and really turn that into information to drive decisions. We have been tackling that, and I am personally leading that effort over the last six months, and we are planning to go out for an RFO ... within the next three to six months. We’ll be looking for consulting expertise to really bring those resources in, to focus on the expected outcome, and have the ability and capability to deliver those tangible deliverables in very short order. The second one also has a strong correlation to data management. We have what is called the traffic operations in the department under the maintenance and operations program. We have lots and lots of traffic data throughout our highways. We want to basically do more data analysis using data analytical tools to understand our traffic patterns and things like that. Doing a lot of what I call predictive modeling so that we can make better use of information to make decisions in how we maintain and operate the highways and freeways that are under our jurisdiction and part of our transportation network. And that we will start with an RFI (request for information), similar timeline. We’ll be looking at three to six months to release the RFI.

Techwire: What term or phrase do you use to refer to what many call “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process and how will you know when it’s finished?

Nguyen: Digital transformation ... the way I understand it is taking a non-automated process, a paper-based process, and really automating that and putting it into digital format. It’s to really apply workflows, to make that a lot more efficient than a manual process. I think we use that, digital transformation, here and there at Caltrans as well, but it’s more — the terminology that I often use is, if we have a paper-based system, do you want to basically automate that and put that into our workflow and digitize that and make it more available electronically? We’re not married to one set of terminology but depending on the audience and what they’re comfortable with, we use all of those loosely. ... And just like other state agencies, we look for ways to do things better, cheaper, faster and do more with less. But in terms of projects related, I can share two efforts that I think we all can relate to. We are an engineering firm and a great firm like this, that business is very similar to what the private sector does. We start with planning, and we end with construction and we turn it over for maintenance. Through the evolution, you’ve seen and heard of technologies like 3D modeling, CAT, CAM technologies, AutoCad is being used. That is a component that we have basically transitioned over to from paper-based to electronic format, but now the department is really looking into what is called e-design, e-construction. ... The concept is totally revolutionary. The concept here is, we do everything electronically. In the past, we passed the project documents from team to team. The way that we want to do it today is, we want to make everything electronically available and then invite the team to a common place ... . Everybody will have their opportunity to review, to amend, to revise, to make it better ... . We would invite them to what I call an environment, where that information is readily available for all teams, all stakeholders. It’s an exciting initiative that we’re doing. We are starting that; we are looking for ways to basically implement that. In light of the pandemic and remote work, it will really help accelerate that. The second area ... has to do with scanning the highways and freeways manually and then using drone technology to take aerial photography. It has the precision we need for environmental studies and what-have-you in the design and construction process. Currently, we have vans that are equipped with lidar (light detection and ranging) equipment that goes out and scans the freeways with laser beams. It would record all of that information in a very big portable storage container. And all that insight will be brought back to workstations, for our specialists to process the data before that information can be shared for the project. Moving forward, we are using drones to make sure that we can scan that, and it basically has huge benefits in the area of improving our own safety. We don’t have to have people on the street. We can collect the same data if not better, and we can do it better and cheaper and more efficiently. We can also fly these drones and inspect our bridges. It’s a lot safer than sending someone out there.

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

Nguyen: We have 22,000 employees, permanent and temporary. The official one is 20,000 employees that are considered permanent. For IT, we have roughly 600 employees. So, 600 compared to 20,000, that’s approximately 3 percent. In terms of dollars, the overall IT budget is $134 million. $78 million will go toward salaries and benefits for those positions and then $56 million for operating expenses. That makes up about 1 percent. We’re just very consistent with state agencies under the executive branch. Under me as CTO, I have 400 staff who report to me, and the operating budget as well as the (personnel services) is basically $90 million. About $60 million is personnel services, salaries and wages for those positions, and $30 million mostly goes towards maintenance and support of our infrastructure components for the department.

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?

Nguyen: The best way to contact me is via email. Phone calls and cellular contact would not the best; I’ll be in meetings most of the day and would not be able to respond when they call. Really, to be prepared to have a conversation with me is to familiarize themselves with the Caltrans 2020-2024 Strategic Plan as well as the IT strategic plan. That will give them the foundation in terms of where the department is going. What I would expect is, how do they add value? How do they see themselves in the action plan that we have outlined? How would they add value to those areas and be prepared to have a conversation?

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

Nguyen: My team and I — and the credit goes to my team, really — I’m just their champion and their biggest cheerleader. The two efforts that I’m proud to share with you, one would be what we call the Caltrans web accessibility for all projects. This past June, there was a law that was enacted that says that anything on the Internet (for) any agencies under the executive branch — we have to make that (Americans with Disabilities Act) ADA accessible and compliant ... . I was very proud of that, because it’s the right thing to do and we did it in record time with a huge workload in doing that. First, we had to deal with a very tight time constraint. ... the CIO asked me to assist six months prior to deadline, when I jumped in and rolled up my sleeves and worked with our very dedicated team of programmers to redesign the whole website. But that was the easy part. The hardest part was identifying all relevant documents and artifacts on the old site and (taking) them through a remediation process to make sure that people with disabilities could now ... read those documents and we would be able to accommodate them. We took more than 1.5 million documents through that process to ensure they were remediated on time on budget and on scope. ... Today, we are very happy to say that our website for Caltrans is fully in compliance with the law. The second one ... in March, when the pandemic hit us, ... prior to that, we were having about 300 teleworkers per day. Well, how do you go about taking 300 workers and upsizing that to 16,000 office workers and transfer them ... from office work to remote work? My team and I are very proud of our efforts in transitioning our employees, 16,000 of them, into remote work within a 30-day window. You can imagine the organizational change management that we had to deal with, the culture, to really get people onto a platform where they can be productive. It was extremely stressful, very challenging, but we in IT really stepped up to the challenge. We are very proud to be able to sustain that and improve that environment today. Not that everything has been settled down, but now we’re dealing with another variant. We’re also planning for work to be modified or preparing our employees to be engaged in what is called a hybrid environment to telework, whereby some employees will continue to telework and then work in the office part-time. We had to retrofit our conference rooms to make sure that they’re equipped with audio and video conferencing equipment ... so that it establishes an environment for team collaboration.

Editor’s note: 2017’s Assembly Bill 434 required state websites to maintain full accessibility compliance, and called on state directors and CIOs to self-certify that their sites complied.

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

Nguyen: I could go on with this for days but in the interest of time, procurement to me as a CTO, I want it easy, I want it fast, I want it cheap, I want it now. All of those, I don’t have a single answer that will address all of them. But if there’s one thing that I would suggest, it’s in order to achieve most of those, it requires what I call competition. Competition will drive all of those. And today, I think we have achieved some of them. For instance, IT commodities: we have statewide contracts, so we have solved the problem of fast and easy. Because those use what are called leveraged procurement agreements, and DGS does a great job in negotiating for those to be in place, and we can go pick them and we don’t have to deal with that anymore. But at the same time, in terms of competition, I think we have taken maybe a step backwards because only so many can be those contract holders, whereas in the past, you had a lot more players to sell with the same vehicle. I would say promote more competition, be more diverse, be more inclusive including smaller business operators, disabled vets and people that have disadvantages ... that may not have an even footing compared to the big boys and girls out there that have big companies and basically have a better position to get these contracts.

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

Nguyen: I do read Government Technology magazine* ... I do read the Government Technology Insider*; I read Techwire every day when I first get up in the morning. In addition, the Internet is the best source for whatever we need. We just have to roll up our sleeves and do the research ourselves; trust but verify.

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

Nguyen: I think I read enough at work with all of these proposals and all of these justifications that I have to write, make business cases for business programs and so on. I try not to read at home, and so the things that I do include biking, cooking, bowling and gardening. Overall, it’s a pretty even mix between all of them.

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

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