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Techwire One-on-One: Conservation CIO on Data, Procurement

Wendy Weaver, chief information officer for the California Department of Conservation, says her team is in the infancy of a sprawling undertaking to transform how data is captured, stored, governed and shared.

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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 leaders.

Wendy Weaver is the chief information officer for the California Department of Conservation (DOC), part of the California Natural Resources Agency. Weaver has a deep background in both the public and private sectors, having worked in a series of increasingly responsible technology roles with Phillips Petroleum Co., ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66. Her work in the energy sector included managing global teams in critical business situations, streamlining workflows and creating automated processes to address information security. From there, Weaver joined the state workforce, beginning in October 2014 with the California Department of Health Care Services, where she rose to a leadership role with responsibilities including the California Medicaid Management Information Systems (CA-MMIS) Division. She returned to tech management in the energy sector in 2014, being named project director and IT manager for DOC’s Well Statewide Tracking and Reporting (WellSTAR) initiative. Three years ago, she was named DOC’s CIO.

Techwire: As the technology leader for the California Department of Conservation (DOC), how do you describe your role? Has the role changed since you took it in May 2019?

Weaver: My role as CIO of DOC is to enable DOC to perform the critical science we specialize in. That means ensuring I have the appropriate tools, infrastructure, and security to meet business needs and allow us to share our information with Californians. It does not mean that my shop runs the Wild West with no governance, processes, or standards, but rather that I work with my program partners to put appropriate practices and safeguards in place while I still enable their success.

Just as important is my role as a leader, which is to do everything I can to empower my team to be amazing. I have incredibly smart people who are here for the right reasons. I try to coach and mentor while I point the direction, clear their path, and then let them run.

Every CIO is a bit different. Our previous CIO played a key role in building our team and setting them in the direction that was needed at that time. When I came in, I had to develop my own relationships, build my own vision, and invest in my team to build the trust we needed to be able to shift when it was necessary. We’re a close-knit bunch. People come first, yet the work always magically gets done and gets done well.

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

Weaver: The IT strategic plan is mine, but I believe it’s critical to understand the needs and opportunities of my division program partners to ensure the plan moves DOC in a direction that enables business success.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming from DOC this year and in 2023? What sorts of RFIs/RFPs should vendors be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Weaver: DOC is an incredibly scientific organization that generates and uses enormous amounts of data. While we do great science, we could do so much more if we make improvements in the way we capture, store, govern, and share our data. My team is in the infancy of initiating a data transformation project that will address each of these areas. It will likely be one of the largest undertakings my team has ever completed and can only be successful with strong collaboration with our business partners and other stakeholders.

The data that DOC generates and uses informs the public and provides critical inputs into many state and federal initiatives. Our data helps Californians know what’s in their backyard or neighborhood; it helps them learn about our environment and the effects of things like earthquakes; it provides keen insights into our changing climate; and it is used to help protect our land and agriculture. By successfully transforming the way we access, govern, share and use our data, DOC can lead the way for other entities to be part of critical collaborations that will only improve our way of life.

Techwire: How many employees are in your IT organization? Is it growing? What is your estimated IT budget?

Weaver: There are currently 50 staff in my organization with a budget of just under $11 million.

As the mission and vision of DOC aligns with the critical initiatives of Gov. Gavin Newsom, our divisions are growing and implementing new programs to better meet the needs of California. As part of this program growth, several IT positions were included in BCPs (budget change proposals). We look forward to the growth in IT and the opportunity to support our evolving DOC programs.

Aside from adding more humans to our team, I believe that training and development of our existing staff is critical, so I invest in them. Technology is ever-changing, and I cannot expect to have a highly functioning team if I don’t provide them the tools and knowledge they need to exceed expectations. This is a belief that is held by my entire management team. We feed into our team, and they respond by feeding into DOC.

Techwire: In your tenure to date with DOC, which technology-related project or achievement are you most proud of?

Weaver: Our response to the pandemic. I have a strong background in problem management and emergency response, so I tend to key in, watch situations, and think about “what if” scenarios. In this instance, that habit paid off. A few weeks before we received the directive to go home, my team had already begun looking for possible options to keep DOC running if the issue escalated. As the world news gave the impression that things were becoming more serious, we began working (on) our “what if” plan.

Consequently, DOC was sent to work from home on March 16, 2020, and we had all DOC staff connected and able to perform in just over 24 hours. That doesn’t mean it was a perfectly smooth transition. There were some bumps and things we didn’t anticipate (who knew we’d need connectivity to a houseboat with no Internet connection) but ultimately, business kept moving and we continued to improve our services over the next weeks and months.

I was especially proud of my team when I learned that we were far enough ahead of the game that we could partner with other departments to share what we’d done and help them get up and running.

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

Weaver: To be honest, I am flooded by so many vendor emails every day that it’s impossible to read them all, much less respond. I’m far more likely to notice if an email appears to have been written by a real human, who knows what DOC does, and takes the time to send a SHORT thought about how their partnership could directly impact DOC in a positive way. The quickest way to end up in my spam filter is to send me a form letter that is obviously part of a distribution blast in which they hope something will stick to the wall.

I’m not one who believes that DOC IT should be “special.” Quite the opposite. While we don’t wait for others to show us the way, and we do have special needs at times, the more we can align with the agency and the tools being used by other departments, the easier our tools are to implement, maintain, and remain fiscally responsible. Therefore, I’m a fan of referrals and recommendations. If a vendor/tool has been a win for other departments, it gives me a strong sense that it will be worth the time to investigate for DOC.

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

Weaver: I’m all about process, standardization, and accountability, but holy cow — the virtual “paperwork!” There are valid reasons for stringent processes, but attempting to navigate ever-changing rules and the insane supply chain issues we’ve faced has made procuring goods quite an adventure.

The biggest struggle we face internally is end-user frustration due to the length of time it takes to get the requested item into someone’s hands. I don’t know what the solution is, but it would wonderful if there was a way to keep the careful auditability of spending while we speed up the actual purchasing process.

Techwire: You began your technology career with an energy company, working in security and compliance and managing contractors, among other things. You then worked in the state Department of Health Care Services, also in a tech leadership role, before moving up to your current role as the Department of Conservation CIO. How much does a department’s overall mission matter to you, or are you more focused on making tech work better no matter the sector of government in which you’re serving?

Weaver: When I was young, I found a niche in IT that I was naturally good at, and it accidentally turned into a great career due to stellar leadership who mentored, groomed, and helped tame an opinionated girl who always had something to prove.

As I’ve matured, I’ve learned that striving to do honest work, for reasons you believe in, with the best of intentions is what makes the difference. If I connect with a mission and see its possibilities, I am driven to do all that I can to make it succeed. The scientist who’s using data to keep our residents safe can’t effectively work if they don’t have the infrastructure, access, and tools to do their job. My team of dedicated IT staff take pride in finding ways to open new opportunities for DOC to ensure a safe, sustainable environment for all Californians.

Techwire: What do you like best about working in the public sector?

Weaver: The people. Like anywhere else, there are challenges such as budgetary constraints and too few resources, but I get to work with some incredibly talented and driven people. It’s refreshing to see people working hard and striving to make a difference even when the wages may not be quite as high as they are in private industry. I’m surrounded by people who truly care about doing a good job.

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

Weaver: I tend to log on early so I have a few minutes to cruise online articles at the start of the day. I get information specific to the government sector from many avenues such as Gartner, Techwire, GovTech*, and TechRepublic. I also follow quite a few technology groups on LinkedIn and watch several business sites such as Forbes Inc. and Ted.com.

Techwire: What would you like the Techwire community to know about you personally — family, hobbies, passions?

Weaver: I don’t have one burning hobby that consumes my time, but I don’t sit still well, so my list of enjoyments is plentiful. My amazing husband and I have eight acres that he fancies his micro farm. He tends to his beehives and two big puppies, more commonly known as cows, while I focus on the huge flowerbed he built for me. Gray and drab is a state of being that I’m not interested in, so I surround myself with color. What better way than to have nature’s rainbow outside my window, while it feeds the bees and hummingbirds.

I love my home state and all it has to offer. For me, there is no better way to see it than on two wheels. My husband and I frequently take our motorcycles out to adventure through the beautiful mountains and national forests in our area. When it’s 103 degrees in the valley, it’s a perfect respite to go play on some curves while we cruise up to cooler weather at elevation.

When it comes to “passion,” my family will always be my heart and soul. I have a pile of grown children and the numbers are growing as they find their perfect one. When they were young, I showed them how fulfilling it is to serve others through volunteerism. Now that they’re all adulting, I get my “mom” fix by continuing to serve others in my local community. There is still so much good in the world if we just choose to see it. I love using my hands and time to bring a tiny bit of that to someone else.

*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.