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Techwire One-on-One: Corona CIO on Cloud Work, Upcoming Projects

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.

Chris McMasters is the inaugural chief information officer at the city of Corona, a position he has had since April 2016. Prior to his arrival, the role existed as more of an IT director function and wasn’t a C-level post. Before joining Corona, McMasters spent about 18 years in the private sector with Honeyville Inc.: more than 14 years as its director of information systems and nearly four years as its vice president/chief information officer.

Under McMasters’ IT leadership, Corona has migrated nearly all its infrastructure to the cloud and bonded its Internet connection into four distinct data centers, bolstering failover – and earning the city a first-place win in its population category in the Center for Digital Government’s* 2021 Digital Cities Survey. Corona placed sixth in its category in the 2019 and 2020 editions of the survey.

In his spare time, McMasters enjoys reading the classics. Although he studied computer systems networking and telecommunications at Riverside City College, he majored in English literature at the University of California, Riverside. Among his many professional certifications, he is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

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?

McMasters: I’m the CIO, the chief information officer. When I first got to the city, there was not a CIO, so it was a position that was created when I came in. ... There were some city CIOs, a lot were still called directors; some were called IT managers where there’s sort of a broad swath of it. ... Really, to me, the CIO position is a strategic position, primarily, over fundamentally operational IT positions. In cities, I think that’s been kind of the big change, and for Corona in particular, is thinking about technology strategically versus just about back office, operations types of things. I can’t say that this shift is easy for government but it’s a different way to use technology and they’re having to think outside the box in how they do that. And ... to add individuals who, I think, have that mindset of using technology strategically throughout the organization to complete their vision. ... It’s not without pushback sometimes. A lot of things in government, I find, are very siloed, and you need an organization to look at it through an enterprise lens and leverage technology across an organization, versus a siloed portion of the organization. But where we’re at today is light-years from where we were when I first started. There’s a lot more confidence, there’s a lot more appreciation, there’s a lot more understanding of the role that I play versus when I first started you were always having to educate.

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

McMasters: I do a lot. It’s everything from the framework of what drives it, meaning the underlying software that we use for metrics and analytics, reaching goals and milestones, things like that, to, philosophically, what we’re after and what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes, you’ll see IT departments that answer under finance, that answer under administrative services or some other arm of it. I think the nice thing about Corona is, once we started this process of using IT strategically, I report directly to the city manager. ... And so, because of that, I get to play a fundamental role in everything the organization does; I have my finger in lots of different pots. And it’s very advantageous. We’re able to accomplish lots of things across the organization and leverage technology across it versus, like I said, (being) sort of siloed.

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?

McMasters: We just came out of doing a lot of desktop virtualization in the cloud ... a lot of analytic work that we’ve done. So, right now, we’re sort of completing the loop. I think for us EDMS is going to be a big issue, so how we do electronic document management and leverage cloud technologies to accomplish that kind of function? And ... smartly search through information in our organization to get it in the right hands as quickly as possible to make decisions. Another big one would be next-generation 411. We have chatbots, we have some of these other things and it’s really just integrating all of that together to make a smarter system than is usually done. We have some things in the works, some outside of that. We actually have a big project that’s about to go into RFP here in just a few weeks, which is to business process map the entire organization from the top down. Which is not something you see in government, normally, in the private sector we do that a lot. Here, what we’re really trying to understand is ... our inefficiencies which are related not only to technology but ... sometimes it’s just procedural things that we duplicate across the board. So, what things are procedures, what things are policies that we can change and where is the technology gap? ... That’s going to be a very big project, and we’re doing it across all parts of the organization. And then probably the other big one is really ... ERP (enterprise resource planning). The city has been probably on the same system for almost 30 years, we’ve got a lot of mileage out of it, but we’re a lot different organization than we were 30 years ago. So, we’re really looking more toward a Tier 1-type system, something that automates a lot more things for the city, creates more efficiencies.

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?

McMasters: I define digital transformation simply as leveraging technology products to drive change in an organization. I think every technology project that we do has the opportunity for us to reimagine how we do things. ... I always say that unfortunately, a lot of times government is in the business of making faster caterpillars, right? We like things exactly the same, we just want them to go faster. What I like to say is what we really want to be doing is making butterflies. We want to reimagine how this thing should look and how we interact and revamp it versus just making it quicker. ... Technology ... changes so often and so much, so you’re never bored. To that, I would say, I don’t think there is an end necessarily, to what we’re doing. I think this is always going to be ... sort of circular in a lot of ways. We keep coming back to it, and I like that. For some people, they don’t like that because there’s no end.

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

McMasters: The overall city budget is $320 million. My current budget is about $9 million. And full-time employees ... I think is about 26.

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?

McMasters: That’s a hard one because I probably get on average about 300 emails a day. And a lot of them, I would say 90 percent, are a solicitation of some form or another. I would say probably the best way for me is usually actually email. It’s the least disruptive and it’s something where I can think about it before I send it. LinkedIn sometimes works; I do connect with people but I’m very selective now. ... For vendors, I think the ones that I connect with, it’s mostly based upon have they done their homework. I’m most appreciative when vendors come back to me and say ‘Hey, I was looking at your stuff and we seem to be a good fit because of these reasons. Is this something we could talk about?’

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

McMasters: Probably the biggest thing is my team. When I came into this space, the city manager at the time basically told me, ‘Hey, this is sort of broken and you’re probably going to have to fire everyone.’ ... And I found that people were pretty beat up. Where IT stood at the time, it was very much the red-headed stepchild of the organization and there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm by anyone. ... And on the flip side of that, we had an organization who was very upset with IT, who felt that IT didn’t get the job done, that we were the department of ‘No’ and ‘We cannot’ and ‘We don’t have the capacity.’ ... Five years later, all of those original people, I didn’t fire a single one. And they turned out to be wonderful employees. We retrained; we did a lot of that. We did a lot of education with vendors ... when we were doing our digital transformation-type projects. And we made sure that the knowledge transfer was there so the employees had the opportunity to grow and become these things, become valuable in the organization. And it was just a 180. I have very happy people; we’re able to produce because of that. And the attitude about IT across the organization has changed as well. ... I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying for CIOs than having a wonderful team that grows.

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

McMasters: My big thing is, we pilot lots to get the metrics of the data, to make sure it’s a good fit and to prove it out before we purchase. But really taking that and building that into a direct purchase – that’s where I’m trying to get, so that we can cut a lot of the red tape because we’ve done the work with the vendor. ... I know the state of California is trying the same thing. ... That’s really where I’m trying to get with the city is that we have more of a culture of ‘Let’s pilot it first.’ But once we pilot it, let’s buy it right away once we know.

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

McMasters: All kinds of things. I think for me maybe a little bit of what’s different is, I look at both government publications ¯ like Techwire, Government Technology* and places like that – but I also look at the private-sector side of it, so more like CIO magazine, Computerworld, those types of things. ... And then the other big way is probably conferences. I attend probably way more conferences than most CIOs for a bunch of different reasons. One is, you get to see what vendors are doing; a lot of times, they’re showing off the latest and greatest and even though it might not apply to government today, it will apply to government tomorrow. And then also a lot of networking occurs there whether it’s just other CIOs or executives, you get to see what other people are doing. Through that I’ve made a lot of friends.

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

McMasters: I think the thing that people don’t understand a lot of times, with CIOs, is it’s never off. Because organizations run 24/7, and guess what? Technology runs 24/7. And when there’s a problem, especially with a national organization, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, it doesn’t matter if you’re on holiday, it doesn’t matter if it’s your wedding anniversary or your kid’s birthday. It’s a very consuming job. We’re a full-service city, so you’re running 911 operations, you’re running police, fire, utilities throughout, so it never really stops. But what I did find is ... it’s not about your career, it’s about the people you care about, and it’s about your family. So, I would say that in the last, particularly five years, when I joined the government, I made a conscious effort just to make sure I was spending the time with my family, every moment that I could have with them. Kids grow up so quickly and they’re out of the house in a minute. I’m lucky because I feel like I caught it in time where before my first son went off to college, I still had time to spend with him and be there for him and be his dad. That would be my hobby. ... It’s just whatever interests they have, and I want to be a part of their life. As far as books, I’m a bit different as a CIO as well. I majored in college in English literature; I didn’t major in computer science. That actually came after. So, for being more of a traditionalist in that sense, I like Hemingway, I like Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” I like a lot of J.D. Salinger. I love classic literature in that sense and I love revisiting it because I think you learn more every time you read it again. Finding the time to read – that’s a little bit tougher.

*Government Technology magazine and the Center for Digital Government are part of e.Republic, which also produces Techwire.

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