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Techwire One-on-One: Corrections CIO on Rise of His Role, Tech’s Positive Potential

Russ Nichols, chief information officer and director of Enterprise Information Services at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, discusses how the role of CIO at his department has transformed to that of a business leader, and looks at tech's potential for positive change within the agency.

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.

Russ Nichols is chief information officer and director of Enterprise Information Services at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). He is also president of the Corrections Technology Association; and in 2018, was named a CIO of the Year by Government Technology magazine.*

Nichols has been CIO since January 2015; he was previously SOMS project manager/director from January 2010 to December 2014. His career at the state, however, began nearly 21 years ago, when he joined the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) as application services and customer services manager. Nichols, who holds a bachelor’s in computer science from California State University, Sacramento, served as technical project manager, MyCalPays, at the California State Controller’s Office following his work at CAL FIRE.

Among CDCR’s notable IT projects during his tenure is its deployment of Virtual Integrated Mobile Office (VIMO), which gives parole agents the flexibility and efficiency of working in the field. CDCR “cut over” in late 2019 to a new data host, following three major procurements designed to let the department take a more active role in its Strategic Offender Management System (SOMS), which standardizes and maintains offender information as well as risk and needs assessments, case management plans and other data. Following the procurements, CDCR has a SOMS hosting contract with Quest Media & Supplies Inc.; a SOMS operation and maintenance pact with Red River Technology LLC; a SOMS Offender Management Software Contract with Marquis Software Development Inc.; and an agreement with The HiPER Solutions Group (HSG) as an oversight vendor.

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?

Nichols: This is the most unique CIO (Chief Information Officer) role I can imagine (my official title is Director of Enterprise Information Services). We provide technology solutions that cover many lines of business in a highly secure and challenging environment. From systems for human resources, accounting, and other logistics management, to communications, emergency management, rehabilitation, education, security, systems control, entertainment, intelligence, and many more areas. I have the privilege of working with some amazing people to provide services to the state of California. When we do our jobs well, we make the state a safer place for all of us.

In recent years, the CIO has transitioned from the “chief technologist” to a fundamental participant in the executive management of any organization. No longer can CIOs rely on their technical abilities or engineering credentials. Instead, CIOs must now be business leaders who understand and appreciate the challenges of the organization, financials, and organizational management. The CIO must lead endeavors that go far beyond technology and take responsibility for the outcomes of the organization. While technology provides the catalyst, a CIO must provide the vision, guidance, the personal investment, and the passion to ensure organizational goals are met using the right technology for the situation.

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

Nichols: As a member of the CDCR cabinet, I directly participate in the planning and execution of the mandates and goals from the administration and/or the Legislature. We are tasked with implementing and executing these goals to ensure a safer California.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2020? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Nichols: The year 2020 has become a very different effort than we anticipated. With the impact of COVID-19 in our society, many of our planned efforts have been delayed or altered, but many new efforts have begun.

In the next year, we’ll continue to focus on the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals in the California prison system but with a new emphasis on social distancing and technology-enabled curriculum. Because of COVID-19, it’s likely any major procurements will be farther into the future, but we will be designing solutions to bolster our education, rehabilitation, and training programs.

We are working with the (California) Department of Technology to acquire a new communication mechanism for incarcerated individuals and their families. Because of COVID-19, CDCR suspended in-person visitation. Consequently, low-cost, easy-to-use communication platforms are paramount.

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?

Nichols: CDCR’s processes have long been labor intensive and paper-driven. In recent years, we introduced many systems to support prison operations that greatly increase efficiency, accuracy, and timeliness. Digital transformation of our organization, though, is not just about doing what we already do better; it’s about fundamentally transforming and improving the correctional environment. From connecting offenders to clinical providers using telemedicine, to offering virtual classroom environments, and electronic communication to families, we can use digital tools to fundamentally change the prison environment and to accomplish goals previously out of reach.

While we may finish moving existing processes to digital platforms, the digital transformation of prison will never be done. Our job is to continually find new and better ways to help CDCR staff rehabilitate incarcerated individuals and those on parole supervision in our communities. Technology will be the enabling force we bring to bear.

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

Nichols: Our CDCR IT team is roughly 630 employees and our annual IT budget is approximately $140 million. The overall CDCR budget is $13.4 billion.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via such social media as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Nichols: Each month, we conduct a vendor day. On those days, vendors present their ideas and services to IT executive managers and chiefs. The meetings allow us to learn about new products, services, and companies, and allow us to be efficient in our process of engaging the vendor community. Information about requesting time at a vendor day can be found on the CDCR website.

Before participating in a vendor day, we ask companies to review information – including our organization’s mission, priorities and operations – on our website. CDCR is a very complex organization with a significant role in public safety. When a company can understand our goals and explain how they can help achieve those goals, our time together can be much more informative and fruitful.

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

Nichols: I’ve been fortunate to work with strong leaders to introduce amazing changes in our correctional organization. The consistent theme in our efforts, though, is enabling our employees to undertake projects and services that were consistently considered too big or too tough for a state organization. I’m proud that our IT teams are too stubborn to give up and too dedicated to allow bureaucracy or “norms” to get in the way of doing the right thing.

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

Nichols: The procurement of IT products, services, and even monster-sized projects are simply to produce outcomes. Often, we spend a great deal of time positioning as vendor and consumer, focused more on the process and the ability to shift blame rather than ensuring we understand and commit to the outcome. If we could form better partnerships with a keen focus on the outcomes, and legitimately outline what time and investment is necessary to achieve the outcome, we would take a significant step forward.

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

Nichols: I read both Techwire and Government Technology magazine for information. I also subscribe to a number of services that alert me to new developments in both the technology and corrections professions; those often lead me to reading many varied Web publications. In addition, I participate as a board member of several corrections-focused technology organizations. In those capacities, I interact with people from many jurisdictions and many vendors who bring technology to law enforcement agencies.

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

Nichols: I love taking RV trips with my family to see the sights in California and across the nation. In addition, I’ve always been an aviation geek. I hold a private pilot’s license and I’ve restored a 1948 Stinson 108. I fly remote-controlled aircraft and participate in both precision aerobatics and racing competitions.

I don’t read as much as I used to, but I do listen to audio books regularly. While I range from professional development to history, my favorite books are mysteries.

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

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