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Techwire One-on-One: CTO Bailey-Crimmins Talks Life, Leadership

The newly appointed state chief technology officer opens up with Techwire about leadership, public service, her black belt in karate, and how she balances being a mentor with being a lifelong learner.

Liana Bailey-Crimmins has been the state’s chief technology officer and chief of the Office of Technology Services for about two months, and after 34 years in state government, including years in executive leadership as a chief information officer and chief information security officer, she calls herself “still a learner.” In an interview last week with Techwire, Bailey-Crimmins talked about her professional priorities and principles. In the second half of the conversation, she discusses some life-altering challenges she’s faced — and new ones she’s taking on.

Headshot of Liana Bailey-Crimmins.
Liana Bailey-Crimmins
Bailey-Crimmins said at the outset, “I’m a technologist who doesn’t focus on technology. I never forget that it’s about the business.”

A mentor and a student

“I see myself as a continual learner,” Bailey-Crimmins said several times in an hour-long interview. “No matter where we are in our career, there are always opportunities to learn. And I also make sure that I try to balance the left and right hemispheres of my brain.

“Being a technologist, we have a tendency to be very logical-thinking, data-driven. But I am also a painter; I paint in watercolor and oils. I’ve actually had showings and did Second Saturday when we had that. I’m also a martial artist — 12 years being a black belt — and you learn a lot about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. As a 5-foot-4 female, obviously I have challenges very different from many of my male counterparts, but you learn a lot about yourself, physically and mentally, when you go through those challenges.

“The other thing that motivates me, to get me out of bed and be a public servant over the last 30-plus years, is people who are making a difference. We say that, but that was actually put to a challenge for me three years ago. …

“I got the diagnosis — the C-diagnosis, the thing that we never want to hear. So as the chief health director, I had to get on a plane and fly to an important forum down in Palm Desert, and literally right before that, I had my PET scan. So I had my PET scan, went from the hospital to the airport, flew to Palm Desert, and I was surrounded by great people, a great event, a lot of positivity, and 30 minutes before I went on stage — I’m talking about health benefits and rates — my oncologist called and … I could have put it on hold and come back. But I was kind of in the space where you need to know, that’s in the back of your mind the whole time, so 30 minutes before my presentation, I find out: Stage 4. And it’s not only Stage 4; they gave me a 14 percent chance — not only to live, but to live five more years.

“When you get that type of diagnosis … with my martial arts training and everything, I was able to focus — but I also realized I was here to serve a bigger purpose than myself. And I got on that stage, and I gave the best presentation that I’ve ever given. … Through all my treatments and all my surgery, I only missed one board meeting. Work was a way for me to focus on something bigger than myself. I didn’t get to have a pity party. …

“As I was going through chemotherapy, I literally had to wear gloves to touch anything that was cold, to pull anything out of my refrigerator, because I had neuropathy, and if I breathed in cold air, I couldn’t breathe any longer. I had to actually go in a warm place and then I could breathe again. So they turned off the air conditioning in my [California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS)] office, so I had no air conditioning. And when I’m in the (CalPERS) board meeting and it’s a 100-degree day, and these board members are all up there, and if you see the dais, they’ve got these lights pointing at them, and it’s hot, there’s no air conditioning, and they’ve got super-duper lights on them, and I’m seeing them fanning themselves and glistening. I did my presentation, and I apologized for the air conditioning.

“Something that resonates with me is what they told me; ‘Liana, if this is what we can do for you, this is the least we can do.’ You don’t get that in every industry. It’s not all about the bottom line.

“I tell that story because it reminds you of what’s important in life and what can motivate us and keep us going. Any time we overcome a challenge, we’re better on the other side of it. When we’re in it, obviously, it’s a little bit different feeling. … I’m three years past that diagnosis, so I’m on the other side of this, so my story is not everyone else’s story. But sometimes we need to think about things outside of ourselves: ‘What is our purpose in life?’ And when you find that purpose, they say, you never work a day in your life. That’s why I do what I do, and I enjoy it.”

In addition to the fine arts, Bailey has a black belt in martial arts — specifically, American Kenpo karate.

“If someone’s going to assault me, it’s going to be at close range,” she said. “It’s not like I’m going to get in a bar fight. This really is for survival. If someone was to grab me at close range, I could overcome the fear to be able to defend myself.”

How has she, as a leader, tried to foster that self-confidence in her teams? She acknowledged that it’s been especially hard to come into a new leadership position when everyone’s working remotely.

“I’ve established a 15-minutes-a-week (virtual coffee chat), where anyone from my team can come and we can just talk about the weather, the latest in sports — just to be able to have casual conversations that aren’t necessarily work-related,” she said.

Leading while learning

“I would say I’m where I’m at because of mentors,” she said. “I’ve had people who have been really generous with their time to mentor me. I worked for Clark Kelso, and I see him as a renaissance leader. Think about it: He was a state CIO, he’s a law professor, and he’s a federal health receiver. Talk about very distinct roles! But it shows me that your leadership traverses your role. Clark’s been very much a mentor to me. … Paul Benedetto and Joe Panora — great leaders, and now they’ve retired (from the public sector), and now I’m on the other side of that where, at some point, I’ll be retiring, but it’s great that I’ve had that opportunity to see great people in action and get to model who I am as a leader by taking nuggets from their pearls of wisdom and influencing who I am today.

“This week, I actually had two people ask me to mentor them, and they’re not in my organization. One person is interested in going into management; another person is in management but wanted to know, ‘Am I interested in actually going and becoming a CIO or a chief deputy?’ Mentoring doesn’t have to be formal; it can be informal.”

Bailey-Crimmins noted that many of her peers are nearing or at the age of retirement, which means she needs to keep an eye on succession planning.

“We’re obviously promoting and recruiting from the private sector,” she said. “There are other individuals like Rick Klau who were very successful in the private sector, and because they want to give back to government and to society, they’re coming into public sector in the latter part of their careers. … You almost get the public-sector bug. It is a calling.

“I started with the state at 18, so 34 years — all my adult life — has been in the public sector. Everyone I know says you’ll know when it’s time (to retire). I’m not there yet; I’m 51, and I’m still young enough to enjoy contributing.”

‘Life will test you’

Bailey-Crimmins talks animatedly about having bounced back from her health challenges.

“Going through cancer, I didn’t have to worry about a health bill. I didn’t have to worry that I wasn’t going to get a paycheck. Being able to focus on my health was a weight off my shoulders. But I would sit in the chemo chair and look around, and that was not the case for everyone. St. Jude’s is a big thing for me because parents never have to worry about a bill. They can focus on their children getting better.

“I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 14 years old, and I went to Shriners Children’s Hospital in San Francisco for several years, so that’s another one; I’m all about giving back to Shriners. I have an appreciation for what we have; you never take that for granted. Life will test you all the way, for all the time we have on this Earth.”

Bailey-Crimmins points out proudly that her son is a 25-year-old Air Force lieutenant who’s about to be promoted to captain and earned a magna cum laude bioengineering degree in three years from the University of the Pacific.

“He came out (of college) and said, ‘Mom, I want to join the military.’ I was really surprised. It wasn’t like my husband or I was in the military, but he had a calling, and as a parent, I said: ‘It’s a career, it’s not a job, and are you sure this is what you want to do?’ … The other day, he said, ‘I can’t imagine doing anything else.’ As a parent, you know you’ve done your job when they’re getting that type of reward for what they’re doing — regardless of what that is. I’m very proud of him.”

Bailey-Crimmins offered some advice for women who aspire to a career in state leadership: “I would tell women — or anybody that’s interested — that leadership is not a title. It’s a capability and a characteristic. If leadership is something that you aspire to and love, and you want to influence change, there are definitely opportunities in management within the public sector.

“I also tell people management is not just a promotion; it’s an entirely different job. … It’s understanding that you’re not the top engineer anymore; the top engineers work for you. And our job is to know their strengths, their talent, and know when to bring which pieces together. … If you want to be a strategist, to focus on policy, to really have that larger impact, management definitely is the way to go. And I would recommend getting a mentor.

“Regardless if you’re male or female, public-sector leadership needs great people. People have paved the way for us; our job is to turn around and pave the way for others as we continue on our journey.

“I’m currently going back to school now,” Bailey-Crimmins said. “I’ve decided to get a degree in organizational leadership. I focused on computer science as I was going to Sac State, so again, my world has changed. I’m taking humanities courses, and philosophy and history. … People should go out and explore.”


Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.