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Techwire One-on-One: EMSA CIO on Value of Data, Analytics

Keson Khieu, chief information officer at the California Emergency Medical Services Authority, discusses the value of big data and data analytics as “a business differentiator for emergency medical services areas,” and the “organic” nature of digital transformation.

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.

Keson Khieu is chief information officer at the California Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA), the state agency that offers “leadership” in the development and implementation of emergency medical services systems around the state; sets training and scope of practice standards for EMS personnel; helps promote disaster medical preparedness in California; and helps support the state’s medical response in major disasters. EMSA’s 2020-2021 Fiscal Year budget is slightly more than $36.1 million. A 10-year state employee, Khieu has previously served as chief information security officer, project management office director and project manager. Before joining the state in 2010, Khieu worked in the private sector for 15 years, rising from engineering positions to senior program management at Fortune 500 companies.

Per his LinkedIn profile, Khieu is “a different kind of CIO: a servant leader who delivers technical solutions as business enablement and advantages.” He “runs large technical programs to enhance business competitiveness and to solve business issues” and is fluent in technical and business languages. In response to a LinkedIn post examining difficult tasks that must be accomplished to be a great leader, he wrote: “And you have to earn the right to lead, every day.”

In his spare time, according to his LinkedIn profile, Khieu, an adjunct professor at Sierra College, teaches business strategy and computer science and “enjoys reading and writing as well as giving presentations at industry events and colleges.” He was also a panelist in February at Government Technology magazine’s* 2020 Public Sector CIO Academy, discussing “If I Knew Then What I Know Now … ,” the idea of sharing one’s experience with one’s younger self — and what to ask when seeking guidance from veteran CIOs.

Khieu is a graduate of the state of California’s Information Security Leadership Academy (ISLA) and, among his licenses and certifications, has earned CompTIA Security+ and is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) from The International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ICS2). Among his degrees, he holds a master's in electrical and computer engineering, interconnected networks, from the University of California, Santa Barbara; and a Master of Business Administration from the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.

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?

Khieu: As the chief information officer at the California EMS Authority (EMSA), my role is to understand the missions of EMSA and to translate that understanding to actionable projects that enable and enhance the Authority’s capabilities to achieve those missions. Note that nowhere did I mention technology. To me, technology is a tool. In my opinion, a CIO has to utilize other tools, too, such as the ability to work with people, in order to educate and protect the information assets that EMSA has been entrusted with to carry out its missions.

I believe the role of the CIO in the state of California has gradually changed, from the chief of technology to becoming a critical part of an executive team where critical decisions are made to carry out the tasks placed in front of us, by both the state of California and the citizens of the state. In other words, the CIO is gradually accepted to be a member of the executive management team who is dedicated to serving the state of California.

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

Khieu: The question on “how big a role” is not applicable in my case. I believe in the value chain and that everyone in the organization plays an important role in the organization’s strategic plan. Like a watch, there are wheels of all sizes and they are all important in making the watch work. Having said that, I see myself as one link in the value chain of the organization; an important link — no different from any other important link. Specifically, I lead my team in contributing to EMSA’s strategic plan and articulate how EMSA's strategic plan impacts my team.

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?

Khieu: While I cannot discuss specific projects or RFPs, I can tell you that the value of big data and data analytics has been proven a business differentiator for emergency medical services areas in my eyes. Imagine that when a disaster happens, and people get hurt, vital information from the patients is available for the first responders. How many lives would that save? This is easier said than done because of data privacy. Moreover, data is everywhere, in many incompatible systems, in many “clouds.” Data aggregation and integration is yet another big hurdle. Recent advancements in the industry have been encouraging and I can tell you I am paying attention in this area.

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?

Khieu: Like the rest of the departments in the state of California, our “digital transformation” has been going on for a while now. One thing I must share is that like all types of transformation, the growth is organic, gradual and imperceptible. I would say that it is a journey without a destination because the destination we know today can change by tomorrow.

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?

Khieu: I prefer to think of vendors as partners. Like all partners, there is not one good or one bad way to contact each other. It’s all by chance, such as through meeting at a conference, an introduction from a friend, or a good article in the press. I am convinced that a good partner knows their product well, and knows their competitors’ products well, and has an interest in learning how to integrate their product into my environment. In my position, in order for a product to be accepted in our environment, it has to work well with all the solutions already existing in my environment — and fill the needs I have for as little overlapping functionalities with other solutions that are working for me as possible.

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

Khieu: I am very technical, having worked in all areas in engineering and business. Yet, my happiness is not technical. It comes from my team. My team is dedicated, energetic, and customer oriented. We often share that we don’t make anything, we don’t manufacture or invent anything. We are here for our customers. And I can tell you, without hesitation, my team is the source of my happiness.

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

Khieu: Perception! I’d bet you would not hear it from anyone else. The perception of IT procurement from our customers is what I am working hard every day to change. Please let me explain. I am working very hard to convince our customers that buying IT equipment is the easiest part. Maintaining the equipment, servicing the equipment, supporting the equipment and protecting the equipment are the hard parts that have a very significant cost that is often overlooked.

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

Khieu: I believe that reading helps me remain helpful to my organization and my team. To be fair, I do not want to name the specific sources I read. There are lots of sources such as news on the Web, newsletters, webinars, and even product introduction from key industry players.

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

Khieu: My “hobbies” — if I can call them that — are sharing information, tips and techniques. I have been teaching both technical and business courses for many years out of this love of sharing information, as well as motivating others, especially the next generation because they are the future!

*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.