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Techwire One-on-One: FI$Cal Director on Milestone, Future Needs

“I believe that FI$Cal will continue to push the envelope and lead the way for California government entities in the adoption and use of modern technologies, systems and practices,” says Miriam Ingenito, director of the Financial Information System for California.

Miriam Ingenito QA photo Disney.jpg
FI$Cal Director Miriam Ingenito manages a massive financial entity within state government, but in her off hours, she's an enthusiast for all things Disney.
As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT and cybersecurity leaders.
Miriam Barcellona Ingenito
Miriam Barcellona Ingenito
Miriam Ingenito is the director of the Financial Information System for California (FI$Cal), which began as a project and ultimately evolved into a statewide financial system to enable state government to perform budgeting, procurement, cash management and accounting functions transparently and efficiently. Ingenito is a veteran of state service, having worked as a committee consultant for the California state Senate; a fiscal and policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office; assistant secretary for Policy and Program Analysis for the California Natural Resources Agency; principal consultant for the state Senate’s Committee on Appropriations; deputy director for legislation for the California Department of Finance; deputy secretary for environmental policy for the California Environmental Protection Agency; chief deputy director for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control; and, since 2015, as director of FI$Cal.

Techwire: As the inaugural director of an $84 million department, born out of a $1 billion sprawling information technology project, how do you describe your role? How has the role changed in your six years at the helm?

Ingenito: I was originally tapped to lead this organization in completing the build of this massive IT project that would ultimately forever change the way California does its back-office books. In the early years, there was a large focus on change management, onboarding departments, and working with the four partners and control agencies, who sponsored this system. I spent untold hours meeting with the executives of not only the four partner agencies, but of those representing the 151 departments being told this system was their future. The initial focus for the FI$Cal system was the build of the control functions for the four control agency partners. Now that we have successfully deployed those functions, we have shifted our focus to improving the experience for approximately 15,000 end users transacting daily in our system. I want our end users to be able to do their jobs more efficiently and transparently. We have put customers at the forefront of what FI$Cal is and what it does. We are proactively engaging our customers for feedback on how we can improve our system and our services through design-led or customer-centric design sessions that we call “Imagine FI$Cal,” customer surveys, focus groups and bimonthly meetings where end users can engage and provide direct feedback to the FI$Cal leadership team.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing FI$Cal’s strategic plan?

Ingenito: It is my responsibility, as FI$Cal’s director, to provide a vision for the department. As a project, FI$Cal had a charter with a goal, but when we became a department in 2016, I believed it was important that we have a strategic plan to help set the framework for how we would move forward beyond project design, build and deployment. We have produced two strategic plans to date, with our latest having been published earlier this year. While I led our efforts, my entire executive and senior management team worked to outline our strategy, which includes the department’s shared mission, vision, values, goals and objectives, that will help FI$Cal stay relevant moving forward.

Techwire: FI$Cal reached a major milestone this summer: the final integration of the State Controller’s Office and State Treasurer’s Office into the system, ensuring the ability to generate the state’s key financial reports. Now that you’re moving into a “maintenance and operations” phase, how will FI$Cal’s purchasing and procurement change? What new opportunities does this present for tech vendors, consultants and contractors?

Ingenito: As we shift from “project” to operations and maintenance, our contracting needs will continue to evolve away from the primary work of a system integrator that helped to develop, deploy and operate our system, to having more strategic partnerships with the private sector to cover areas in which the state either doesn’t have the expertise or, in some cases, the ability to move as quickly as the private sector with respect to bringing in innovation. In the future, we anticipate we will be looking for strategic partnerships that will:

  • Help us continuously improve our system for our end users through the use of robotic process automation and artificial intelligence.
  • Help us on our journey to the cloud, which will free up state resources to work on application development instead of managing our infrastructure.
  • Help ensure that we have the most secure system.
  • Ensure we stay on the cutting edge of best practices.

Techwire: Since 2005 – the early days of what would become FI$Cal – technology has undergone seismic changes. In a world of cloud, remote work and a changing departmental mission, what’s your prediction for FI$Cal’s ongoing evolution?

Ingenito: I believe that FI$Cal will continue to push the envelope and lead the way for California government entities in the adoption and use of modern technologies, systems and practices. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused businesses everywhere to close their brick-and-mortar offices, we were able to successfully transition to remote work without missing a single day of service to our clients and the people of California. Now, FI$Cal is permanently teleworking. Our staff are acclimating to using hoteling and the reservation software we deployed for when they do need to be in the office. This has allowed us to lease 50 percent less space than we were just over a year ago. We are exploring the possibility of reducing our footprint even more, while at the same time bringing office space closer to employees’ homes, by having pod space in a few locations throughout the greater Sacramento area. Conceptually, these pod spaces will provide Wi-Fi, printer and copier services, and become supply distribution centers for our employees. We will continue to innovate and improve the customer experience, modernize statewide processes, and increase the information available on Open FI$Cal. A main goal of the implementation of FI$Cal has always been to better enable data-driven decisions. We currently have about 31 terabytes of production data, and we want to put it into the hands of the decision-makers. We are focusing our efforts on leveraging formats in which departments can access their data quickly and efficiently. Currently, we are utilizing Microsoft Power BI to empower departments with the data they can pull from the FI$Cal system.

Techwire: How many employees are in your IT organization? What’s FI$Cal’s annual budget, and roughly how much of that is allotted to IT?

Ingenito: With an annual budget of approximately $84 million, IT accounts for about 55 percent of our budget. This fiscal year, we have 318 positions and of those, 199 are IT classifications. This means 66 percent of our positions are performing work in the IT field for our department. These positions are spread across all of our business areas, so we find ourselves recruiting for job seekers who have technology backgrounds quite often.

Techwire: Have you had any transactions or contracts with vendors in the past year or so that were especially successful? Please elaborate.

Ingenito: Our success is in no small part due to the contributions of our partners in the private sector. There are far too many to list here, but I do want to mention one that contributed greatly to our success: our system integrator, Accenture. They were with us from the beginning. Their staff were fully integrated with our state staff and we were really one team with one goal, which we achieved this year with the final implementation of the project.

Techwire: How would you describe your leadership style when interacting with your team at FI$Cal?

Ingenito: I don’t know if there is a specific leadership style or mantra I follow, per se. I find it important to be direct and transparent, while always keeping an eye on the future. It is really important to me that staff feel that I am approachable, that communication is flowing and that we feel connected to one another, which is a bit more challenging now that we are teleworking. Shortly after we shifted to remote work, I started having half-hour “Coffee Talks.” The entire department is invited to virtually “stop by” every Friday morning so that we can casually talk shop, share ideas, and still share events, both big and small, in our personal lives. We have continued to hold our bimonthly all-staff meetings, which are now online. This is an opportunity for staff to hear from me what’s ahead for FI$Cal. I fundamentally believe that staff should understand why we are doing something. As we lay out our goals and objectives for the year, or as we give out assignments, people need to understand how they track to our mission, vision and goals. I encourage a supportive work environment and want all my employees to be productive and happy. We work hard at FI$Cal, oftentimes after hours and weekends, so I strongly support work/life balance and encourage staff to take time off to recharge when they can do so. Ultimately, I want every employee to know that we are all one big team that I often refer to as my FI$Cal family.

Techwire: Have you had, or do you have, a professional mentor? Are you a mentor?

Ingenito: Throughout my entire life, I have had people that I have admired and called upon for advice and counsel. I have had mentors from my church, my personal life, and of course professional mentors. There are two extraordinary women that stand out in my mind as having had a major influence in my career. Women who have paved the way and opened doors for other women such as myself. Those women are Mary Nichols and Debbie Raphael. I first met Mary when I was appointed to work for her at the California Natural Resources Agency in 1999, and I met Debbie Raphael in 2011 when I was appointed to work at the California Environmental Protection Agency while she was director at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Throughout my career, there weren’t very many people that I could relate to as a minority woman in leadership. I often, even to this day, find that I am the only female executive in a meeting, and the IT world is no exception. I found it helpful to have the support of someone that I could identify with and lean on for guidance, and I want to be that for others. As a result, I find that the people I mentor are often young women and minorities.

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

Ingenito: I think great strides have been made in terms of IT procurement. Cal eProcure, the state’s online marketplace, has improved the experience of businesses selling products and services to the state of California by giving businesses access to bidding and contracting resources in one location. In addition, California state government as a whole has made great progress in streamlining IT procurement, and I look forward to the California Department of Technology and the California Department of General Services continuing those efforts.

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

Ingenito: I read a lot of the white papers and articles from the e.Republic family of publications including Techwire and Government Technology. I also take part in technology conferences, both virtual and in person.

Techwire: Do you have any hobbies? Have you read any books recently that you might recommend?

Ingenito: I enjoy planning and going on vacations, especially anywhere Disney. Also, being half Italian, I love finding out new things about the culture, and I’m currently spending quite a bit of my free time refreshing my language skills in preparation for my mother-daughter trip I am taking with my girls next summer! I’ve also spent a lot of time with gardening projects since the start of COVID-19.

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