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Techwire One-on-One: Food and Ag AIO on Tech Projects, Procurement

“We have the technology road map, where we want to go, how we want to invest in the technology, how it will reduce our technical debt, how it will help improve and make some consistent business processes and programs. A lot of these things are part of the digital transformation aspect – but I need that culture change,” says Rob Peterson, agency information officer at the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

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 and cybersecurity leaders.

Rob Peterson is agency information officer for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), a position he has held since March after being acting AIO for roughly a year and a half. He was previously CDFA’s chief information officer for nearly five years. As a state department that is also a state Cabinet-level agency, CDFA has both an AIO and a CIO; in April, it mounted a recruitment for its next CIO. Peterson has been a state employee since joining the California Department of Technology (CDT) in March 2014 as a consultant targeting the “state’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ causes of project failures” according to his LinkedIn profile. A retired federal Department of Defense staffer, he spent well over a decade in the private sector, most recently as the owner of R.A. Peterson and Associates, before joining CDT.
Rob Peterson.
Rob Peterson

Peterson holds a bachelor of science degree in electrical and electronic engineering from Cal State Sacramento and a master of science degree in computer engineering from the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology. He has done all the coursework for his second master degree from Sac State in computer software engineering, according to LinkedIn and has only his thesis remaining to complete.

Techwire: As AIO of your organization, how do you describe your role; and how have the role and responsibilities of the AIO changed in recent years?

Peterson: CDFA is a little bit unique in that we’re a department and an agency. I have the more traditional AIO role in looking at the future and doing a lot of the future planning ... some of the big picture, long-term, ‘Five, 10 years down the road, where do we want to be?’ type things. But I’m also engaged in a lot of the day-to-day work. I recently hired a deputy of IT operations/CIO. He’s much more focused now on the internal operations and the day-to-day operations. And that allows me to sort of get back to start looking at the big picture. Enterprise architecture is trying to work with a lot of the customers at the divisions with CDFA, to try to fit their work on some of the road maps. CDFA has been a little bit unique – I say that from a perspective ... prior to being with the state, which I’ve been for seven years or so, I was a consultant for 17 years. And prior to that, I retired from the Department of Defense. ... We have something like 200 (boards and programs) small boards and a lot of them, those advisory boards control the funding and control what gets done, control ... what they want the program to do. And they may even vote to have a program abolished. And the state would be out of that business. ... While I can sit here and work with the divisions and convince them, I’ve got all these boards (to work with). ... We’re trying to work within the executive office to figure out ... how do we go forward and try to leverage some general fund seeding of technology and then have the individual programs join on?

Editor’s note: Since May 24th, Chris Cox has been CDFA’s new chief information officer and IT operations manager. A nearly 20-year CDFA staffer, he was most recently section chief in applications development services.

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

Peterson: The last strategic plan, one of my predecessors took the lead in writing it. I’m at the table (now). A lot of it is more of the business focus, but I use it, all the discussions that we have, to help build a technology road map. Because again, the strategic plan is ... looking up. Not today, (but) how we want to change, what we want to improve. I use that to help drive some of the technology road map, where we want to go from a technology standpoint to be able to support all these strategic initiatives.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Peterson: The one big initiative is for our animal health division. It’s called the Emerging Threats 2 system, the replacement of a legacy system that is used for animal health and food safety. But it really becomes critical any time we have any type of animal outbreak, disease outbreaks, especially. That is the source of all our information statewide, and right now we are wrapping up Stage Two; we’ll be submitting it. That’s going to be a very large project. We have close to 100 million records in there, 60 functional modules that make up the system, as well as mobile applications. ... I’m hoping that we can get the funding to develop the RFP and release it either later this year or early next year. That’s contingent on the funding to do the work. We have another big project that I’ve been having a lot of discussions with the vendor community on. It’s essentially a licensing and payment portal. It’s consolidating all of our licenses into essentially one system. Sort of like what BreEZe did for (the Department of Consumer Affairs). I worked that project for about three and a half years. But it’s a little bit smaller scope than what BreEZe tried to do. It’s a governor’s office initiative. We didn’t start this whole project; it was raised up by the governor’s office, and it’s in the budget right now. We’ll be releasing an RFO ... to perform the initial analysis because we have probably 50 or 60 legacy systems that all have licensing functionality. We need to understand the impacts if we take it out and put it into a common portal, what’s the impact on the organization and the business. That will be coming out probably within a month or two. It has a $2 million budget.

Editor’s note: CDFA’s current Emerging Threats system may be found here.

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?

Peterson: I don’t think it will ever be finished. ... It’s not just the technology or the data or the people. My biggest challenge right now is organizational change. We have a culture here of a lot of farmers that are in an executive position. We have a lot of ranchers who come in with their cowboy boots on and cowboy hats – trying to get them to embrace some better technology or more reliable data. It’s really an organizational change I’ve got to get them through before I can really get into much digital transformation. I need their support because, again, their programs are going to likely end up (with) me. They’re the voice, they’re the lead that speaks to the advisory board. ... I’ve got an enterprise architect that’s been working with me and we’re laying out a technology road map. To really support a lot of the digital transformation aspects, primarily technology and the business processes as well as getting rid of a lot of our technical debt, because we have tremendous technical debt. But our bigger challenge is organizational change, the cultural change. And that is where most of the effort is occurring right now. ... We have the technology road map, where we want to go, how we want to invest in the technology, how it will reduce our technical debt, how it will help improve and make some consistent business processes and programs. A lot of these things are part of the digital transformation aspect – but I need that culture change.

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

Peterson: As you’re aware, we have the CalCannabis program and they’re leaving. I’m not really counting them anymore. They’re part of the Department of Cannabis Control. But for my other staff, I have about 72 full-time positions as well as some part-time, retired annuitants and some others. My budget is a little different in that I have a budget that primarily pays for my staffing and my operating expenses and equipment type costs, and facilities, and our power – our lease space. Even though we’re in a state building, we have to pay for our square footage. That budget is around $9 million just for the people aspect. I have a separate funding line ... that pays for all of what’s considered enterprise costs – for all the servers, all the software licensing, all those types of things that are not necessarily people. That’s somewhere around $3 million. What’s interesting is IT pays, but then we invoice the divisions and cover the cost. ... We have language in the Food and Ag code that limits how much can be spent on essentially IT and other administrative functions. Departmentwide from the Food and Ag code, if we try to use any of those funds, we’re limited to 5 percent. That pays for HR ... labor relations, executive offices, that pays for all of IT. Everything has to be ... 5 percent. The only way we can work around that is by billing the divisions, so it will be a direct bill to them and that is considered allowable under the Food and Ag code. We’re a 100-year-old organization, and so we have a lot of legacy code that a lot of other departments don’t have.

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?

Peterson: Pretty much any communication channel. I do have a LinkedIn account. Obviously, I get blasted with emails from lots of vendors. As well as phone calls. A lot of times I’m busy and I feel guilty about not being able to answer them, that’s why email typically works better. I’m very picky about not being a black hole and so I try to respond back. I don’t mind any way they want to contact me. One of the things vendors do need to do before they start talking to you is, they need to do some research. I spent 17 years as a private consultant mostly dealing with the state. I would go out and I would go hit the department website and read what BCPs (budget change proposals) they have out. Maybe hit Cal eProcure – back then it was the Contract Register. Check with now CDT, but back then it might have been (Department of IT) DoIT. They need to do a little bit of homework. Obviously, I get a lot of emails with security stuff, and I understand a lot of that is hot out there. I understand that some of those people don’t have as much background, but I also get a lot of things from people who want to build solutions for us and it has nothing to do with anything that’s in the budget or that we’re doing. It’s just more open-end sales, not focused on anything, more generic.

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

Peterson: Again, an initiative that I started several years ago was, we still had our data center at 1220 N St., headquarters. So, I was able to get essentially a BCP funded, and we are moving all of our data center and services to Gold Camp. During our transition, we are upgrading because we had systems in our legacy data center ... some of the stuff, critical components, were built in 1998, 1999. And they only had a 10-year lifespan. And we were still using them as late as last year. So, I’m doing a whole technology refresh, I’m doing the ... data center architecture. I actually was able to recruit an infrastructure or data center architect from NBCUniversal. He provided a tremendous amount of value. We’re implementing all the processes to keep it up, keep it current. To detect any patches that aren’t applied, anything that’s not what we consider a real strong production infrastructure to build upon. And now, we’re starting to move our applications over there. That gives us a whole new infrastructure for all of CDFA. We just shifted all of our VPN over to a brand-new Palo Alto Networks server there; we’re moving all our files over there. Performance will go up, security goes up, everything is improved; it’s all built on a new architecture. To me, that’s a major accomplishment. We are in production now. We have around 300 custom-built applications and some of them will have to be modified to move over there.

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

Peterson: One of first jobs after I retired from the federal government was working for the (Department of General Services) Procurement Division. I got very involved in all of the processes for the Procurement Division, and then I was heavily involved with the state technology procurement division when it stood up ... . From my perspective, the more you know about procurement, the easier it is to work with it. In the past, especially from an IT projects perspective, there were a lot of very closed doors, very closed minds. In the federal world I had a lot more options than I did ... when I first started with the state. However, with the governor’s initiatives for the new procurement processes, the (request for innovative ideas) RFI2-type processes, and really challenging a lot of the procurement, I have found that (entities) are a lot more willing to work with us to find a common solution. I don’t have a whole lot of issues with the procurement process. Probably because I know it, and if I had a problem, I’d call somebody, and we’d sit there and negotiate it, and try to resolve something that’s in the state’s interest and works for CDFA. But I understand – during my 17 years, I was heavily involved in procurement for, like the ... old health and welfare data center and projects like that. Back then it was very difficult. To me, it’s lightened up quite a bit. It’s more responsive. I don’t have as many issues with it.

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

Peterson: Again, I still read and still get a lot of federal information, federal magazines; I was ... part of the Department of Defense acquisition core, which was separately established by Congress and only had a limited number of people. But I enjoy talking to people (at in-person events). Hopefully we can get back to it. I enjoy talking to them and trying to get ideas. I like to hear more of their process and how they did it and how they get things developed, probably more than the technology.

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

Peterson: As I mentioned, I’m very technical. I have students in federal universities that are working on their doctorates and I’m an adviser for them, and so I read a lot of dissertations. I help edit dissertations. I still get a lot of information from ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) on technology reports. Much more leading edge. Some of that stuff won’t hit the private sector for 20 to 30 years. Some stuff that I developed back in 1990 still hasn’t been released to the private sector. My enjoyment is more of that ... people would call it bleeding-edge technology. I enjoy reading that, plus I do a lot of gardening and stuff like that around the house.

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