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Techwire One-on-One: Fresno CIO on Team Building, Potential RFPs

“So, digital transformation for us — is digital services, basically, making sure your constituents have everything they need. They don’t have to drive down to City Hall for anything. They can do everything online. And we’ve come a long way as far as our department is concerned,” says Bryon Horn, chief information officer for the city of Fresno and director of its Information Services Department.

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Bryon Horn, Fresno CIO and IT director.
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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.

Bryon Horn is chief information officer for the city of Fresno and director of the city’s Information Services Department (ISD), a position he has held for more than five years. He is a veteran city employee who joined Fresno in July 2003 as CSD manager, a position he held for nearly three years before leaving in March 2006 to join Children’s Hospital Central California as its IT technical services manager. Horn subsequently rejoined Fresno in December 2006 as its CSD manager, a position he held for nearly nine additional years. He then served as assistant director for nine months before becoming CIO/ISD director. Horn had nearly a decade of IT leadership experience in the private sector before joining the public sector. He has been part of the Municipal Information Systems Association of California (MISAC) since 2009 and is a board member, having served as president and conference chair.

Horn has a bachelor of science degree in business administration/computer applications and systems analysis from California State University, Fresno, and a master’s in IT from Aspen University. He is also a licensed Project Management Professional by the Project Management Institute and a Certified Information Systems Security Professional by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium.

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?

Horn: My role basically is to set the strategic direction for the city as far as technology is concerned. Also, making sure we’ve got the proper resources to do the job. Which means making sure staff members have the proper tools and skills to perform the work as needed. My style of management is pretty much hands-off as much as possible. Empowerment — I want my team members to be able to do the job that they need to do. And if they can’t, then we’ve got to figure out what we need to get the job done. Setting the direction of technology in the city is basically what we should be doing, as far as making sure that operations keep working and we have a lot of up time. How has it changed? Well, we’ve done a lot of things that might not necessarily be called “IT.” For example, COVID — we’ve gotten involved in the rental applications, Save Our Small Businesses programs that give out grant funds for businesses that need help, and also the emergency rental assistance program. We have not only gotten involved in the development of the ... incoming apps for the constituents and the businesses but we’ve also had to be helping them with statistics, giving them advice on how to proceed. So, we actually get involved in the process, not just the technology. What I’ve seen in the past is, whereas IT has been “keep these servers running. Let’s make sure that everything is operational, that you’re secure,” now we’re actually being business partners, and making sure that we can get out there and help them with whatever they need, giving advice if possible and actually becoming part of the process and not just from a technology standpoint but a business perspective and a business standpoint. ... It’s not just making the data work for the city.

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

Horn: We had our strategic plan done a number of years ago. Next-Level IT came in and did it for us. I was intrinsically involved at that point in time as far as the strategic plan was concerned. Every step of the way, involved in all of the interviews that they did, involved in the final output. And currently, I still am involved because we have not had them look at it in a number of years, but we keep updating it ourselves. And so, I keep trying to make sure that it is up to date. And, with a new administration coming in, there’s ideas for different ways they want to run the place. I’ve had to make some minor adjustments to the plan to reflect those initiatives and those changes.

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?

Horn: A couple of big projects that are currently underway: our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system; we chose Tyler Technologies and we are currently in the middle of implementing it. That one, we just started, I believe at the end of last year, we started the process, and we plan on it being a two-year process to get everything up to speed. ... It is replacing not only our personnel applications but our financial applications, plus we’re going to move over to Tyler utility billing. Utility billing is going to be moving from our current system with CentralSquare Technologies ... . That, though, won’t start for another year. That one is underway. Another one that’s underway is, we have a $9.5 million replacement of our network, which is at the tail end and we’re working with Cisco. Right now, I expect it to be done within the next six months to a year. Those are the two things that are mainly on our radar right now. Besides the broadband coming up — you might see an RFP or an RFQ for broadband, because we are looking at the recovery funds. And we are looking to see where broadband fits in this area, so that’s one of the things that you’ll see coming up on our radar. Other than that, we’ve got a lot going on and we’re trying to finish what we’re doing now before undertaking anything more major. We’re also finishing up improvements on our radio towers for public safety. That’s another one that you might see in the next year. We are contemplating moving to 700 megahertz and so, that you might see in the next couple of years.

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?

Horn: I’ll tell you one thing, you’re never going to be finished. I don’t think there’s going to be any situation out there where we’re going to go “OK, stick a fork in it, we’re done.” It’s going to continue as long as there are needs and new technology and things to do. So, digital transformation for us — is digital services, basically, making sure your constituents have everything they need. They don’t have to drive down to City Hall for anything. They can do everything online. And we’ve come a long way as far as our department is concerned. I’ve got a mobile app development team that just knocks it out of the park. We’ve done mobile inspections — so ... code enforcement is out in the field doing inspections now, so we improved upon that as they wanted it improved upon. I told you about the emergency rental assistance program; we have a 5G reservation program for the carriers. So, digital transformation — putting services out there digitally so people can do it from afar and serving the constituents. And I also think that ... technologies as far as broadband and 5G are also part of that mix and we’re trying to make that happen as well. Fresno is a 5G city and it took us a while to get there, but that should give the residents also another avenue for technology.

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

Horn: Our department budget is $26 million. That’s mainly operational and projects. We have other reserve funds which are about $6 million, so we basically have $32 million set aside for IT operations. We have 71 staff members, which is not enough. It’s never enough. We have about 4,000 employees in the city of Fresno, and about 3,500 users, roughly. Overall budget for the city is $1.6 billion. It keeps going up every year. This year, it’s a little bit less because we had some COVID money that came in last year that affected our budget. We got about $5 million for COVID to help us get operations remote. So, our budget is a little different this year because of that.

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 funding enabled the city to purchase additional laptops for remote work, deploy digital signature capabilities and enable Zoom and hybrid meetings.

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?

Horn: I do my best to get back to everybody; I’ve got a lot of LinkedIn requests, and I look at them and I accept them, and I review them. And I try to get back to those that I think I would not be wasting their time. Fresno has got a lot of ... services that we are self-sufficient. And I’ve built the program. And usually when I want something or when I need something, I go and I seek it out. There have been a few cases where somebody’s contacted me and I’m like “Oh, my gosh, I need to see this.” And I do that, and Zencity was one of them, and we ended up purchasing Zencity. But LinkedIn is fine to get ahold of me. If you try calling me on my office phone, it’s kind of difficult. I do a lot of email but ... just know that I’ll try to get back to you as best I can.

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

Horn: One is building a successful team. I took over, what, about five years ago and the prior director did a good job, and the landscape has changed since she left. But over the years, I’ve built a team that people want to work for, that we get work done, that they seek us out first. And that’s what I want. I want the IT department — seek me first before you go outside to look for IT. Because nine times out of 10, I’ll be able to do it for you. And so, we’ve built a very successful team. That’s probably my greatest accomplishment. I have hired away talent from other departments because they want to work in our department. It’s kind of a family environment. I like a team environment, a family environment. I want you to respect me and I want your respect, so — I’ve got your back and I want to make sure if you do the job right, I want you to have work-life balance and, also, I want you to be able to enjoy what you do. A couple other accomplishments I can tell you about, we implemented 311. I implemented a call center several years ago, we finally turned it into 311 a couple years ago. We created a cybersecurity division, that’s one that’s brand new to us. I’ve got a division now of three people ... I’ve got a team behind those three people, but three people that are predominantly doing cybersecurity. So, it’s not just them, it’s everybody. And then implementation of 5G for us was one — making Fresno a 5G city after years of fighting and working with the carriers and looking at Senate Bill 649 and the FCC ruling and finally getting that ruling. That was an accomplishment for our city.

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

Horn: From a government perspective, cut the red tape. I understand why things are the way they are. I want to make sure government doesn’t get taken advantage of; there needs to be a competitive process. But I would like them to trust me to be able to do what I need to do to get the job done. So many times, we get held up for purchases and it delays projects, and that’s kind of hard to swallow. I understand the process. I understand the necessity of getting the best price for government ... . I would like them to trust me a little more. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

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

Horn: You guys have a lot of magazines out there. Techwire, I read. I look at the articles on LinkedIn and I pick the ones that I think are relevant to me. Harvard Business Review, I’ll read that for leadership. But it’s all over the place ... . It’s scattered. And I won’t read any one particular publication. If something catches my eye that I want to know about or I need to know about, or if I need to do some research, I’ll go out and do it and read about it. You also get a lot of information from your peers. Of course, you know, we belong to MISAC (the Municipal Information Systems Association of California), I’m on the board, so I do a lot with the peers. And vendors bring in solutions. It’s all over the place for me.

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

Horn: I’m not a huge reader. You won’t find me reading a lot. I read when I have to. For the job. I’m more active. I do weightlifting, so I’m actually right now doing some weightlifting to get myself back in shape. I want to get back on the tennis courts pretty soon, if I can. I’m an avid tennis player. It’s been a while since I’ve played. So, the majority of my time has been getting myself in shape and weightlifting. Hobbies? I like to do home improvement; I haven’t done that in a while but that’s one of the things, my wife and I like to change a room or install a floor or something like that.

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