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Techwire One-on-One: Incoming San Jose CIO on Pandemic, Partnering

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.

Khaled Tawfik is the incoming director of information technology and chief information officer at the city of San Jose; his first day will be Monday. He has been CIO at the city of Irvine for more than five years; Jim Bersig, Irvine’s IT administrator of more than three years, has been named interim CIO, a city representative told Techwire. In November, Irvine earned ninth place in its population category in the Center for Digital Government’s* annual Digital Cities Survey, having stood up a Transparency Portal offering visually presented information on a variety of city work, and created the ability for vendors to pay and track invoices online.

Techwire spoke with Tawfik late last month following news of his appointment March 29. A 20-year executive, he was chief of information technology at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works for nearly 16 years before joining Irvine in August 2016. Among Tawfik’s previous roles, as director of application development at Supply Access Inc. in El Segundo, the software engineering team he led helped create a business-to-business marketplace platform and supply chain management channel that standardized and tracked online procurement.

Khaled has a Master of Business Administration from the University of California, Irvine, and a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering from St. Mary’s University in Texas.

Techwire: Can you talk a bit about joining San Jose and building on the work of former CIO Rob Lloyd and his team?

Tawfik: We have a challenge with recruiting talent and building the team, that’s all of the challenge in any technology environment, especially in San Jose. That’s definitely one of the few things that I’m going to be doing, just making sure that we widen the net and attract the top talents in the country to come and join this great city. It’s not so easy to find somebody who is passionate about serving the community, that has the technical skill set and is willing to serve and to expand their role. That’s going to be one of the top priorities, that I want to invest in the team and (add) to the team and make sure that we continue to expand and to contribute. Two, I’m a big proponent of collaboration. I am really hoping that we can make San Jose not only the hub for technology, but the hub for government technology and the heart of development and innovation. I think there’s a lot that can be done to bring the project and its partnership and also to include other government agencies, so we can develop state-of-the-art innovative solutions that can be shared with other agencies, and we can learn with other agencies and kind of maximize the benefits. Because government, we do more or less the same thing whether it’s here, whether it’s in Arizona or New York, and it would be really beneficial to get the top minds to collaborate on how can we develop, really, a better solution that all of us can benefit from and we can pilot in San Jose and as we expand it, we give everybody a chance to make it like that. Similar concept to the open platform but it’s an “open government platform” where everybody can chip in and help ... . And there’s a lot of appetite in government and in the private (sector) to expand the current partnerships and see how we can facilitate more engagement and more innovation and, hopefully, more funding. To help both the private and the public sectors to get more for what we invest our time and money (in).

Techwire: What are your thoughts on joining such a tech-forward municipality?

Tawfik: That’s really what attracted me to San Jose: the culture, the leadership team, the mayor and the council. A lot of the questions that I got from the ... council really demonstrated how tech-savvy they are, how engaged they are in technology and how well they want to drive innovation in the city. And that’s really refreshing and music to my ears, the partnership that they have and the engagement and the deep understanding of how technology can really help. I’m looking forward for them to challenge me to do more, as they have been challenging (Deputy City Manager) Rob (Lloyd) and others. It’s absolutely something that really makes me excited about solving, and joining the city and doing great things with the team.

Techwire: Vision Zero is an area of interest; and the increase, in San Jose, in traffic fatalities and severe injuries is a great concern. Has Irvine, where you were most recently, faced similar issues and did innovative technologies assist that city in addressing them?

Tawfik: The numbers I’ve seen in San Jose seem to be climbing faster than others. A lot of cities are struggling with this issue but in San Jose, the numbers seem to be higher than other cities. But I think it’s a national issue that a lot of people are trying to tackle. And there’s a lot of discussions on different potential innovation ideas that I want to explore with the team and see how we can utilize technologies to better identify the challenging areas and how we can detect, prevent and inform — and educate the public of the risk and what we can do as a team to slow it down and hopefully, eventually, eliminate it completely. Technology can really help us detect, predict, inform; and our last resort, of course, is to enforce. But there, a lot of the prediction and information can really help us avoid the need to enforce ... .

Techwire: From Irvine, you leave a city that achieved a very smooth transition to remote work as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Your IT organization there must have been instrumental in that transition?

Tawfik: We were the first city in Orange County to work remotely. We had a city manager that identified — he had family in Italy, and he observed firsthand how (devasted) Italy was. Even before our nation realized the impact of COVID. So, he was one of the first people to say “we need to take this very seriously,” because he had a different perspective before everybody else. We were the first city overnight, within 24 hours, that the command was “everybody’s going to be working remotely” and fortunately, we had the vision and the strategic plan that we wanted to do cloud and we wanted to do mobile services. So, it was really pure planning and pure luck that our strategic plan was overlapping the needs to address COVID. It was just perfect timing for us that we were able to deploy the remote devices, the mobile devices, that ... all the mission-critical systems were accessed and maintained remotely within 24 hours. If COVID hit a year before we were able to get the key things that we wanted, we would have been in a very challenging situation. But fortunately, I would say maybe four months before COVID hit, we hit major milestones as part of our strategic plan to get us to cloud, to get us to upgrade our firewalls, to get us to really invest and prepare our workforce to work mobile. Mobility was the main thing. But we wanted to empower all our field crew and office crew with the ability to work in any conference room, the ability to work from any office and if we have to go and investigate or do any work in the field, that they have access to full resources. So it just — it was great for us. Being prepared and ready is the best prescription ... and we got lucky that we were able to ... hit all the milestones before COVID hit us two years ago.

Techwire: And on that path, the city increased its use of cloud services and completed its disaster recovery infrastructure?

Tawfik: As of late last year, we can fully recover in AWS (Amazon Web Services) cloud. We have the full ability. Really, COVID kind of woke us up; and for me personally, I don’t take things for granted, and COVID just kind of reminds us there are so many disasters. We live in an earthquake zone and a fire zone and there are so many things that could happen; and we need to really think and predict and expect the unexpected. And being in the cloud definitely gave us the capability and the flexibility not only to provide mobility and access to services and resources remotely but also to recover if we need to do that, in a heartbeat and hopefully minimize the impact on the public and support the first responders.

Techwire: Is the process of introducing cloud services ongoing or completed?

Tawfik: Our brand kind of shifted. We were trying to be more aggressive with the cloud and transition some of our services into the cloud. The security aspect of what we needed to do in COVID kind of shifted our priorities and kind of slowed us down as far as the migration to the cloud. But the fact is that we completed the infrastructure and we are ready and we’re moving, gradually, services that make sense to be moved into the cloud while maintaining a tight and secured connection to make sure everything is ready for that. That’s one of the things that we’re looking at, instead of using the standard firewalls, we’re looking at virtual enterprise firewalls so that anyone can really access different services virtually without having to bring all the traffic to our data center, to our firewall. Making our firewalls cloud-based will expand our capabilities and enhance the security connections to the city resources. That’s one of the things I wanted to complete before we expanded our cloud presence because security, like everybody else, is our biggest concern.

Techwire: You mentioned the data center and the positive impact on it. Is this related to the consolidation of services and resources and being able to reduce data center floor space and energy consumption by 70 percent?

Tawfik: When I joined (Irvine) about five years ago, we had about four data centers. One of the first things that I wanted to do was to reduce our costs — security and operations costs and energy costs. Systematically, we started to consolidate systems, applications, servers; and finally, we eliminated three of the four data centers we had, and we had one main one in the city. And we reduced the size physically of that data center by 70 percent. That was a construction project that we completed, and it was perfect during COVID because nobody was in the office, so it allowed us to do a lot of construction. That really translated into a more efficient operation, less cooling requirements and demand for equipment; and now, we feel this is the right time for us to start the migration, also in the cloud, and maintain the lean infrastructure that we have in the city.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.