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Techwire One-on-One: San Bernardino County CIO on Modernization, COVID Response

“For the county, digital transformation represents the strategic position of integrating innovative technologies and approaches across the organization to modernize IT and improve the end-user experience, which improves the services provided to the public,” says Larry Ainsworth, chief information officer for San Bernardino County.

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.

Headshot of San Bernardino County CIO Larry Ainsworth.
Larry Ainsworth, chief information officer for San Bernardino County.
Larry Ainsworth is chief information officer for San Bernardino County, a position he has held since April 2020, replacing CIO Jennifer Hilber as the technology leader of the largest county by land area in the contiguous United States. The technology leader, whose county career dates to 1987, was the county’s assistant CIO when he was named interim CIO in August 2019.

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?

Ainsworth: As the CIO, I am responsible for managing the Innovation and Technology Department (ITD) that provides oversight, direction and support for all levels of enterprise technologies utilized by county personnel. For the county, the CIO’s role has shifted from an operational posture of implementing, maintaining and supporting traditional systems and infrastructures, to a strategic direction focusing on innovative and transformational technologies that can quickly and securely meet customers’ dynamic business needs.

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

Ainsworth: The CIO is a critical participant in the development of the department’s strategic plan. As CIO, I use information gathered from direct communication with county management to lead the process of crafting the department’s strategic plan, which directly supports the county’s business goals, objectives and priorities. In developing the plan for ITD, I evaluate the department’s current position and set the vision and direction that is then used by ITD’s division chiefs to define the tactics needed to achieve that direction. ITD’s strategic direction is then used as part of the county’s strategic plan.

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?

Ainsworth: The county and ITD are focusing attention on two key aspects of modernization. The first is the replacement of legacy business systems and infrastructures with new technologies that are not reliant on classic skill sets that are increasingly difficult to replace. The second is the progressive transition to modern technologies, such as mobile device access to services, GIS and data analytics, that will help the county better provide services to the public and give management the ability to make informed data-driven decisions. Migrating systems, infrastructures and support to the cloud is also a key strategic direction as well as the overall security of both legacy and modern solutions. Together, all these efforts will help the county rapidly deliver solutions by leveraging innovative new technologies and service models. Throughout the year, the county will release RFPs that are a reflection of these types of efforts and directions.

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?

Ainsworth: Digital transformation is never finished. For the county, digital transformation represents the strategic position of integrating innovative technologies and approaches across the organization to modernize IT and improve the end-user experience, which improves the services provided to the public. In recent years we have had moderate implementations and adoptions of innovative technologies, with a key to our success being close coordination with departments and carefully managing expectations. Technology will continue to evolve, thus driving business to change with it, which is why digital transformation should be approached as a strategic direction as there should never be an expectation of being finished.

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

Ainsworth: As the largest county in the contiguous states by area, the county of San Bernardino has technology personnel stationed within its many departments and across its more than 20,000 square miles. In the unique position of providing enterprise services and overall technology and security leadership to 45 county departments, ITD has 365 budgeted positions and an IT budget of approximately $110 million.

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?

Ainsworth: When connecting with vendors, I do not have one preferred method of communication over another. I try to leverage all forms of communication from traditional to innovative. My expectations when meeting or communicating with any vendor is that they come fully prepared to present a complete description of their product or service. Rather than review the county’s IT initiatives, goals or objectives, we prefer the vendor simply go through their presentation and my staff and I will determine how their offerings will best integrate with our infrastructure or services.

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

Ainsworth: ITD’s response to the COVID-19 crisis this past year and our ability to meet and address the technical challenges presented during this pandemic is probably what I am most proud of. During this time, we have been able to keep our workforce safe while also developing numerous applications and innovative technology solutions on a shortened timeline, such as establishing new software to manage COVID-related efforts within the county. This required us to rapidly implement new infrastructures within days, which regularly would have taken months, while at the same time keeping the county infrastructure and personnel secure.

Challenges met:

  • Telework – Provided the county with the capacity to enable approximately 15,000 county workers to telecommute.
  • Business Continuity Program – Developed a solution to respond to the needs of the business community as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The county of San Bernardino deployed an economic recovery portal that provided financial assistance to small businesses within the county.
  • Virtualized Election Command Center – Deployed a virtualized election command center and provided key IT support staff with “real-time” access to dynamic dashboards to monitor system performance, security posture, and network usage while providing a safe, socially distanced work site.
  • First Responder Safety – Designed and rapidly deployed applications to track and monitor the health and safety of first responders.
  • COVID-19 Vaccine Registration Portal – Deployed the COVID-19 vaccine registration portal, which provides the public with up-to-date vaccine information, guidelines, and registration capabilities.
  • The rapid adoption and deployment of COVID-related technologies.

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

Ainsworth: IT purchases in government are often slow due to review and negotiation of terms and conditions as well as end-user license agreements (EULAs). It would benefit all parties if IT providers had a streamlined process with terms and conditions for purchase that are specific to government purchasing rules and regulations. This would provide a vehicle for expediting procurement of technologies and potentially minimize the costly time spent on future compliance audits.

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

Ainsworth: More broadly and including developments in the gov tech/SLED sector, the resources I tap into to stay informed include:

  • Researching and meeting with Gartner.
  • Meeting with key technology partners to discuss product and service road maps for upcoming IT solutions.
  • Attending conferences.
  • Collaborating with IT peers in state, local, tribal and territorial government entities.
  • Maintaining memberships in government IT and cybersecurity associations.
  • Reading trade journals and related publications.
  • Browsing favorite technical websites.
  • Following changes in state and local mandates.
Techwire: What are your hobbies, and what do you enjoy reading?

Ainsworth: I have adopted three ex-racing greyhounds, all of whom bring me great joy but are needy and require quite a bit of my attention. I recommend this highly fulfilling challenge for those who are interested. My other hobby is tending to my succulent garden. I am attracted to succulents because I find these plants visually appealing and difficult to kill. The majority of my reading time is consumed by the aforementioned technology-focused publications, so in my downtime I tend to favor short articles that have nothing to do with technical topics.

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