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Techwire One-on-One: Water Resources Deputy CIO on Teamwork, Digitization

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Kevin See is deputy chief information officer at the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), a position he has held since August 2016. He was previously director of enterprise infrastructure at DWR, and before that, was chief information officer at the California Department of Conservation for more than eight years of a nearly 10-year interval at that entity. See’s state career spans approximately 18 years – punctuated by more than five years as principal consultant for the National Council on Teachers’ Retirement – and also includes more than six years at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, where his roles included project director and director of web development.

See’s education includes a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Sacramento, and studies in project management at Boston University and project management – information technology at The George Washington University.

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

See: I joined the department about six years ago now and my role has really shifted from when I first joined the department to now. I joined the department actually to oversee our infrastructure areas which includes our data center, all of our servers, data virtualization, storage. And I shifted to that role, to the deputy CIO role overseeing service delivery side of the house. This includes everything from enterprise data services, our applications, our ERP, our digital service and platform solutions, our digital transformation initiatives. The role kind of shifted because I do have to wear multiple hats, being the agency that I worked for and being who I worked for, Tim (Garza), he actually serves both roles, both as the departmental CIO and also the agency CIO for the California Natural Resources Agency. And so, our role kind of shifts in terms of, we really become a service provider; we are a service provider of technology capabilities, capacities, services and solutions to the entire agency. I am with the Department of Water Resources but we ... align the whole agency, comprising all the departments within the agency. That’s kind of a unique role in government, I think, for many agencies where the IT workforce ... kind of serves both aspects. In a sense, what he does, we all do it, too. Serving in my role, where when we look at solutions, we look at not just for the Department of Water Resources, but agencywide to see how we can maximize resources and build those solutions across the board. It made sense that my role, as I started, really shifted, going from DCIO at times to where I become a project director at times when I need to, or be, really, that change agent ... in terms of just how things have evolved post-COVID, pre-COVID and so on and so forth. It’s a very exciting time for all of us in the department and also within the agency to be able to really drive some of those changes home, and I think the change has really accelerated, due to the pandemic. That kind of pushes us into that arena at a much faster velocity and it’s actually a lot of fun. I think I have, really, a fun role in the department, because I get to implement things. I get to make things, see things work, and I think that’s really fun, to be able to think strategically, but then you can tactically implement those strategic objectives. And just working with the business, I really enjoy what I do because I get to interface a lot with our business customers. It’s a very exciting time because, you know, we always think about being a service provider – how do we help enable the business, how do we build capacity, how do we move capabilities, all those things where it’s not just one mission, but multiple missions across the agency. And how do we bring technology that can be shared and leveraged across, and so that’s really exciting. And my job allows me to actually be able to implement some of those ideas, and actually see it go into production, go live, that kind of deal. To me that’s the most fun part of the job. Not to talk about technology but to be able to implement technology and actually see it work is really, I think, what makes my day.

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

See: I work very closely in part with our leadership, both with Tim and also our counterparts. We did a strategic planning before the pandemic, where we gathered all the leadership of IT, the organization, and we really worked hand in hand in terms of ... seeing what works, what doesn’t work and seeing what’s ahead. And we’re able to navigate through those ‘What ifs,’ as ... we kind of think two to three years out – and we may be thinking five years out but typically about three years out – and being able to ... align that with the various departmental strategic plans and different goals that are coming down the pipeline. It goes back to our fundamental principle of really being that service provider, bringing that capacity and capabilities. And a lot of times, we have to build the capacity and capabilities ahead before, maybe, even the need arises. I think a clear indication of that is, who knew back in March of 2020 when the entire state shut down, when ... the Department of Water Resources went from 100 some-odd teleworkers to all of a sudden, 2,000, 3,000 overnight. Now, how do we transition that? A lot of times, part of our planning is, how do we enable that way in advance? If we thought of that back in March of 2020, we were behind the eight-ball obviously. But we put (in) a lot of technologies and capacities and that allowed us to transition our workers remotely, whether we fully adopted our e-signature initiative where the entire agency is on e-signature. We adopted that principle probably two years, three years before the actual pandemic hit. And so, when we had that, it accelerated it obviously, but we were leading on the line of having the capacity and capability available. So that when it was needed, it was there. It’s really a joint effort. Really working very closely with our leadership to build our plan up.

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

See: So, we’ve been on a digital journey for the last few years. Our next ... six to 12 months, one of the things that we are doing is, we are doing a full digital onboarding process where we are going to digitize everything from the first day where we extend a job offer to an employee, to have that full digital experience. And I think when we look at onboarding, we look at it from a perspective of all the transactions and all the things you’ve got to fill out, all the forms you’ve got to do. The other big aspect is the experience, the culture that we want to expose our employees to. We are looking to launch our new digital onboarding experience. We call it an experience; it’s not just a process. It’s the experience of bringing our employees into the organization. That’s in the works. We have a number of applications that are legacy, where it's time to upgrade, so those things are in the pipeline in terms of a legacy modernization. And constantly, the evolving of the digital transformation pieces. About three years ago we did kind of an (assessment) in terms of the kinds of business processes that we have, the various things that we want to digitize, the improvements that we can make. And we actually had a road map in terms of what those are, and those have been in play for the last couple of years, and we’ll continue that process. The agency finished moving to our new headquarters building at P Street; we moved our data center into our operations center. That’s completed. Everything we do really aligns back to creating that digital enterprise.

Techwire: What term or phrase do you use to refer to what many call “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process and how will you know when it's finished?

See: To me, digital transformation is not really necessarily about technology. It’s a fact that digitization allows us as organizations to optimize our business, to be more efficient and more effective. You’ve heard the phrase ‘Do more with less.’ I actually don’t believe that, because you really can’t do more with less. But you can do more by being more efficient and more effective. Reusing our resources; rebranding ... and digital transformation allows us to do that, but it’s not necessarily just focusing on technology. To me, if I could sum it up in two words, it’s about embracing temporary disruption. That’s what it really is. We’re making a change; it’s a disruption; it’s temporary. Temporary becomes the norm of how we do the business. And so, we have hundreds of processes that we look at and go, ‘You know what? Maybe we don’t need to digitize it. Maybe we just need to get rid of it because it no longer is necessary.’ It’s not really all about one to one in terms of digital transformation, in terms of ‘Let’s digitize a manual process.’ No. Let’s look at that process and go, ‘Why do we have this again? Can it be combined? Can it be revised? Can it be altered?’ And then, looking at those things through that lens really opens up the eyes in terms of, maybe it could be as simple as get rid of it or combine it or do we need this? I remember when we were going through our e-signature initiative. The only reason why we needed a signature on a form was to signify that you saw something, you agreed to something. ... We’re not looking at all the things that we’ve done in the past, but really, reimagining how we can do things in the future. And really, allowing that shift to happen. In a fashion where it’s ... not only by a customer receiving it, but for us doing it. Are we really ever done? I don’t think we’re really ever done. Because once you digitize something in two years, two months, things can change again. We’re constantly improving. And I think in our journey, where we’re doing the right thing is, you have checkpoints. You have those mini-wins like ‘You know what? We’re able to execute a contract in less than 60 seconds. Before, it took us two weeks to send the contract back and forth.’ It’s simple things like ... all our contracts are now done electronically. Let’s not lose sight of the people part of the three – people, process and technology. The people are really the key to reimagining, because that’s what we do it for.

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

See: Our budget kind of fluctuates, and I don’t have exact numbers, but in terms of our staffing, we run a pretty lean shop. We’re 200 or so employees and that covers the Department of Water Resources, obviously, because of the roles that we’re in, (but) it also covers the (Natural) Resources Agency in terms of technology services, our data center services across the board. So, it’s a fairly lean organization in terms of structure. It’s set up that way on purpose, where we don’t have a lot of structure in between, say, my senior architects and the CIO, as an example. A pretty flat organization and that really gives us that agility to shift very quickly, to be able to course correct and make changes, and it really has served us well. We’re doing more with less, but we’re doing more with less by being more efficient. Where we have to really repurpose and reuse what we have and reshift a lot of our technology stack and our people and retrain. We’re able to do a lot of repurposing within our organization itself to do that.

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?

See: I think for the vendor community, make contact with us. It's about establishing a good relationship. It’s having that partnership where you can go, ‘These are my business problems.’ And when vendors come in, where they can help you solve a problem, they become a partner. If you’re a partner to me, help me solve business problems. And they’re aligned in the sense that we are here to all solve business problems. And obviously, there are vendors that have a one-and-done kind of service that they provide, pretty simplistic. And then there are business problems, initiatives that we have to do. And so it’s a continuous conversation. I’m pretty readily available in terms of email and things of that nature. Just start that conversation. It’s really about having that partnership.

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

See: I think what I’m most proud of is, we’re able to shift our culture in our organization to really agile, to really course correct very quickly. We used to build solutions that took anywhere from 12 to 18 to 24 months. We’ve turned that, with the different technologies that we’ve put in place, different methods, to (where) we can build solutions as quickly as within days now. We actually turn around a solution within a week – like when the pandemic hit and we had to build a system that allows our employees to say, ‘Hey, I was at this location on this day on this floor in this area’ ... so if there was an outbreak or if there was a case where we had to provide a way for our employee health services to contact people that potentially could be impacted – we built that solution as quickly as within a week. We have a number of different tool sets that we have now where we can actually turn solutions as quickly as within 24 hours. And some of the products that used to take 18 to 24 months are going in roughly four to eight (months) now. The beauty of that is when we do something like that, we’re able to make course corrections very quickly if it goes down the wrong path. It reduces the risk and it reduces the commitment that both the organization and the business organization have to (make to) commit resources.

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

See: There are times when we work with various vendors and there’s a technology that we’re really interested in. And a lot of times, for that vendor to navigate through the contracting process can be challenging. If I would say there is one thing that I could change it would be facilitate that capability a little bit. There’s a lot of opportunities that sometimes when we talk about, ‘Oh, this is a really big technology stack.’ However, we may not be able to get to it for six months or nine months. That’s one thing I would change, to help that process. And I think they’re working on that, too, at the state level to refine that process to incorporate more vendors into that space.

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

See: Obviously, Techwire and Government Technology*. News feeds, I look at various news feeds that my email catches for me. We’re constantly going to conferences and webinars. And obviously, let’s not forget the partnerships we’ve established with our vendor community. Oftentimes, they are a good source of information as well.

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

See: I don’t think I really have any particular hobbies. I do enjoy running when I do have some time. I’d like to get back to running marathons again. Obviously, my mission of work-life balance is shifting. I have a kid in college and a senior in high school. They keep me super busy along with the job that I have. In terms of work-life balance, I often take time to relax, just sit by the fire and have a beverage. But one thing about me is, I don’t have any particular hobbies because I get bored easily. I’m a technologist at heart; I love to see technology work. Those are my priorities for the next few years.

*Government Technology magazine is a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Techwire.

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