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Tong Seen as ‘Good Bridge’ Between CDT, Innovation Office

The state chief information officer will be moving next month to the Office of Digital Innovation, where she will serve as director, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced Wednesday.

California state Chief Information Officer Amy Tong addresses attendees at the 2019 Public Sector CIO Academy.
News of California state Chief Information Officer Amy Tong’s planned move to the state Office of Digital Innovation drew congratulatory reactions Thursday, and an appreciative one from Tong, since it was announced Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office.

Tong, 48, will leave the California Department of Technology (CDT) at month’s end after five years as CIO and department director. Beginning next month, she’ll be director of the Office of Digital Innovation (ODI), a fairly new component of state government that, like CDT, is part of the California Government Operations Agency (GovOps).

Udaya Patnaik, an entrepreneur who co-founded Jump Associates, a San Mateo-based management consulting firm, left his role as ODI director in October. He assumed the post in June 2020; ODI was created in 2019.

As state CIO, Tong has led CDT through several challenging phases, including technology-related controversies involving the Employment Development Department and the Department of Motor Vehicles. She’s also served as a champion of Newsom’s push for faster, more agile innovation in government technology, including his Request for Innovation Ideas (RFI2), a philosophical change in procurement.

Deputy state CIO Russ Nichols, who’s also CDT’s chief deputy director, will serve as acting CIO until Tong’s successor is named. Nichols is an award-winning veteran of state technology governance who most recently served as agency information officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation before he moved to the CDT role in March. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In a statement Thursday to Techwire, Tong said: “My appointment to lead the Office of Digital Innovation is one of the greatest honors in my 20-plus years of government service. During my time at CDT, I was inspired and privileged to work side by side with a great team of talented public servants dedicated to protecting the health and welfare of all Californians. I look forward to the same inspiration and collaboration from my new colleagues at ODI. I take comfort in knowing CDT will continue to excel under its executive and senior leadership team, and look forward to partnering on the work ahead.”

Tong is expected to discuss her new role, among other things, during Friday’s virtual Techwire State of Technology CA Industry Forum, for which she is a key speaker.

“Amy has done a terrific job in delivering technology for the California citizens for over five years,” said Teri Takai, a vice president with Techwire parent e.Republic who has also served as state CIO for California and Michigan as well as CIO for the U.S. Department of Defense. “She was the steady hand at the technology wheel as the nation has weathered the last two years,” Takai told Techwire. “She will bring that strategic approach to her new position, continuing the make California an innovative state.”

Former Newsom strategic adviser Michael Wilkening, a longtime executive in California state government who worked with Tong for years, sees the move as a good one for all parties. Wilkening was undersecretary and then secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS) when Tong was named chief deputy director of OSI, which comes under CHHS.

“Back in 2014, we first hired Amy as the chief deputy of OSI, and I had the pleasure of working with her for almost seven years,” Wilkening told Techwire in an interview Thursday. “In her role at OSI and in her role at CDT, she’s always been focused on how technology can improve Californians’ lives and provide more equitable access. That’s always been foundational for her.

“Probably the best example of that is broadband, which she’s been personally involved in trying to improve – not from a technology perspective, but really looking at it from the perspective of access to the Internet is foundational for modern life, whether that’s medical, educational, professional or recreational. She’s always been very focused on how she can improve people’s access with that as a lens,” Wilkening said.

“Obviously, she’s been a leader in rethinking how California procures and implements technology, so moving towards agile and modular, first with the child welfare project, and then she’s used that approach multiple times in her role since she went to the Department of Technology,” Wilkening said. “She worked very closely with me during COVID, and she’s still doing stuff on COVID. She was integral to the technology solutions that we implemented during COVID that were focused on improving access to information and services across the board.”

Sami Gallegos, deputy secretary for external affairs for CHHS, tweeted her reaction to the news of Tong’s move: “Always felt like I was witnessing history as I watched Amy Tong manage some of the most complex tech initiatives during this COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a privilege to work with her and the team at @CADeptTech. Looking forward to watching her take on the role of ODI Director!”

“Congratulations #AmyTong,” said a tweet by Republican political veteran Richard Costigan, who worked in the Legislature and in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial administration. “A great decision by @GavinNewsom to appoint Amy to this role.”

Tong’s former deputy state CIO and CDT’s chief deputy director, Chris Cruz, was similarly praiseworthy of Tong.

“Amy was a true pioneer in leading the digital transformation and modernization effort for the state,” Cruz told Techwire. “Under her leadership, we were able to move the State Technology Leadership brand forward and adopted many high-profile initiatives such as the development and creation of the first Office of Digital Innovation and Engagement, procurement modernization, security operations center, the transition to a single statewide email system, and a statewide cloud strategy as tangible examples of effectuating positive change.”

Cruz, who left CDT in April 2019, went on to serve as CIO for San Joaquin County for two years before taking his current role this year as Tanium’s CIO for state, local and education. He said he still appreciates the help of the CDT team for the successes he and Tong shared.

“Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of an immensely talented leadership team that we were able to assemble who bought into the vision that was instilled along with the support of the other state technology leaders,” Cruz said. “I wish her all the best and continued success in her new role as the director of the Office of Digital Innovation.”

CDT tweeted out a note of encouragement to Tong after Wednesday’s announcement: “Congratulations Amy Tong! Your CDT family is proud of you. We look forward to continuing a close partnership as you take on your new role @CaliforniaODI on January 1.”

ODI’s Twitter reaction was also upbeat: “We're so excited to welcome Amy Tong to ODI! Amy brings a wealth of experience, energy and innovative vision to ODI. We're looking forward to the new year and hitting the ground running!”

Jennifer Pahlka, a co-founder and executive director of Code for America and former U.S. deputy chief technology officer in the White House, was also encouraging.

“Everyone in the state of California is indebted to Amy Tong for her service over the past five years,” Pahlka tweeted. “I'm so excited to see her take on the Office of Innovation!”

Strategically, the move is a good one, said Wilkening, who’s now a senior adviser for technology and delivery in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I think she’s going to be a really good bridge between CDT and ODI,” Wilkening said. “She brings a wealth of experience into the role, and a passion for improving Californians’ lives, and I think those are going to be really good skills and a good background to her as she takes her new leadership position.”

He also said Tong built a strong executive team with the designation of Nichols as deputy state CIO and former Google Ventures executive Rick Klau as the state’s new chief technology innovation officer.

“With CDT,” Wilkening said, “she’s been making some changes there recently, so I think it’s in pretty good hands at the moment. She’s really strengthened the bench. … She’s put some really good people in key positions there, and I think Amy’s going to want to see CDT be successful. … She’s going to be able to help guide the relationship between CDT and ODI and figuring out how those two entities work together, and defining the spaces where they work alone.”

Tong is scheduled to speak at 9 a.m. Friday during State of Technology, and Techwire will provide coverage.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.