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Orlando CIO: ‘The CIO Role Has Evolved in Response to New Emerging Technology’

As part of Industry Insider — Florida’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.

Rosa Akhtarkhavari is the chief information officer for the city of Orlando. She has 31 years of public-sector IT experience with the city, including serving as a developer, manager and administrator for applications, as an IT strategic support manager, a chief security officer and as deputy chief information officer.

From June 1992 to March 1996, Akhtarkhavari helped design and develop software such as the city’s first automated benefit enrollment forms and assisted in custom-developing its human resources and payroll system as an application developer. From there, she moved up the ladder to become an IT financial application manager, overseeing all technology required to implement a new banking system and automate check printing and collecting.

After that, as an IT application manager, she oversaw vendor negotiations and document business processes, developed project plans and managed budgets for mission-critical financial systems. She also designed and managed the city’s employee portal, led an ERP system upgrade and implemented an enterprise time and collection system.

Then, as an IT strategic support manager, she supervised the city’s technology business analyst team, which performs professional, technical, analytical and administrative work related to strategic city technology projects. Working with the team gave her the insight needed to develop the city’s technology strategic plan and manage a two-year information security team transformation as chief security officer and deputy chief information officer.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Yarmouk University in Jordan, and studied computer science at Florida State University as well.

Industry Insider — Florida: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role? How have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years?

Akhtarkhavari: The city of Orlando CIO is responsible for the IT governance and architecture, IT strategy, cybersecurity and digital strategies that align with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s vision and support the city of Orlando departments to reach their goals and objectives, which include:
  • Building innovative custom operating models that encompass diversity and inclusion to bring about cultural changes through digital strategies
  • Leading customer-focused business outcomes in highly complex environments
  • Ensuring technology and business alignment to deliver programs and solutions with measurable outcomes
  • Implementing resilient, secure, efficient, scalable and critical leading-edge technology solutions
  • Overseeing technology compliance, disaster recovery, business continuity planning, high-stake incidents and risk management

The CIO role has evolved in response to the increase of new emerging technology, cyber threats and the impact of COVID-19. Additionally, there have been major shifts in the industry, including the expectations set for digital services, business reliance on data, supply chain impacts, hiring and retention and new emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.

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

Akhtarkhavari: It has always been our goal to be at the forefront of state-of-the-art systems, therefore, transitions out of any existing legacy systems into the latest technologies offered. Furthermore, replacing a system also means implementing the proper strategies and action plans that focus on secure, optimized, sustainable and resilient solutions while managing risks. Some examples of these upgrades include:
  • Eliminating the mid-range systems by replacing our email and collaboration software with a multi-tenant cloud solution: ERP (financial and human resources) system, a combined police and fire computer-aided dispatch and mobile and police records
  • Standardized database, integration tools, infrastructure and all tooling throughout the city
  • Building reliance by adopting cloud smart strategy, technology-supported business continuity and disaster recovery plans (enabled remote work, incident response, etc.) 

IIFL: What projects will you be looking to fund in the upcoming fiscal year?

Akhtarkhavari: Our information technology department will continue to focus on building the resiliency of our city operations, such as expanding the cloud data center; ensuring detection, response, containment and recovery of any cyber exposures; and exploring emerging technologies and pilot technologies that enable us to improve our response, planning and decision-making.

IIFL: What big initiatives or projects are coming up? What development opportunities and RFPs should we watch for in the next six to 12 months?

Akhtarkhavari: The city will issue a competitive solicitation (PRF, INT and other types) to select product and vendor partners to support the above-planned initiatives.

IIFL: How do you define “digital transformation”? How far along is your organization in that process, and how will you know when it’s finished?

Akhtarkhavari: Our transformation is driven by envisioning and adjusting our staff to their work environments, processes and technologies in order to meet the city’s objectives, support the mayor’s priorities and best serve the citizens, businesses and visitors in Orlando. This approach enables us to review and adjust our organizational structure, culture, processes and technology to provide optimized delivery of customer-centric city services effectively. Our information technology department completed a five-year transformation agenda, and we will always continue to review, evaluate, measure and adjust as part of our continuous improvement cycle.

IIFL: How often do you update your organization’s enterprise catalog?

Akhtarkhavari: All artifacts, such as the city enterprise data catalog, are updated as needed, such as implementing new solutions, policy changes or threats. All standards and documents are reviewed in totality and updated at least annually for IT documents, including our service catalog.

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

  • City budget: FY 2024 total (all funds) adopted budget is $1,766,480,614
  • IT budget: $29,502,020 (does not include large department-specific IT capital project allocation) 
  • IT employees: 115 

IIFL: What do you read to stay abreast of government technology/SLED sector developments?

Akhtarkhavari: There are a number of diverse technical publications we review, as well as new policies, best practices, white papers and industry podcasts.

IIFL: What do you think is the greatest technology challenge in Florida?

Akhtarkhavari: Industrywide, it can be challenging to attract and retain highly skilled technology subject matter experts.

IIFL: What advice would you give someone who would like to lead an IT department?

Akhtarkhavari: Industry leaders should have a good understanding of emerging technologies. One critical recommendation is to build trust and partnership with other departments to ensure you provide the best value for their operation. It’s critical to listen and engage IT staff to define the department’s vision and mission and encourage high touch with various community members and partners.

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

Akhtarkhavari: The city of Orlando’s IT procurement and legal team has a strong partnership that enables us to identify the best options for IT procurement and contracts. We work as a team to identify possible areas of improvement and implement changes to our processes and approaches as needed.

IIFL: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn?

Akhtarkhavari: Vendor partners should always follow the established protocol and contact the appropriate city staff. All other initial contact should be with the procurement team or IT’s vendor relations manager.

IIFL: How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Akhtarkhavari: It’s important to have knowledge of the city’s procurement process and its current systems in place.

IIFL: Which of your certifications would you like to note?

Akhtarkhavari: ITIL, which recommends best practices for IT service management (ITSM) to support the standardization of various processes and stages in the IT life cycle.

IIFL: What professional or affinity groups do you belong to? Do you volunteer, and would you like to share that experience with readers?

Akhtarkhavari: I serve on multiple local, national and internal boards. My passion is encouraging youth interest in STEM education, especially for women and those in underserved communities.

IIFL: What conferences do you attend?

Akhtarkhavari: CIO/CDO/CTO/CSCO roundtables, technology-related conferences and emerging technology conferences.

IIFL: What are you reading or listening to for fun? What do you do to unplug in your downtime?

Akhtarkhavari: Outside of IT publications, my interest is in what is happening worldwide such as environmental actions, equity and inclusion, human rights and financial trends.
Katya Diaz is an Orlando-based e.Republic staff writer. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.