State and Local Government- Q&A with Shawn Rodriguez

State and local government chief information officers (CIO) are facing more challenges than ever as they search for the right solutions to enable their organizations and communities to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.  Not only do government agencies and citizens have high expectations for what they should be able to accomplish online, but CIOs need to figure out how to store this data, make it accessible, and also do this all to the highest security specifications.  Did we forget to mention they need to do this all on a tight budget? 

In his role as senior director of state and local government, and education at NetApp, Shawn Rodriguez, spends a lot of time talking to business leaders, technical visionaries, and chief information officers about the challenges they are facing and the solutions that help these organizations.

Here’s what Shawn had to say:

It’s a time of great change for State and Local Government CIOs, what are some of the challenges they’re facing in the data storage and security space?

Shawn Rodriguez (SR):  In talking with state and local government leadership the biggest challenges that they face are related to what they’re being asked to accomplish on what remains, even with increasing state revenues, very tight IT budgets.  If you look at the latest industry figures, data storage requirements are on average increasing by 30 to 60 percent per year, yet state IT budgets are only predicted to rise by 1.5% in 2014.  One can only assume most local governments are in the same boat, if they’re lucky.  The bottom line is that the pot of money they have available to them isn’t big enough to make it all work, either fiscally or operationally, so one really has to think about efficiencies more than ever, and how they can optimize their data center strategies while not taking too large of risks.  The other big challenge is securing the data that is in storage.  Cybersecurity is front and center and tops every organization’s priority list.  As it relates specifically to storage that typically means encryption and some sort of secure multi-tenancy, but it’s not only the data that’s at rest that we need to worry about.  As government organizations at all levels open up their data warehouses for Big Data projects that enable real anytime, anywhere “open government” access, more points of entry are created and we have more ‘things’ to secure.  Again, that’s not only more work to be done, but more budget that’s probably just not there.

The final set of concerns I hear frequently are ones that are not talked about very often among the vendor/partner community and they’re to do with workforce management and personnel issues.  First up is the aging workforce.  Not many kids these days aspire to a career in state or local government IT; these jobs are even more difficult to fill than federal government positions.  Graduates in IT related fields have so many options, and many of them extremely lucrative start-up options, that recruitment is difficult.  So, how are we going to replace a workforce that’s retiring in droves, again being conscious of limited fiscal resources?  The only answer is new and creative ways of thinking and forging partnerships that can effectively augment the IT organizations specific needs.  Then, there are the CIOs themselves. Their job description is constantly expanding so in practice they’re not just the Chief Information Officer, but in many cases they are also the CTO, the COO, and the CFO.  They need to be equipped with exemplary negotiating skillsets and be adept at forging alliances and partnerships inside and outside the organization, with industry, and with end-users.  And they’re doing all of this in an environment where they have little or no control over the pace of change, or budgets.  Citizens expect to be able to access services online, particularly in healthcare and education, and if these aren’t met then it can create acute political pressures further up the chain of command.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are a lot of resources for CIOs to tap into and strategies that can be put in place to manage costs and meet expectations.  

Can you give some more insight into these resources and strategies?

SR: My first tip is to formulate your strategy to move some of your data and applications to the cloud by forming internal and external partnerships, and engaging subject matter experts.  Now!  Many prominent state and local executives, legislatures and government boards have adopted some version of a “cloud-first” strategy.  This doesn’t mean that the entire organization has to jump head first into cloud, but they should at least be evaluating the cloud, or cloud service strategies to see what is possible from a technology perspective, and where it might make most sense to incorporate this model within their enterprise.

This prudent and objective approach will also help them build important alliances in the new IT world order with the financial and administrative stewards of their organization.  These peers are likely not thinking about the technical elegance of a solution, but capital outlay, total cost of ownership, and return on investment. It’s part of the CIO’s job to educate the finance team about the technical and solution requirements, but, also to be receptive to the broader cost implications of a particular strategy and be open minded to considering new IT service models.  It is now a consumption-based world, as the IT Field of Dreams approach no longer offers the promises of years past.  However, as much as the “negotiators” would like for ALL IT to be commoditized, that is just not the case and IT leaders have to understand how to effectively represent the cost benefits and efficiencies of their strategy, or pay the perception price of “why do you keep asking for more money for the data center?” We work closely with one CIO of a very major public sector enterprise that frequently was asked this question.  After analyzing her data center assets and monetizing her efficiency and utilization metrics, she was able to effectively demonstrate that she was asking for one third of the money she would have had to ask for had she employed more traditional data management strategies to keep up with the rapid pace of data growth.  Thus, in the end she had actually saved the organization a lot of money based on the important metric of cost avoidance.  As an added benefit her relationship and credibility with the financial and political powers that be increased dramatically.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance for IT leaders to build relationships within the organization, improving transparency, educating peers about IT, but also being open to leveraging insight from different groups.

How do you define a successful cloud service strategy?

SR: In my biased opinion, state and local governments are often ahead of their federal counterparts in the rate of adoption of leading edge technology and IT strategies.   However, I must admit that cloud services is one of those areas where federal agencies are ahead of the game in leveraging these newer consumption based models and developing best practices.  For example, federal agencies have done a great job developing purchasing alliances across agencies, like WSCA is trying to offer to the State and Local market, that drive costs down with the promise of mass adoption, and more importantly develop contract frameworks that share risk and are palatable to all parties based on performance, service level commitments, and most importantly, an exit strategy.  Developing appropriate service level agreements and non-punitive exit and transition strategies are fundamental to a successful cloud strategy.  Things will change quickly, that is inevitable.  New players will enter the game just as established and promising players will depart, sometimes abruptly.  You have to be able to “check in” and “check out” as your needs change, standards develop, and the market evolves.  It’s all about agility, flexibility, and elasticity with a sound management and orchestration framework.  Without this framework, a CIO is highly likely to create a RGE – a resume-generating event.

At the same time, there’s a lot of existing experience and wisdom in-house, because state and local government CIOs have been providing “cloud-like” services for many years.  That is, many IT departments have been providing shared services – i.e. IT services for several departments, other localities, schools systems, etc. for many years.  What they’re facing now is the demand for self-service IT, orchestration, and new elastic cost models.  This presents many mature IT organizations with a real opportunity to ‘formalize’ their IT service catalogue, truly become a service provider, bring in external partners, leverage best of breed models, expand service offerings, and in effect, create a fully functional hybrid cloud environment.  The hybrid cloud will dominate State and Local over the next few years.  The fiscal and political gains are just too significant; it stands the best chance at being the win/win scenario we all often look to achieve. 

Before we have to wrap-up our conversation, what should a CIO look for in a vendor and what should they be wary of?

SR: The role of the vendor and the relationship between vendor and customer is really changing given the complexity of “X as a Service” based models, particularly as it relates to the challenges with procuring this newer technology approach with undefined or unproven models of acquisition.  A good IT partner gets this and should be able to effectively communicate the true costs, risks, and rewards of their cloud service offerings.  They must be willing to point you in another direction if that provides the highest levels of certainty for your success.  They won’t be proprietary to protect their turf, and will work to avoid costly silos.  They’ll want to cooperate and collaborate with you and your others partners more than compete.  They will empower you with the tools of leverage you need to operate in this new IT paradigm.  They will work to bring solutions to the market that easily adapt and meet your immediate and future needs, rather than expecting you to adapt your business needs and technical requirements to the framework they have built.  The hyperscalers (think of those big cloud providers that charge you pennies for this and pennies per that) see the trends as they develop and get this; it is why they always appear to be rapidly innovating and are truly way out in front of the rest of the cloud provider market.  It’s taking a while for traditional vendors and by state and local government IT leaders to digest this new operational model and open their minds to embracing the concept of really “out with the old and in with the new”….at least where it makes sense.  On that point your partner will effectively advise you that cloud isn’t always the answer.  The more we can all embrace this concept transparency and constructive candor, then it increases the likelihood of success and helps to mitigate the risk of costly mistakes – such as making large investments in proprietary technologies that either fail to ultimately solve a problem or challenge, or create unmanageable silos…..sound familiar?

While I encourage CIOs to think of vendors as partners, I think they should also keep their wits about them.  Top of my red flag list is contract terms surrounding exit strategies.  When you use a third party cloud solution, make sure you know what your exit strategy is in terms of transferring data and other key factors.  If you don’t take a stand on these types of terms and conditions it can cost you…sometimes your job!  A good vendor will explain exit requirements up front and not try to bury them in the contract.  We all know that IT is a whimsical field with technologies and companies coming more quickly than flies at a summer picnic so make sure to make every effort to engage with established vendors, not just those that offer the lowest price for the “commodity”.

This post was originally posted on GovDataDownload