More than 10,000 people work in information technology positions for the California state government. At any one time, only 130 of them are a CIO — the top managerial IT position within a state agency. Longevity is undeniably one factor for making it into that select group. But some CIOs say a training program sponsored by the state also helped them along.

The Information Technology Leadership Academy has been around in one form or another since 1990. Over the years, the program matured into an annual nine-month crash course that teaches middle managers the skills necessary to lead a technology department. The CIO of each state agency nominates one or two students to voluntarily enroll; during the fall, a class of approximately 30 trainees begins a rigorous series of classroom sessions, lectures, forums and field trips.

Photo:  Bill Foster, Techwire.net

ITLA Class XX  Photo: Bill Foster, Techwire.net

The curriculum focuses not so much on technology itself – an experienced manager knows the ins and outs of computers – but rather the big-picture topics vital to running an enterprise. Focus areas include public speaking, how to manage a budget and develop an IT plan, vendor management, procurement, conflict resolution and project management. As both technology and the role of the CIO have evolved, program organizers have added training on other topics, such as how to deal with the press and how to best utilize social media.

“They even went to the governor’s office to look at the governor’s mid-year budget and how you’re supposed to read and interpret it,” said Chris Cruz, CIO for the California Department of Health Care Services. “So if you’re in a CIO position like I am, you would know the kind of money that’s being allocated to your department moving forward and how that impacts your IT division.”

Cruz is serving as an executive sponsor of the program this year, in part because he is concerned that the leadership ranks aren’t being replenished quickly enough to keep pace with retirements. It’s a worry that government executives are mentioning not just in California, but in many other states. “There aren’t a lot of people coming up through the ranks,” he said. “The class helps identify who might be the up-and-comers.”

California has continued to fund the training academy by including its costs in network services contracts that departments purchase from the state Office of Technology Services, Cruz said. It costs about $2,800 per enrollee, and Cruz acknowledged that this dependable source of funding has helped keep the program alive, regardless of how much money has been available year to year for training.

The program’s teachers are past graduates and others with IT expertise from inside and outside government. This year the students are producing two class projects – one is a governance structure for enterprise architecture, the other an informational conference designed for vendors.

Besides the curriculum, past and present students say the program is a chance to network with people who work in other agencies – and a rare opportunity to see how you stack up.  Joe Panora, director of the Enterprise Information Services Division for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the personal connections he made as a student in the program in 1990 – back then it was called the Data Processing Managers’ Training Academy — probably helped him land at least two promotions over the years. At one point he interviewed in front of a former classmate.

The program also helps aspiring managers see where their strengths and weaknesses are. That’s an important benefit, especially since the program’s ranks are filled with go-getter “Type A” personalities. “It’s kind of like when you go from high school to college to play football, and everybody is All-American,” Panora explained.

Karen Eckel, a data processing manager in the Department of Health Care Services, is currently in the leadership academy. She said the workload can be a “huge time commitment” at times, with classes two or three times per month during the workday and extra homework at night. But she said the program has been a tremendous opportunity to learn from state leaders and to familiarize herself with the legislative process. When she finishes the program in June, she said she will have more confidence going into future job interviews and a much better grasp of how a CIO does his or her job.

The academy’s teachings have evolved over the years with constant input from agency-level CIOs. The program itself is housed under the California Technology Agency, but CIOs from across the state share responsibilities and trade roles as instructors, program managers and executive sponsors.

“We take a lot of pride in making sure there is a succession,” Panora said, “and there always has been a strong commitment to the academy from the state’s CIOs.”

This article was originally published by Government Technology.