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A Peek Inside the CIO Playbook: Build Relationships, 'Don't Say No'

A handful of technology leaders in state government advise those seeking top leadership roles to build relationships, hire smart people, and take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

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A handful of chief information officers from state government departments offered a peek inside each of their “CIO playbooks” last week, and the results were as varied as they were revealing.

In a breakout session during the California Public Sector CIO Academy in Sacramento, three current department CIOs outlined their own journeys to the C-suite, along with some advice for a roomful of attendees, many of whom aspire to CIO roles themselves.

For Fredrick Gomez, being named CIO for the California Public Utilities Commission four years ago presented him with a challenge: Having come up through the technology side, with a strong military background, Gomez said he had to sharpen up his “soft skills” in order to effectively communicate and manage in a civilian environment. He cited the mentorship of other state IT executives — including the session’s moderator, award-winning CIO George Akiyama of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and Mike Nguyen, Caltrans’ chief technology officer.

Gomez advised aspiring executives to do what worked for him: “I humbled myself,” admitting that although he has a strong hands-on technical background, he wasn’t afraid to hire people who are smarter than he is.

“Take notes,” Gomez said. “Listen. And give your team the opportunity to grow and learn.” He also advised “keeping a 50,000-foot perspective; you see more.”

Jared Snow, CIO of the California Military Department, also has a military background, having served in the Army National Guard for almost 20 years before taking his current role. Snow, an alumnus of the California Department of Technology’s Information Technology Leadership Academy (ITLA), advised that rather than seeking a specific C-suite role, “Just find the thing you love doing.”

Snow said he wasn’t seeking promotions, but rather immersed himself in as many facets of technology as he could — and his aptitude and attitude won him the attention of his superiors. When offered challenges, he said, “Don’t say no.”

Panelist Quentin Wright, CIO for the Department of Technology, said his experience was similar to Snow’s in that neither specifically sought promotion to the CIO role, but rather were approached by superiors who had noticed their work and saw the potential for bigger things.

Wright said he had been a technology lover since childhood, but en route to his career in tech, he stopped along the way to try out other fields: He managed a music store and produced music for others before jumping into tech.

As a veteran of 28 years with the state, Wright said, he’s always attributed his growth and success to one thing: relationships. Whether mentoring others or being mentored, or moving from a smaller role to a larger one, his professional and personal relationships have always been a constant in his career. Cultivating and nurturing relationships was a theme Smith repeated through several Academy breakout sessions in which he was a panelist.

The session’s moderator, Akiyama, demonstrated the value of relationships as he engaged, teased and praised the panelists. He encouraged attendees to ask questions and to engage with the panelists after the session — which many did. One could almost see relationships being formed.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in Northern California.