The longtime head of IT for the California Earthquake Authority went off the radar a few months back — deliberately.
Todd Coombes left his position at the CEA after six years because he’s by nature an entrepreneur, and he had the itch that for some people can only be scratched by starting up their own venture. Coombes is scratching that itch with CertainPoint LLC, his Roseville-based startup.
“This is my 11th startup in my career,” Coombes told Techwire in a recent interview. “I know where to look for the pitfalls. The big thing with startups is to make sure you’re well-capitalized … and time. You’ve got to give yourself time.”
The IT leader may have cut his teeth on systems development, doing more than 125 system conversions over the years, but at age 58, he still has an overarching goal: “To make IT better. I’m trying to build the perfect software company.” Since he left CEA in March, Michael Melavic has been acting CIO for the Earthquake Authority.
Coombes is a graduate of Colfax High School, Sierra College and Anderson University in Indiana, a state where he spent 25 years in entrepreneurship as well as corporate IT, and where he even thrived for a time as a farmer and a business aggregator of sorts. Along the way, he traveled the world — “I love India: the people, the culture, the food” — before returning with his family to his roots in Northern California.
“I started looking around, and really the only thing I saw in Sacramento that was available was CIO at the CEA,” he said.
The Earthquake Authority is “not an agency of the state, but an instrumentality,” he said. It was created by statute in 1996, two years after the Northridge quake in 1994.
“Insurance companies wanted to get out of earthquake coverage in California,” Coombes explained, “because they didn’t want to cover the earthquake risk anymore. It broke them in Northridge. There would have been an insurance crisis in California with all those companies pulling out and not wanting to cover earthquakes anymore. So that’s why the Legislature and the governor put into effect the CEA in 1996. Our customers were all these insurance companies.”
Going to work as CIO of the CEA enabled Coombes to move “back out here, closer to the family.” Now he gets to take his mother to church. “It was the thing for me to do,” he said.
Among his initiatives at CEA was creating a standardized system for earthquake information — an idea that dated to his job interview.
“And they picked me. So we put together a program, did an RFP, chose a vendor. … We successfully built that out, and it’s still going. And then, in the midst of all that, here comes Gov. Newsom, saying, ‘Innovate through technology.’ Well, you’re speaking my language, man: I fix difficult and impossible problems, and I innovate.”
Newsom’s mandate caused Coombes to take stock of how far he’d come in his career — and how much further he wanted to go.
“I thought, ‘I’ve probably got time for one more rodeo in my career.’ I wanted to retire at CEA, but I thought about it and decided, ‘I’m gonna go for it.’ So in March I left CEA and went dark for three months. I knew that people would reach out to me. I have three partners … and we said, ‘OK, let’s team up and refine what we’re going to do.’ We made some initial contacts, built our website, got ready to go out and look for businesses that we want as partners now, and then we’re going after contracts. We’ve got some things that are starting to line up now, primarily in gov tech, insure-tech and something around the notion of doing IT better.”
The end result is CertainPoint LLC — Coombes’ “last rodeo.”
“We want to take IT and blueprint it from end to end — from conception of any work that might be done … to post-implementation. Then build the roles, define what they are. Whether you’re doing agile, a hybrid agile, a waterfall — it doesn’t matter. We’ll build a template on how exactly to do that.
“The excuse of not having enough money — that’s not going to fly anymore. Not with the governor’s mandate and not with the kind of things that are happening with today’s technology. We can make this state run like a well-oiled machine — and any other government entity, for that matter. From my perspective, I want to build out an offering that I can take to any city, county, state or federal government and lay it down.”
Coombes was able to buy the URL for his company with some patient negotiation, and as of March 1, CertainPoint became incorporated in California. His son Ethan, 25, works for the firm as a project manager.
“We do government and insurance; emergency- and disaster-preparedness management (one of his associates has certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency); and IT blueprinting. We do everything from software development to consulting on DevOps, including the ‘virtual CIO.’ It’s a managed-service opportunity. We want to be able to help a lot of these agencies and entities here in Sacramento.
“I really want to see this IT blueprinting as an idea that can be used to measure teams. The first year, we’re taking opportunistic jobs, just to get some money in the door. As we establish ourselves, that’ll bankroll the next level. We take no venture capital or loans. I wouldn’t rule it out, but my plan is to do this without any outside funds. So that causes us to take a slower path.”
Coombes knows the template: “We’re going to join CMAS, become a Microsoft Partner, but all those things take time. It’s all coming.”