Ahsan Baig

This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 28 to correct a web link. 

As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state and local agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with governmental IT leaders in California. This email interview has been lightly edited for brevity.

Ahsan Baig is the chief information officer for Alameda-Contra Costa County Transit (AC Transit), which is the third-largest public bus system in California, serving 13 cities and adjacent unincorporated areas in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. AC Transit's budget for fiscal year 2019-2020 is $471 million, and its Enterprise Catalog/Systems Inventory is posted online. Baig, who was named CIO three years ago, has more than 27 years of private- and public-sector IT experience, leading and managing high-performing teams in critical, high-visibility projects. Most recently, with the city of Oakland, he spent 14 years in managerial and technical lead roles, such as Division Manager, Interim CIO, and Deputy CIO overseeing IT infrastructure, 911 public safety systems, mission-critical radio systems, the Project Management Office (PMO) and business applications. 

Techwire: As CIO of your organization, how do you describe your role – and how have the role and responsibilities of the CIO changed in recent years? 

Baig: Chief Information Officer at AC Transit is a critical position and plays an important role as a trusted technical leader in the Executive Team, who defines the vision, builds the technical leadership team, gives a sense of direction and establishes the road map for innovation and technology. In 2017, I was truly honored and deeply humbled to be selected by General Manager Michael Hursh for this vital position. This role requires me to provide strategic direction, policy guidance, and the IT services necessary to meet AC Transit’s operational objectives, overseeing and coordinating all IT investments, initiatives, projects and programs. Prior to joining AC Transit, I had a similar role at the city of Oakland, where I spent about 14 years in overseeing the Information Technology Department. I was primarily responsible for digital transformation, broadband plan, cloud adoption, IT infrastructure modernization, 911 public safety systems, mission-critical radio systems and Project Management Office (PMO) and business applications upgrades, in addition to maintaining 24x7 support of mission-critical systems.

As CIO at AC Transit, I am responsible for developing and communicating a strategic direction, as well as operating and control strategies for IT in order to achieve consensus with District stakeholders and ensure that District management and staff agree on IT strategy. This role provides executive level direction on all activities, policies, and procedures pertaining to information technology; and ensures that all programs are appropriately budgeted, planned, organized, and staffed to meet the district’s business objectives.

The CIO is responsible for collaborating with senior management and key stakeholders to assess business needs and priorities, and determining how technology can support departments’ strategic goals, increase efficiencies and reduce costs. This is a key input into the overall annual spending plan. I develop and recommend the IT investment plan, establish districtwide standards and system architectures, and provide the technical vision that supports the strategic planning process.

The CIO also directs the development of organizationwide information security initiatives, including tactically responding to security breaches and conducting information security assessments and risk analysis for the prevention of network intrusions; oversees safeguarding of the district’s electronic information; and ensures compliance with industry standard Internet security requirements, governance and best practices.

Historically, public transit has been a domain that’s very fragmented, disintegrated, and slow to adopt technology. I feel the role of CIO has evolved over a period of time. Innovative solutions and disruptive technologies – and, more importantly, new market forces providing mobility services – are making their way into the domain of public transit; hence, the role of CIO is becoming pivotal in the overall success. As a CIO, my job is to stay abreast of changing information technologies, new business models, and innovations in public transit, and to communicate business implications of technical alternatives to the Board of Directors, General Manager, and Executive Staff. Steve Jobs once said, “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” The time has come for public transit to pay attention to the needs of our riders, provide safe and seamless mobility, and make Rider Experience (RX) a priority in the overall scheme of things.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing your organization’s strategic plan?

Baig: I am personally involved in developing the IT Strategic Plan with my IT Leadership Team. It is an important document, which aligns IT projects, initiatives, and resources with the District Strategic Plan. I am proud of the work my leadership team has done in developing the strategic plan, which is a result of multiphase process, including all stakeholders’ interviews, surveys, feedback, market analysis, and technology trends. We also spent extensive time in engaging our own IT staff as well, in conducting a thorough SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, skills assessment, and future phase envisioning of IT services. In coming months, the Strategic Plan will be presented to the AC Transit Board for adoption.

Techwire: In addition to the recent PeopleSoft ERP, what big initiatives or projects are coming in 2020? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Baig: For the next three years, we will be focusing on cloud acceleration, automation, ML/AI, business applications modernization, mobile apps, big data, cybersecurity, resiliency, IoT, contactless payment, and Mobility-as-a-Service. I believe in investment in the human capital development – constant training, retooling, leadership development, succession planning within my team – as we are building the core skills. We are in the middle of ERP cloud hosting, big data analytics, and a couple of cybersecurity initiatives. In coming years, we will be looking for more cybersecurity projects, IT modernization, cloud expansion, data center integration, mobile app, big data, ML/AI platforms, etc. 

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

Baig: Innovation is extending its inevitable reach beyond digital and commerce to more established industries. Innovation is now making forays everywhere – autos, ag tech, fintech, mobility and materials. Artificial intelligence is probably the biggest threat of all as it promises to industrialize services in the same way steam engines industrialized manufacturing. The Department of Innovation and Technology (IT) is focused on accelerating digital transformation across all the district’s business operations. It has made digital transformation a linchpin in the department’s overall infrastructure modernization Initiative. Many IT projects and initiatives, as part of the digital transformation journey, are currently underway in various phases of development, deployment, testing, and completion. Due to the recent crisis of COVID-19, IT has been instrumental in working on remote access improvements, innovating end-user collaboration tools, enabling redundancy, bolstering the cybersecurity posture, keeping up the mission-essential business applications, and improving emergency communications. Adoption of digital transformation is a journey, and probably it will never end. However, it is important that as we walk on this path, we are clear on milestones of each and every step.

Techwire: How many employees are in your IT organization? Is it growing?

Baig: IT headcount is little less than 2 percent of the overall district staffing level. There are around 41 full-time employees, and we have five contractors, who are working on short-term special projects. Overall, the IT organization is growing at a slow pace; however, I believe in coming years it will be growing more organically, as technology adoption will increase.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget? Is that different from the IT budget for the entire organization? If yes, what is the overall budget?

Baig: The overall IT budget is little less than 2 percent of the overall District Operating Budget. The estimated amount for IT Operations and Maintenance Budget is around $7.5 million, not including the Capital Improvements Project (CIP) budget and labor cost. In last couple of years, there has been an uptick in IT spending and expansion, due to many business and operation systems becoming IT-centric.

IT is actively working with all stakeholders and budget team, and trying to consolidate and centralize ongoing IT hardware, software, Software-as-a-Service, etc., recurring licenses and maintenance costs, even if any of the item is used by the individual departments. However, any new IT initiative for technology acquisition, including the first-time license/services cost, could stay within the departmental budget. Once the implementation is completed, the recurring warranty or maintenance/support costs could be planned in the IT budget. IT will partner and collaborate in developing these requests, and each department should compete for those dollars, with the sound business justification. Once approved, the technology acquisition should be handled by IT, for enterprise integration, vendor relationships, and long-term sustainability.

IT is not trying to control everyone’s budget; however, we are seeking streamline IT processes for our cost optimization and full technology utilization. IT is developing catalogs for hardware, software and services, and they will be available for the district to leverage and use.  

Techwire: In your tenure to date, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Baig: I have been at AC Transit for exactly three years, and there have been various major IT initiatives underway, and most of these projects are either completed or near completion. When I joined AC Transit, the GM told me that Computer Aided Dispatch and Automatic Vehicle Location (CAD/AVL) was his top-priority project, and he wanted me to complete the project on time and within budget. The COVID-19 crisis caused an impact on resources’ availability and slowed down the testing process, but despite these challenges, we have been able to successfully complete the upgrade of our CAD/AVL system.

AC Transit’s CAD/AVL and Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems have been in place for almost two decades. The system was purchased in 2000 and went live around 2003. It was state of the art at the time and was able to meet the business needs for several years, but the technology has moved on – and so have our requirements and the needs of our riders. On-time performance, rider experience, and the efficiency of services are more important than they’ve ever been, and we started to realize that the legacy system was no longer meeting our expectations.

This CAD/AVL and VoIP systems project design and installation began in 2015, including the replacement of the entire computer system in all of our buses. We’ve modernized all the infrastructure inside the buses, moving from low data-rate private radio system to high-speed data communications network of 4G and 5G technology,  mobile edge computing, and in the near future we’ll be migrating to Windows IoT. Our buses are now fitted with advanced, high-speed edge computing devices that provide a lot of computing power and integration capabilities for safety and service reliability.

The VoIP implementation at AC Transit is kind of a unique project because it is a hosted solution. My IT team, with the CAD/AVL vendor, designed a high-availability hosted solution using the Tier I hosting environment, including primary data center, a backup data center and redundant communication paths.

The most important thing for us is that the solution has made AC Transit a more connected enterprise. Five years ago, all our departments – maintenance, warranty, operations – were working in individual silos. Now, those business units are better connected because of the enterprise data systems, and we have basically real-time information available across the entire organization. If there’s a problem with a revenue bus, the maintenance team is equipped to monitor it proactively, the operations team has on-time performance information in real time, our division supervisors can see what the conditions are on the road to take appropriate action, and the Real Time Passenger Information system provides update to riders via various public channels. All these capabilities are critical to our operations and have been enabled by the implementation of the new solution.

The second major project is the rollout of Bus Rapid Transit system, named Tempo, connecting San Leandro to Downtown Oakland. The history-making Tempo system is a $232 million investment in our East Bay communities and seamlessly integrates the frequency of light-rail train service, and it delivers unparalleled bus frequency through a nearly 10-mile network of dedicated and painted bus-only lanes. IT plays a critical role in the Systems Integration of this major project, which includes fiber optic network, real-time passenger information, state-of-the-art on-platform and inside-bus technologies. Additionally, to achieve optimal operations, Tempo’s bus-only lanes must remain clear of stopped or illegally parked vehicles, including any delivery vehicles. The IT team plays a critical role in designing and implementing an onboard forward-facing cameras system that capture images of illegally parked or stopped vehicles.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors? What should they know about you before they reach out?

Baig: The best way to contact me is to email me. I am pretty good in responding to emails, and I appreciate if they do their homework, study the recent IT-related staff reports, review the IT Strategic Plan, study the district budget, and understand current district initiatives.

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

Baig: Standardize all purchasing templates for various IT commodities and services, and automate the process. It can be done only with the close collaboration of Legal and Purchasing Departments.

As I said earlier, IT is centralized in the district, and the CIO directs the procurement, development and maintenance activities for all IT systems, including hardware, software, applications and wired/wireless networks to ensure reliability, availability, security, and recovery capability. 

For successful technology roll-outs, procurement plays a very critical role, and I am proud of the work our Procurement Department does. I’m pleased with the collaboration and partnership I have been able to build with the leadership of our Procurement Team, who are continuously streamlining the process to make sure that things are not stuck due to red tape.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech sector?

Baig: The government tech sector isn’t very different from the private tech sector. I am simply amazed to know that many of my peers in the private sector are dealing with very similar challenges of resources, budget, approvals, procurement, etc. The complex technology solutions aren’t the issues; the rapid change in IT is a major challenge. For me to stay abreast of the latest and the greatest technological discoveries and innovations, I actively network with many of my peers and try to learn from them. I am an active member of many regional, statewide, national and international organizations. Because of my engineering background, I have been a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for 25 years, which is a global organization representing more than 420,000 members in more than 160 countries, more than 50 percent of whom are from outside the United States.

On a daily basis, I spend decent amount of time in reading magazines, newspapers, Web articles, research journals, and industry periodicals. I rely heavily on the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Gartner, InfoTech, IEEE magazines, Techwire, TechNews, GovTech, etc., to stay connected. 

Techwire: Do you have a “digital hero,” either in the public or the private sector?

Baig: I don’t have a digital hero as such, but I do have a public service hero, and that is Jerry Brown, the former governor of California. I feel fortunate to have met him in my very first week of employment in Oakland, where he was the mayor at that time. When I was hired by the city of Oakland, my very first project, a 911 public safety system upgrade, put me in very close working relationship with him. I had the honor to work with him and to learn the true purpose and passion for public service, and how to be a dedicated public servant, and always be proud of the impact one can make in the public sector through innovation, ingenuity, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking.     

Techwire: Personal: Family? Hobbies? Last book read?

I am blessed by a beautiful family, and I live with my wife and two sons in the San Francisco Bay Area. I enjoy cycling, hiking, walking, and community service. I’m also a member of national and international grassroots-level nonprofit organizations that are engaged in fighting against hunger, poverty and illiteracy, and that promote social justice.

Editor’s note: this interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.