Techwire One-on-One: CIO Says Key Role Is ‘Look Up and Out’

“I am results-focused, have higher than average expectations, and will work with anyone that is putting in the effort,” says Ventura County CIO Terry Theobald. “I believe in accountability in the sense those I work with and I are both accountable.”

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As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about leaders in state and local government and their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with technology leaders.

Terry Theobald is the newly appointed chief information officer for Ventura County, having acted in that capacity for more than a year. He’s a veteran of the public and private sectors, and he joined the county in October 2013 as the IT director for the Ventura County Health Care Agency. While in the private sector, the Ventura resident held executive positions with, among others, Altris Software and Omnikron Systems. He has a bachelor’s degree in pre-med from Loyola Marymount University and a master’s of business administration from Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School. 

Techwire: How do you describe your role as Ventura County CIO in two or three sentences? 

Terry Theobald: The primary role of any CIO is to look up and out. The focus needs to be on where the business is going and what technology can be used to facilitate/accelerate that.

Techwire: You’ve been interim CIO for over a year. Do you plan any changes now that your appointment is official, or have you already put things in place?

Theobald: With a national recruitment resulting in over 300 candidates, my future was far from guaranteed. I needed to maintain the organizational status quo. We had four major projects in some state of motion and those needed to be moved along. Between that and supporting COVID-related efforts such as telemedicine, telecommuting, COVID testing and vaccinations, we have been busy. Now that I am the CIO, I will be looking beyond those projects and on to what the county needs for better government services. Mike Powers, our county executive officer, talks about “online versus inline,” which means more efficient and easy access to county services. I would add moving towards a digital county. After all, we were awarded the No. 1 county in the nation for our population’s size by the Center for Digital Government.* We have a reputation to live up to now. 

Techwire: What do you see as the two or three top emerging trends in government technology — AI, ML, shared services, cybersecurity, multi-factor authentication, robotic process automation, cryptocurrency, etc.?

Theobald: I am not sure I would consider any of these “emerging” any longer. However, to move ourselves forward, there are two technology areas we need to get really good at. Data is one. Collecting more of it, organizing it, providing governance, turning it into information. To get on board and continue to fuel the digital transformation, we need to leverage data. The other is cybersecurity. As we make our information more valuable, others will want it. We have some pretty sophisticated defenses, but the bad actors continue to come up with new attacks, and we need to be constantly vigilant.

Techwire: What big technology initiatives or projects are coming in Ventura County in 2021? What sorts of RFPs/RFIs should vendors be watching for in the coming months?

Theobald: We don’t do anything small in Ventura. We have four large projects in various stages. We are upgrading our legacy mainframe property tax system. Due to the complex tax code associated with California’s Prop. 13, we needed to build this one ourselves. We expect it to go live this year. We have embarked on closing the digital divide in our county through implementation of a public/private broadband middle mile that will serve government needs as well as allow affordable Internet to be delivered to disadvantaged communities. We have a unique criminal justice system that is in need of a more current platform. Finally, we are looking to move to a 700MHz digital public safety radio system. Due to the rural nature of the county as well as the geography, we rely on microwave tech to connect many remote radio towers. Besides those, we also have plans to restart an innovation center within IT to look into AI and smart counties.

Techwire: How many employees are in Ventura County’s IT organization? What’s the county’s approximate annual budget for IT?

Theobald: We have 170 employees in IT with a budget of approximately $64 million.

Techwire: In your time in the private sector and now in government, what project or achievement are you most proud of?

Theobald: I’ve been working for a few years and lost track of all of the projects. Some have had major impacts to the business I was helping. But those systems come and go. I would say my legacy will be that I have spent a lot of time training and mentoring project managers. I have developed a course I used to teach when I was a consultant and adapted it to the county. The training is unique in that we don’t just give the class, but we also have the student select a real project from their organization to work on, and we mentor them through the project. Project management is not a science, it is an art. Any art requires time and mentoring to master well.

Techwire: For those who haven’t worked with you, what should they know about you? What’s your style? How do you like to be contacted by vendors?

Theobald: I am results-focused, have higher than average expectations, and will work with anyone that is putting in the effort. I believe in accountability in the sense (that) those I work with and I are both accountable. Regarding vendors, it is very important they set clear expectations on their deliverables and that they meet them. I get hundreds of emails a week from vendors. Most are not applicable to where we are going at the time they contact us. Having worked in sales for a decade, cold calls have not generated the return for the effort. We are connected to several research groups and government IT consortiums, which is a great way to get access to who is out there.

Techwire: Over the course of your career, have you had a “digital hero,” either in the public or the private sector?

Theobald: It still think Gates, Jobs, Ellison are my heroes. While they did not develop “digital,” they are the ones who figured out how to get people to use it. Anyone remember Lotus 1-2-3? Today, I would say Elon Musk because he is thinking way outside the box. Starlink, Tesla, and my favorite — Space X!  

Techwire: How should IT governance be more like the private sector? How should the IT industry be more like government?

Theobald: I am working on that right now. We have a lot of IT governance, but IT projects do not always have a clear value proposition (not necessarily an ROI). What I mean by that is, to generate value, one must have a baseline. For example, one could say by putting in new technology A, we will attain a 25 percent increase in efficiency. To be able to determine that at the end of the project, we need to know how it is today. In other words, 25 percent relative to what value?

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

Theobald: Three things. One: what other government entities are using technology to accomplish. Two: what technologies are out there. Three: groups of like-minded people considering “what if.”

Techwire:  Can you tell us a little about yourself personally? Do you have a family? Hobbies? What was the last book you read?

Theobald: I have been married for just over 40 years to my lovely and talented wife. We have two daughters. One makes outstanding cheesecakes and manages a restaurant. The other is a technology executive — following in her father’s footsteps. I have more hobbies than I can name or have time for. Ones of interest may be decorating my house with an orchestrated light show (no, you cannot see our house from space … yet), and robotics. I still program in C and am not too shabby with SQL either. I use the robotics to make animatronics for home haunts. As for reading, sci-fi and fantasy are the preferred genres. I get enough of reality at work and on the news.

*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.