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Techwire One-on-One: Conservation Corps CIO on Remote Work, Rise of Digital Process

“I try to share with my staff that evidence of we are doing a great job is when we are invisible, and our coworkers get their job done seamlessly,” says Jorge Henneke, chief information officer for the California Conservation Corps.

Jorge Henneke - CCC (1).jpg
Jorge Henneke, chief information officer for the California Conservation Corps.
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As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to educate readers on state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT and cybersecurity leaders.

Jorge Henneke is chief information officer for the California Conservation Corps (CCC), a position he has held for nearly two years. He is a longtime state employee who entered state service in November 2009 when he joined the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as a systems software specialist. In March 2016, Henneke joined the Department of Conservation – like the CCC, an entity that’s under the umbrella Natural Resources Agency – as a systems software specialist III (supervisor). He moved to the California Department of Veterans Affairs in March 2018 as an IT manager I before becoming CIO at CCC in December 2019.

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?

Henneke: When I share with people that I am the head of IT for the CCC or California Conservation Corps, often the conversation quickly turns from what I do to what the CCC does and the programs that we offer young adults. The CCC, in my opinion, has the best mission of any state department. In my role as CIO, my primary responsibility is facilitating all things technology-related that support our department’s mission. Like many government agencies, the pandemic forced our team to embrace multiple priorities, from supporting the sudden transition to telework to providing recommendations for specific technology challenges to finding new platforms for recruiting staff and Corps members. I like to say that we don’t do technology for technology’s sake. We are here to support the mission of the department in any way possible and IT should function like a utility. As customers, we expect our electricity and water to come on and work when needed. I believe IT should function the same way. I try to share with my staff that evidence that we are doing a great job is when we are invisible, and our coworkers get their job done seamlessly. If we make mistakes, then we are suddenly in the spotlight and work across the organization is impacted, sometimes coming to a complete halt. That is really one of the main things that has changed for the role of CIO in recent years, is the now total dependence on technology for nearly all tasks.

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

Henneke: I have been with the CCC since December 2019, so the current strategic plan predates me. In future planning, I expect to stay in the role of technology facilitator in support of the department mission. In some cases that will include me advocating for non-IT solutions. I don’t see technology as the solution for everything.

Techwire: What big initiatives or projects are coming in 2021? What sorts of RFPs should we be watching for in the next six to 12 months?

Henneke: By most standards we don’t have any “big” IT initiatives on the horizon. We have a number of planned projects to improve communications at our centers, many of which are in remote areas and have outdated services. My goal for the coming year is to provide reliable and fast network and voice communications to all of our centers, along with Wi-Fi in all Corps-member living and recreation areas.

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

Henneke: Digital transformation is such a broad topic. In some ways it goes back 20-plus years to the idea of a paperless office. CCC has adopted many digital processes over the last couple of years, with a significant increase coming as a result of the pandemic and remote workforce. Many forms that used to be routed around the office for wet signatures are now created and sent using DocuSign and never have to be printed at all. Another component to digital transformation is how the CCC shares the message of who we are and what we do. If the CCC was trying to recruit someone when I was 18 to 25, I would have expected flyers in the mail, posters around high school and college campuses and booths at recruiting fairs. Now, that recruiting work is online via the CCC public website (one of the best in the state, I would argue), social media, network television commercials and YouTube. The answer to when we will be finished is never. There will always be room to evolve and improve.

Techwire: What is your estimated IT budget and how many employees do you have? What is the overall budget?

Henneke: Our annual IT budget is $4 million. The IT team consists of 14 permanent, full-time staff and one student assistant. CCC’s overall budget for (fiscal year) 2020-21 is $144 million. A percentage of the department budget is earned by the labor of our Corps members working in partnership with city, county, state and federal sponsors.

Techwire: How do you prefer to be contacted by vendors, including via social media such as LinkedIn? How might vendors best educate themselves before meeting with you?

Henneke: This is a tough question to answer. The best vendor contacts I have made in my career were either at trade shows or via mutual connections. On any given day, I receive 30 to 50 unsolicited vendor emails and five to 10 phone calls. For the most part, it is impossible to give each enough time to understand what they are offering and whether it would be worth looking at further. In many cases, the vendor has not done enough research to even understand that we are a state of California entity. The best way for a vendor to educate themselves would be a thorough review of the CCC website and to watch some of our clips on YouTube. Our motto is “Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions and More.” Understanding what that motto means is a great way to get ready for a meeting.

Techwire: In your tenure in this position, which project or achievement are you most proud of?

Henneke: If the last question was the toughest, this is the easiest. I am most proud of how this team responded to the pandemic. Before I even started with CCC, the groundwork had already been laid by providing laptops to most users and a VPN solution that could support the whole department. With the sudden switch to telework, only a small handful of staff had to be migrated from a desktop to a laptop and then they were able to work from home. All of the credit for the successful move to telework belongs to IT specialists and associates who did everything they could to ensure all systems remained functional and that a drop in customer support was never experienced.

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

Henneke: I don’t know that I would change anything about IT procurement. It can be a laborious process, but we have a responsibility to safeguard taxpayer dollars and the procurement processes are there to make sure we do.

Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the govtech/SLED sector?

Henneke: I spend a portion of each day reading. This includes online publications including Techwire, bulletins coming from CDT (the California Department of Technology), security alerts, and just about anything else that may have a technology component to it. I also try to communicate regularly with friends and contacts in the public and private sector to see what they are doing and things they have learned.

Techwire: What are your hobbies, and what do you enjoy reading?

Henneke: I have always enjoyed anything with two wheels. For fun and exercise, I do a bit of road cycling around Yolo County, where I live. When the snow melts each spring, I take my motorcycle up to some of the off-road trails at higher elevations.

I will read just about anything, but my favorites always center around historical events. I am currently reading a historical fiction series set during World War II, but my absolute favorites are anything by David McCullough. I used to travel a lot for work, so I would find any David McCullough book that he narrated and would drive the state listening as he read.

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