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Techwire One-on-One: County CIO on Virtualization, Web Content Management

“We tried the cloud five years ago and it just wasn’t there yet. It was too expensive and too slow; there were too many limitations. But I think it’s ready now and my big commitment here for the county is, I want to take our business continuity plan to a whole other level,” says Jim Smith, chief information officer for Riverside County.

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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.
Jim Smith, chief information officer at the County of Riverside.
Jim Smith is chief information officer at the county of Riverside, a position he has held since March. He is a longtime county employee who joined Riverside in July 2015 as assistant CIO before becoming chief technology officer in June 2017, a position he held for nearly four years. Before joining the public sector, Smith was most recently technical account manager at Microsoft.

Smith majored in computer science and minored in math at California State University, Fullerton; he is a Microsoft Certified Professional. He is a volunteer with SmartRiverside, where he assists in the logistics of the nonprofit’s annual golf tournament, according to LinkedIn.

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?

Smith: I think the pandemic has changed an awful lot of things for us. It’s forced us to dive in the deep end of things like telecommuting and remote workforce and doing meetings like this. We’ve done a complete 180 from where we were. It sounds like most IT departments have stepped up, including Riverside County. We were almost immediately able to offer telecommuting for our entire workforce if it met the needs of each of the agencies. And most agencies took us up on it and sent a lot of their workers home, grabbed desktops if necessary; we handed them out laptops, which were hard to come by for a while there. We got everybody on mobile devices and sent them home. I’m fairly new in the CIO role; I’ve only been in this role now for about four months. I’ve been in IT for about 30 years, and so I’ve always been more the technical guy. And so I think I bring a little bit more – to the chagrin of my team, sometimes – of the technical focus, and I’m really looking at what they’re putting together. And I can say, ‘Why are we doing this this way? Maybe we need to make a little bit more of a tweak.’ And that’s where with this virtualization, it’s a big part of my strategy to make us cloud-ready. We tried the cloud five years ago and it just wasn’t there yet. It was too expensive and too slow; there were too many limitations. But I think it’s ready now, and my big commitment here for the county is, I want to take our business continuity plan to a whole other level. Which today really relies on tape backup (which) we’ve used for 50 years. And it works well. ... But the systems are so large and there are so many of them now, with a major outage, we’d be looking at weeks to get systems back, maybe months. So, I ... think the time is now to really embrace hybrid cloud and understand the dynamic chargeback costs of that cloud and offer that as an added service to our customers. As an internal service fund, we charge for all the services that we provide back to various departments. We directly manage about 10,000 of the users in the county; indirectly, 25,000. Mostly, the elected officials are not part of our support – the sheriff, the D.A., the (assessor-county clerk-recorder). But for those that we do provide support for, we ... would like to be able to offer ... if they need that level of high availability, we can offer it for X cost in the cloud. Eventually, I think if we get enough takers on that and the price continues to come down, we will be able to ... roll it into a part of our rate for the county.

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

Smith: We have not had a published strategic plan for the IT department since 2016. It has kind of been secondary to getting things done. And these five-year strategic plans are a little too far out, we’ve found. I think in the IT world, two to three years is about as far out as you can really look because it keeps changing. We are going to be developing a strategic plan in Riverside. The executive office is working on a countywide strategic plan, which I’m sure IT will play a big role in. And then, we will kind of spin off our own stand-alone strategic plan, based off of that.

Editor’s note: In February, Riverside County named Jeffrey Van Wagenen its new county executive officer. The government expects to have its countywide strategic plan complete by the end of the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

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?

Smith: The big one is the virtualization. It’s replacing our entire virtual environment in our data center. The first five years that I was here with the county were all about centralizing everything into that data center. We used VMware as our virtualization platform, and we have a very robust private cloud. ... VMware cloud foundation is what we’re going to be basing our environment on so that we have 100 percent compatibility with Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Virtualization is going to be a big part of our plan. Another big project we have coming up, we completed our HR upgrade of PeopleSoft (now owned by Oracle) this last fiscal year, so now we’re working on bringing the financial system up to the current version 9.2 (also via PeopleSoft). That’s going to be a big upgrade this year. I think the big challenge right now is trying to bring people back into the (workplace). ... Employees are loving it, they don’t want to come back. We’re still kind of waiting for a lot of the state to set some guidelines and standards. It’s kind of a waiting game right now; we’re still predominantly in a telecommuting mode, which is still an adjustment trying to figure out how to manage people remotely. The other big (project), but it did already go out to RFP, we’re evaluating it right now, it’s pretty high profile, is our web content management platform. We have very disbursed, distributed websites all over the place, and when you go to the county website and you start going off to other department websites, they look and feel different, they’re hosted on different sites, they’ve got different domain names. You can’t really tell if you’re still in the county ecosystem. We’re ... (going) to bring everything together, host it in the cloud so that when you go into the county and you move from one department to another department, you know you’re in the county ecosystem; you can do searches across everything. Chatbot functionality, all that will work across all the different departments. And I think it’s going to allow constituents to connect with government a lot better ... than they have previously. We also use Jaggaer ... as our procurement platform that integrates into PeopleSoft. We have to go through an upgrade with them ... simultaneously.

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?

Smith: Digital transformation is one of those ubiquitous, cloudy terms; it can mean so many different things. I really think that it is about adapting government to any device, any platform, anywhere. Whether it be a phone, a tablet, a PC, a SMART Board, kiosks, however it is that you can connect better with your constituents. And that’s a big area where we’re looking to transform along with this web content management (project), is just to connect better. Mobile apps – we have a couple of apps that we have published out ... . And I don’t think we’ll ever be there, honestly. I think the landscape just keeps changing. I think the other big part of transformation that’s kind of the $64,000 question is, broadband is just the big thing. In large counties like Riverside County, geographically, we still have a lot of disconnected constituents that either have very low or no high-speed Internet connectivity. I know we’re ... with some other local agencies in Southern California, going to the federal government and state government, looking for a total of about $8 billion to help bridge the digital divide and bring higher-speed connectivity to some of these more disenfranchised communities in the county. I think we’re going to look to leverage, probably, providers to help more rather than us getting involved, and just providing rights of way and easements and things to help them build out their infrastructure in those environments.

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

Smith: Our budget is about $92 million. And we have ... 426 employees on the books. We typically have about a 10 percent vacancy factor in there; we’re always recruiting. It’s very hard to find qualified people ... and then the ones that you do find, the salary – it’s a very competitive market out there right now. ... We indirectly influence probably another $100 million on the IT front. Within those other agencies like the sheriff and the D.A., we still set standards, and there’s things that they have to buy and integrate; we kind of set direction and we work and integrate with them to make sure that they’re compatible.

Editor’s note: in June, county supervisors approved a $6.88 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021, which began July 1.

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?

Smith: LinkedIn works well, email works well. I’m fine if you publish my county email address. I typically do look at and respond to all my own email. Setting up appointments like this, typically my assistant will reach out and work out a time for that. Through LinkedIn and probably direct email are the best ways. Phone calls direct – I get so many spam calls that they’ve got to figure out a way to fix that. And I’ve gotten rid of my desk phone, so another big thing that we’re doing as far as trying to transform the county, making people mobile, is to teach them that we don’t need a desk phone – that’s $1,000 for that device that I don’t have to replace. ... We’ve got to educate people on how to use the tools that they have and make the most of them to avoid duplicate spend.

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

Smith: As CIO, I haven’t had a lot of time yet; I’m going to just finish going through the budget process and some big purchases which I’m proud that we’ve ... gotten done. As CTO prior to being CIO, it really was consolidating all the data centers around the county into our central data center, which is enterprise-class. It is a top of the line, Tier III-like data center. And I’m really hoping I can convince the city of Riverside to join us over there because it’s in the city limits, it’s on city power, city fiber, city water. ... I’m very, very proud of that building. Walking people through and to see the cabling, you really have to open up the covers of things to understand people’s commitment to quality and good work. When you look in the backs of racks, I’m always one of those guys, because I’m a geek ... if I go in and I’m visiting people, I’m looking in the back of the racks, how are they doing their cable management. Ours is beautiful; it is a work of art, and the people who work on that, I am so proud of what they do.

Editor’s note: The project began in 2015 and wrapped in 2019.

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

Smith: For me, the toughest thing – and I understand it – in the procurement process, is trying to drive competition. I’ve never believed in RFPs, most of my career, I’ve seen RFPs fail over and over and over again because nobody owns the solution. They end up getting stuck with whatever the solution is. I prefer doing RFQs. Going out, looking at the technology, evaluating the vendors firsthand. Picking the technology, building out the parts list and then going to bid on that parts list. And you’ve kind of already pitted the vendors against each other in that initial process, so you’re getting budgetary and preliminary pricing that keeps coming down, which helps you make that decision. Leaving it up to the IT department ... we’re so often stuck with having to provide single-source, sole-source justifications to people who don’t understand why this is technologically better than this. And I would like them to just trust me. I’ve got 30 years of successful projects behind me, not one has ever failed, and some of them are still running. If they would trust us and eliminate some of the procurement hurdles, I think that would help an awful lot.

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

Smith: I follow LinkedIn, what people that I follow (read) and what they follow; I tend to catch a lot of those. I get a lot of emails from different tech publishers ... and I browse through those. In the days when I had a lot more time, I would read a lot of (publications) like InformationWeek and try to understand what’s going on. But anymore, it is so busy from 7 a.m. ’til 7 or 8 p.m. at night, I’m working and meeting after meeting. So, it’s mostly, again, whatever pops into my inbox that might catch my eye. Sometimes, a colleague will forward over, ‘Hey, this is a really good article that you’ve got to take a look at,’ so I allow other people to help me filter out, because there is so much out there. And then every once in a while, I just go browse.

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

Smith: I love any place that’s along the coast. My wife and I are beach nuts. I very rarely get a chance to read for pleasure anymore, but when I do, I’ve always been a fan of mysteries, the Sherlock Holmes series and Agatha Christie books. I’m a big fan of Stephen King; I used to try to catch up with everything he had, but he finally started writing them faster than I could read them. But going to the beach, relaxing, barbecuing, hanging out with family and friends to the extent I get, which isn’t a lot, that’s what I enjoy doing.

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