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Techwire One-on-One: Elk Grove CIO on Service Focus, User Experience

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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 leaders.

Nicole Guttridge is the inaugural chief information officer at the city of Elk Grove, a position she has occupied for about 13 months. She is a longtime staffer at the city and was previously its IT administrator from September 2012-April 2021.

She is an Oregon State University alumna with a bachelor’s of science in business administration and an emphasis in management of information systems; and a minor in multimedia that focused on computer programming, graphic design and communications.

“I love my job and I love what I do, and I love working at the city of Elk Grove and a lot of it just has to do with the people and the residents that we serve, and how interactive they are and open to technology,” Guttridge said. “I think there’s no better feeling than when you walk out of a meeting that started out with a bunch of frustrated people trying to solve a problem and the light bulb went off, and it was technology that helped them realize that.”

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

Guttridge: I have kind of a unique position in that my role was just recently created. Our one-year anniversary will be – gosh, I think it’s next week, of having this department. And so, I have worked at the city of Elk Grove since 2002, and I was a consultant and I came and I worked on two servers for about 12 hours a week, and as the city has grown, my role has grown, too. I was a consultant and then I worked on the utility billing project when we took over utilities from the county, and all the billing and the data systems behind that. And then they were looking for an IT manager and so I consulted for that, and I have just been a city employee, this is my 11-year anniversary, but I’ve been at the city since 2002. So, pretty much since its inception; we’re a pretty young city, founded and incorporated in 2000. We haven’t been around for 50 years, and we were on mainframe and things like that, and we’ve actually been very cloud-forward with the way that we’ve done things. Our very first (enterprise resource planning) ERP system in 2004 was cloud-based and we’ve been going that direction ever since. As the city has grown size-wise, we’ve also added more departments, brought staff in-house. And right now, we have three separate IT divisions, and before the CIO position and IT was pulled into its own department, those divisions fell underneath other departments. So, the police department had their own IT group and then I oversaw the non-PD IT group and the GIS – so, we have geographical information systems as part of our technology family. So now, all three of those are combined and my role is to lead the ship on technology, and they’re a very talented group of people. ... How I look at IT is, we’re a customer department and our means is using technology with our end users. We do a lot of process analysis, looking at ways that we do things, and I think during COVID-19 – we sent 200 people home that didn’t even have their own city-issued laptops at the time, and we figured it all out in two weeks. All of our workforce is able to work remotely now and it’s a much better experience than what we had before. We want people to trust us. We can’t all be the expert in everything, so let us be the experts in technology and GIS and ask us how we can help make your life easier in your day-to-day process. Everyone at the city of Elk Grove embraces technology. They beg for it, they ask for it, they see things (and) they’re like ‘How can we do this?’ or ‘Gosh, we have this project coming up, what can we do to problem-solve it?’

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

Guttridge: As a new CIO, we’re actually working on our IT strategic plan specifically right now; we’re taking a look at updating our policies and making sure that it’s still in alignment with the ... direction that we’re going. So, that’s a project, actually, for our next fiscal year; we have to take care of all the budgets and stuff before we can tackle that one. I think we’ve moved so quickly in the last couple of years that the attention to document that and write that down on paper needs a little bit of work. So, I think that’s a never-ending and ongoing project, especially with technology and how it changes and our input on that. It’s really nice, now that our department has been formed; we have a seat at the exec table, so there’s a lot more direct conversation and we’ll hear ideas and it’s like ‘Did you know we have a system that already does that?’ or ‘Hey, if you’re going to go out for consultant work, you don’t need to include this IT section anymore because we take care of it.’ We’re a member of [the Municipal Information Systems Association of California] MISAC ... great talented wonderful group of people and they have a ton of resources that we’ve been working with.

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

Guttridge: With the supply chain issues, it’s actually been kind of challenging to issue RFPs. Right now, where we are, our current fiscal year, we have to receive our material by June 30 in order to pay it and shipping – we’ve been trying to convert our conference rooms into Microsoft Teams conference rooms; we did a beta program, we love it, and we’ve been waiting for seven months for the equipment to show up. We’re starting to look internally, like ‘What do we have, what can we do quickly?’ Things like converting to DocuSign and Adobe, the subscription services, things that are easy to do. But I think that ... as far as RFPs go, I think we’re going to be seeing lots of smart city, broadband-related things, things out in the community that we can do to help our residents have a better tech experience within Elk Grove. Our demographics – our population is pretty active with technology, and younger, with lots of families. We just built a huge District 56 facility, and it’s like a community center and a senior center and a huge pond and park; and we’ve got Wi-Fi all over the place, and our aquatic center is set up for competitions and it has its own wireless network for that. As we’re starting to build more community opportunities, we’ll also be issuing RFPs related to that, for various pieces of equipment, maybe some consultant work as well. ... (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) CISA versus monitoring services versus just really keeping our eyes and ears on it and being able to speak directly to exec about that and what we’re doing in the background. Because it trickles down, right? When your department head talks about cybersecurity, it’s like ‘Oh, this is important and not just an email I got about it.’ I think our favorite activity is phishing testing; we send out campaigns, we’ve been doing it for about two years now and people kind of get excited now when they figure it out and don’t get caught.

Techwire: What term or phrase do you use to refer to what many call “digital transformation?” How far along is your organization in that process and how will you know when it's finished?

Guttridge: I don’t think it’s ever finished. I think there’s always new technology and new things coming out that always are changing the landscape of what we can do. I think it’s an interesting question for our city, too, because being so young, we didn’t have a ton of paper processes and things that needed to be converted in the truest sense of old-school digital transformation. So, for us, we’re just really looking back at how we’re processing things, online customer experience – our goal is that City Hall is open to our residents 24-7. We understand that especially with teleworking and things like that, it’s not easy for people to just pick up and come to City Hall. And we don’t want you to if you don’t have to. We’re here to help in any way that we can, so if you have those that want to come down and have a face-to-face, absolutely, we’ll do that. But if you, for instance, are pulling solar permits, and you do it 20 times a day and you just want to process it online and make your payment online and have your permit so you can schedule it – those are the types of things that we’re really looking at to work on in the next year. We’ve been in the process of following it about the last six months to really start looking at our online experience. We’re implementing a new website; that’s been a big project; our public affairs department does that, but obviously IT is partnering with them. And really looking at ways that we can better serve our residents and our customers – and we want people to come visit us. I think as far as digital transformation goes, we’re really looking at our accounting practices and how we’re doing that. There’s new technology with (artificial intelligence) AI from one of the vendors that we use with the potential to – how great would it be if your invoices went to a mailbox, and they just got scanned and received in the system and you just had to approve them? How can we spend our staff time doing meaningful things and how can we automate other things? ... I think one for sure is we got rid of our phone system and went to Teams phones. ... We’re a big Office 365 shop, and we took that stuff and we are officially completely converted and all of our phones come with this.

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

Guttridge: Our two IT divisions, their budgets combined are about $6 million, and that includes staff salaries. And then our GIS budget, that’s also part of our technology family, is about $533,000. We have 12 IT employees and then three GIS employees.

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?

Guttridge: I think in general when you’re trying to work, being inundated by sales calls, things like that can get a little frustrating. I especially liked your LinkedIn question. That drives me nuts, to be honest. It’s frustrating; that used to be a network for professionals to come together, kind of like the Facebook of business stuff. Every day I get 20 instant messages, DMs ... . It seems very impersonal, and I think the best advice I can give to a vendor is, do a little bit of homework. ... And I know it’s hard to be a salesperson, especially without face-to-face and things like that, but it’s just having that little bit of personal touch and it feeling like they did some research.

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

Guttridge: Every five years if you ask me that, I think I would have a different answer. I’m all about teamwork and collaboration. We never do an entire project with one person by themselves, it always involves multiple folks, and we have a great team of IT folks. We tackled the mobile workforce during COVID-19, but a very particular project that came up with that was the Great Plates Delivered program. In the state of California, the (California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services) Cal OES offered a program where if you could partner with local restaurants and feed a certain population of folks that weren’t supposed to be out – high risk, more of our senior population – they did a reimbursement program. So, you got to not only help small businesses that might have gone under during that time when people couldn’t go to restaurants and eat – but turn around and feed our most vulnerable population. And the technology that came through that – we were using GIS and IT and SharePoint, and we were pulling stuff from the outside and the inside and routing delivery schedules for drivers. Things that are very out of our realm that we don’t do all the time, but it was just amazing. There were just so many people throughout the city that came together on that project and helped with customer service and phone lines and vetting out the applications and the mapping and working on the meal selection. It was a phenomenal project, and it went on for almost a year, and when it was done, I think it was bittersweet. ...

Also, just a lot of the cybersecurity stuff that we’re working on right now – I certainly don’t want to say names of vendors and products ... for security purposes, but we have really taken the helm and we’re protecting internally and externally and that is at the forefront of every decision that we’re making about what we’re doing. With our newly formed department, we’ve been able to make purchases and buy equipment that makes our city more connected as far as staff and groups and things like that.

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

Guttridge: I’m not sure there’s anything that would make it a pleasurable activity that people are excited about doing. But honestly, in our city, our purchasing department is really great to work with. Everybody has their own ordinances and rules that you have to follow, so there’s not one magic (thing) for IT procurement that works for everybody. But I do think if you’re a vendor and you have a state contract, that can certainly help assist with the paperwork part of it. I think writing the RFP is sometimes actually the most challenging part, right? You’re trying to share in writing to a bunch of computer systems that are going to read the words that you posted on a website to figure out if they’re going to bid on it. And how do you really write that and share what it is that you’re looking at? If you’re just buying equipment, that’s easy. ... When you’re really looking at a project ... really getting the details of what’s our goal, what are we trying to accomplish, what are the tools that we need to do that? And then when you get 50 proposals, reading through all of them and sorting them out and comparing them and trying to make sure they’re apples to apples – I think that’s the most time-consuming. I don’t have a magic answer for how that gets better, necessarily.

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

Guttridge: Again, I rely on MISAC a lot for communications. They’re constantly putting out papers and webinars and things like that. I love things like Techwire and GovTech* and those quick places to go to get a lot of bits and pieces of information, see what folks are doing. I really love to read about what other cities are doing. Our city is not the same as the city next door, but the concepts and the ideas that we’re doing are often very similar. I’m a big Bloomberg fan. Our city got selected to be in the Mayors Challenge a couple years ago, and I got to work on that project. They have a weekly newsletter that comes out, too. I’m not going to lie; sometimes I like the glossy magazine where you can thumb through. I read a lot of Esri’s stuff as well, their newspaper publication stuff that they do as well.

Editor’s note: Elk Grove was one of 35 Champion Cities chosen as a finalist in Bloomberg Philanthropies 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge.

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

Guttridge: My husband would tell you I don’t sit still. I have a hard time sitting down to even watch television. Right now, I’m getting into a new phase where I’m like, next year, my youngest will be a senior in high school, my husband and I are going to be empty nesters here pretty soon, and I just can’t wrap my head around that and what I’m going to do. They drive now, so they don’t need me to chauffeur and whatnot. But we spend a lot of time with our kids and doing activities with them. And then, I like to organize things, so during COVID-19 not only my inbox but every drawer in our house got cleaned out and purged and organized, and I’m pretty sure I drive the men in my life a little nuts with my organizational stuff. But when you get stuck at home and you don’t have anywhere else to go, you’ve got to get a little creative. I’m more of a magazine reader; I have a hard time sitting still long enough to read a really long book, but one of my college roommates’ mom wrote a nonfiction book, and that was the last book for fun that I read. That was about a town ... that we kind of grew up near in Oregon, so it was kind of cool to read something from someone that I knew personally. And then, the last workbook that I’ve been reading is (on) emotional intelligence. I’ve read it before but it’s just a good reminder that not everybody thinks and operates the way I do and how can you be open to that and recognize other people’s talents and how they work and function.

*Government Technology magazine is a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Techwire. Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for style and brevity.