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Techwire One-on-One: General Services CIO on Automation, Moving to Cloud

Gary Renslo, chief information officer at the California Department of General Services, explains how his role has evolved with the department and discusses DGS' embrace of automation and e-signature among other initiatives; and its ongoing move to cloud.

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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.

Gary Renslo is chief information officer at the California Department of General Services, a position he has held since March 1, 2018. Renslo, a 23-plus-year state employee, had previously been acting CIO for less than a year; and before that, had been named chief technology officer at DGS in September 2014. As CTO, he oversaw department applications, infrastructure, and enterprise architecture and guided DGS’ move into automation. Since Renslo became CIO, the National Association of State Chief Administrators has recognized DGS’ technological accomplishments twice in the last two years — in 2019, for its work on e-signatures for acquisition; and in 2018, for secure, easy-to-use file transfers. Renslo came to DGS from the Department of Health Care Services’ Mental Health Services Division following its absorption into DHCS. He holds a Master’s of Science in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from California State University, Sacramento.

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

Renslo: So, at this point, and I don’t mean to have it be a catch-all phrase, but obviously, strategic business partner with the executive staff at DGS, and that’s all the deputies. We have quite a few deputies that are appointed by the governor, so this department is a little bit different that way. We have our director and our executive team that all collaborate on the different services that DGS provides. It’s quite a different set of services; we have very different lines of business … . We have our procurement division, our office of administrative hearings, our office of the state publisher. Very, very different lines of business, and so one of my challenges has been, how do we serve such varied lines of business with one IT shop?

We have … about 140 applications but not, I would say, huge applications. Most of our application projects are less than $3 million. (Dating back to 2014) the role was more about basic infrastructure. There was quite a change, going from having appropriate desktop services, having appropriate backup services, having appropriate network services. Those first couple of years were getting our bearings and establishing essential services for the department. And we didn’t have as much opportunity, other than making a very stable infrastructure for the department, to get into the other aspect of IT which is so fun, which is how do we help the business do their job more effectively, more efficiently, cost effectively and provide better services to their customer?

I would say we started our ability to pick that up about two years after that. (Around 2016) we started to phase out of the rudimentary, more into the business side. What I mean is, we have established an IT governance within the department that is shared by deputies within the department or their chief delegate, for setting what projects do we have in the department and the appropriate approval and priority of those projects.

We have had a good governance group for a solid three years now, helping make those strategic decisions. We’ve also worked with our entire executive office on strategic planning — and I don’t know if you’ve seen our strategic plan on our website, but a good percentage of it, typically 40 percent or so, has some type of IT component. And we are embedded in the … annual process where the deputies think about their IT objectives with their business objectives and submit strategic goals to us that are business goals, but they’re IT-related, so that we can review them ahead of time and help them with visioning their technology road map and where they’re headed. That has changed and improved over the last few years … and we are honed in on that business partnership. Not only in terms of the CIO role now versus how it was before — I am a part of the executive team and it wasn’t that way before.

So, we have areas of focus. The other thing that we have done within our shop is to assess what are our common core services and what are the skill sets that we have to have to support that? And so, we have a business analyst team and a project management team and a test team, and I leverage those across the departments for improved services. Our project management is so successful that we actually, as an office, provide project management support and guidance for the rest of the department. These project management techniques are not unique to just IT. We’re working to build and continue to build those core competencies and consolidate on outlier skill sets or outlier technologies and just get more staff that know how to do one thing better. And on the app side we have a focus on cloud-based Microsoft Azure development in .NET. And so we have a cloud initiative — I’ve challenged my team to move our entire data center into the cloud within the next four years and so we will basically have no footprint other than network services within DGS. We heavily leverage both Azure and Amazon Web Services for those cloud initiatives and I think it really afforded us a good advantage during this time right now.

Renslo estimates DGS is roughly 30 percent complete on moving applications into the cloud. Its entire Oracle environment is also now in the cloud.

By starting that early, we were well-positioned for COVID-19. And so … I like the direction that we set out in — when I say ‘we’ it’s our team, our enterprise architecture team and our apps team and our infrastructure team as well. We already had a virtual desktop VDI solution in place. We already had multifactor authentication in place for cloud services … . We already rolled out Office 365 to all our staff, so that we had a starting point. So, basically, when COVID hit and we all went to our telework environment, quite a few of us, at least those of us that could telework, we already had the tools in place and people just needed to take their computers home and they were ready to go. We already had a virtual private network (VPN) in place so you could connect from home through the Internet to your secure resources at work. It worked really well. I actually started telework within my shop a year earlier.

We’ll continue to work with our business partners. I have lots of different venues. One is the exec team — I meet with each deputy twice a year to develop their business, strategic and corollary technology strategic road map together. We kind of circulate within each office on that partnership technology planning along with their business strategic plan. Looking out typically about three years to see where we’re going. And then we look for similar work efforts where we can.

One of those areas we focused on is workflow automation. Workflow automation, I think, is one of the low-hanging fruits of improving state business collaboration and state business processes. … What we’re looking to do is modernize our forms portal and our data collection methods around workflow. And we have started some initiatives with that. For instance, internally, we now have a workflow and e-signature process for our procurements. … They’re entered into a workflow system that tracks, has metrics, has service-level agreements for performance monitoring. And then it ultimately sends the procurement to a vendor as an e-signature document; comes back immediately, we can approve it, enter it in to FI$Cal and send it out to SEO as a final electronic document. That was about a year-and-a-half effort that we helped shepherd to bring in this new era of workflow automation and electronic signature. …

From that come dashboards so that we can see how we’re doing. And a lot of that in telework has to do with how are you doing? What are you measuring. We’re moving towards outcomes-focused; and when I say 'moving towards,' we have been, but in the sense of looking at metrics and how you’re doing against those metrics. We’re currently at that point, looking at KPIs [key performance indicators], by business line and then improving on those KPIs as we go. It’s really exciting to be working in workflow. Our particular tool that we’ve adopted … is ServiceNow. We hold the statewide ServiceNow forums and collaboratives; … we invite local governments as well as all state departments. There are about 40 state departments using ServiceNow and we’re leveraging our common experiences to improve across the state in the capabilities of what you can implement in ServiceNow. We look at it for (IT service management) ITSM solutions like service desk, incidents, problem management, change. But also application flow and applications development where you have workflow. That’s something I want to expand on as we move forward, so even with COVID, we’re going to be holding our forums. Probably in the next month or so we’ll start those back up again … .

E-signature’s going to be an initiative that I want to stick with. It’s been difficult for people to understand e-signature, what tools you use and the definitions of what certificates mean, how you use them and that kind of thing. I have in mind to improve on our e-tools or e-signature tools webpage that we have now; it’s on our public page, and start to post user guides, implementation guides, and how other departments and any government or anyone actually can implement e-signature. That will help with telework as well.

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

Renslo: I’m deeply involved and so is my team. Our business analysts are immersed in what the business does. That is their job … . When they pull their information together, we then align a technology strategy that goes with it, but also then bring in how the current tools, whether they’re cloud-based, Platform or Software-as-a-Service tools, can help meet their needs. We work with them on every single initiative that they bring up. We call that a business case. As soon as they come up with an idea, we have a simple two-page document to write a business case, which highlights what their high-level requirements are; and then that takes us into a solutioning phase where we look at all the different tools that we have as standard. We do a Gartner review to see what tools might be out there that we don’t know about and kind of assess that with them.

But for the most part, we try and look at our core set that we have now and see how can we best get you in to the tools that we have — and again, they’re typically around workflow and data, data capture and how we can use the tools we have to get them there. They’re already cloud-focused, so they can work from anywhere, so the customers can work from anywhere. That’s just … as a given today. But it’s a very close partnership. When they have their ideas, we get them early. For their strategic planning, we ask for their input by May for the next year. We start working with them that early on their initiatives and where they’re going. Some of it might be business improvement, how do we get more effective, how do they save their customers time, how do they get more dashboarding on their progress and things like that. A lot of it is around workflow. And (it) might be legislatively required.

Techwire: 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?

Renslo: Ours are typically a little bit smaller RFPs. I know our Office of Administrative Hearings is looking for a new case management system. I’d expect to see something there over the next year. … Another one … it’s a smaller one, but it’s important to us, we recently … standardized on the Adobe Experience Manager Suite and Adobe Sign. That was an RFP we recently had and then another product that we’re moving into is Cornerstone for LMS (Learning Management System). That’s an enterprise strategy as well. But again, we don’t typically have those, like, $100 million IT projects that are so large.

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?

Renslo: You heard me talk a lot about workflow automation. So, for me, I would say that’s the digital transformation that I’m looking for. Getting to a point where business process is automated to the extent that procedures are simply a part of the system. And that a manager at any level can look into their system and see how they’re doing. They can see the progress either in quantity, in responsiveness to customers, in total cost. That their business at an executive level is informed by dashboards. To me that’s a digital transformation. Certainly, coming off of any paper process, any routed process, and certainly incorporating approvals through e-signature, if that’s what’s needed. So, ideally, there’s no lost documents, there’s no lost packages. There’s just workflow, and something that you can track all the way through.

How do you know when it’s finished? I guess, when we’re done automating all of them. So, for us, it’s what do we need to automate internally? What do we need to automate out to our customers that we work with, so that they have responsiveness. I think a lot of this digital transformation is around a good user experience. So, that’s very important, that they’re informed with whatever request that they’ve submitted and they know the status of it. And that they have a useful and informative interface, I guess, on the way in.

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

Renslo: IT is around $36 million. And overall DGS, I don’t know … this department’s more about a reimbursement basis. Technology is a portion of distributed admin, which includes accounting and HR and other admin services. … This department and this executive leadership has extremely valued IT. And I know that because they have helped with BCPs (business change proposals); they’ve helped with support creating more positions, more permanent positions for this department. That’s been fantastic.

My steady state goal is about 180 staff. We have about 3,600 total and that’s been something we’re achieving. Against that goal, we’re at about a 13 percent vacancy rate. I’ll be happy when we get down to about 4 (percent). Last year at this time, I was at a 27 percent vacancy rate. My managers have been doing a fantastic job and so we’ve been hiring great people and we’ve been just working hard.

Per the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year Budget, DGS’ approved budget is slightly more than $1.26 billion.

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

Renslo: That’s an interesting thing. That’s changed over time. Vendors used to — I had a quarterly call with them and that worked in some areas and brought in some tools. They contact me directly either via email or phone call. And then, they contact our CTO, so generally, if there’s a fit with their offering within our technology road map, then I hook them up, basically, with their next level. If it looks like we have a match on a need at any given time or a road map item, then we usually have a getting-to-know-you call of some type.

At this point, I haven’t had too many new cold calls that really have resulted in something new for me. I think I might be a little harder than I used to be. I do have an enterprise architecture group too that may look at new openings and get in touch with vendors based on their research of where technology is going. So, then, usually, we’ll reach out. … And we usually go in order of software as a service first, platform as a service and then custom development. It’s kind of a typical path.

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

Renslo: The first thing that came to mind is I am incredibly proud of the team we have here in IT. I think we’ve worked hard to hire the best skill sets possible, both as managers and in each key area. I’m incredibly proud of this team. We have a really good working relationship among the managers and among the managers and staff that are all just great together. That’s a great achievement that I’m proud of.

We received a 2018 National Association of State Chief Administrators award, and that was for implementation of a secure file transfer process for our Office of Administrative Hearing. And it was a way for them to work with their customers seamlessly and securely because they have confidential information. It saved them time and it gave customers a much better status and view of what’s happening in their cases. It was kind of novel in that the technologies we used are all cloud-based, of course, and integrated with their case management system.

But then, I guess I’m also proud that we got it two years in a row. In 2019, we got an award for innovation in state government … for e-signature for acquisition. That was an incredible achievement for us to completely come off the paper, have automated workflow throughout the department and e-signature to the vendor for signature of a contract.

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

Renslo: That’s tricky, because we’re a control agency for procurement. I would say, to the best extent possible, lean the process, streamline it, get faster for everyone’s sake. And I sense there isn’t a vendor out there that wouldn’t agree with that. I can think about it all the way from small purchases to large ones. And there are reasons for it; there’s policy law that’s out there for fairness. It’s bidding and practice and I think part of this process we have with that acquisitions system, we’re going to be able to get better and better metrics about what we can lean and improve in that process. … But I would like to get to that at some point with our procurement division, to see, so what can we lean out of the process?

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

Renslo: I review Gartner articles for things that I need to learn more on or whatever that might be — CIO strategies within the department and how you get best practices among the department or cloud initiatives; standards in hardware and software. So, I often refer to Gartner for that information.

And then I often really rely on my enterprise architects and their suggestions as well, for where we need to go with technology. Interestingly, though, I feel we have such good input from our primary partners such as Microsoft that we actually are kind of leading the way.

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

Renslo: It’s always relaxing for me to garden. I have a multitude of fruit trees, vegetables and things like that. I like to watch things grow and kind of see the rewards of that, I suppose. Not unlike some of my development philosophies, too; I like projects to be nine months or less and broken up into chunks of success. So, that’s relaxing for me. I love sci-fi, obviously; I mean, I’m in IT, I guess that goes without saying. I actually watch a lot of sci-fi on TV. There’s some great programs out there on Netflix and (Amazon) Prime. So, I do that as well. But as far as that, reading, I don’t know, maybe classics like “Lord of the Rings.” I can’t get enough of that and I do find the book to be much more specific than the movie. And there was a show on Tolkien himself that was really illuminating as to his life and being in the world war, how that impacted his imagination. It’s fascinating to see biographies as well.

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

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