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Techwire One-on-One: Marin County CIO on Data Sharing, Cloud-First Work

Liza Massey
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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.

Liza Massey is the chief information officer for the county of Marin, a position she has held since May 2018. A 30-year IT leader, she was previously CIO at the Tennessee Department of Human Services from February 2015 to January 2017. Her positions before that include two years as president and CEO of the Nashville Technology Council and six years as founder and CEO of The CIO Collaborative, which offered consulting services to the public and private sectors. Massey is a former longtime senior fellow at The Center for Digital Government.* She has a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and accounting, and a master’s in public administration, both from Troy University in Troy, Ala.

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?

Massey: I’ve been here about three years and when I was hired, the role I was hired for was fairly traditional. I’ve been in IT leadership positions for 30 years or more. I was to lead the internal IT department, serving the other departments so that they can provide services to the public. The role started to evolve to more of one of partnering with the departments to develop these solutions. And then, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it really accelerated and deepened those partnerships because we had to roll out services very quickly. And it also allowed IT employees, myself included, to serve as disaster service workers. Because when you are hired by a public agency in California, you’re automatically a disaster service worker. And so, in addition to the back-end technology things we did to support the COVID-19 response, we were out on the front line — helping the homeless get into hotels, and I actually worked a mass vaccination center ... several times during the pandemic. That is the difference in our role, to be out there on the ground. Over the last year, though, I’ve been leading a collaborative, cross-sector community project to help bridge the digital divide and get broadband for all. My role has really evolved into more public-facing, public interacting. Which I really like, because you get to see the enthusiasm, the interest, the needs and be developing solutions right on the ground.

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

Massey: Marin County is one of, I’d say, the flattest organizations I’ve ever been in, where employees from the front line to the leadership work together. And that’s true about our strategic plan. As a department head, I’m actually a member of the county’s executive leadership team, and we’re responsible for organization-wide initiatives and then leading our departments. The process to develop the plan has always been inclusive of all employees, for several years. Right now, we’ve transitioned to a two-year rolling plan, so that every year we’re looking a couple years out instead of ... a static five- or 10-year plan. I’m actually responsible for one of the three focus areas, Innovation and Change, so I’m very involved. My own department is — all departments, actually — are required to have a strategic plan, and we make sure that ours is in alignment with the county’s priorities and the overall plan. And then not just that we’re aligned with it, but that what we do enables the goals and priorities to be met.

Editor’s note: Marin County’s five-year strategic plan recently ended and officials are finalizing a rolling two-year plan for approval by the Board of Supervisors.

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

Massey: Internally, to the county and to the IT department, we’ve been implementing a cloud-first strategy; and one of the big projects where we’re helping to move systems to the cloud and replace legacy systems is in our justice community. The courts and the sheriff’s office are already moving forward with new solutions, but we still need to maintain integration and replace systems for probation, the public defender, the district attorney. That’s something that’s going to happen over the next six, 12, 18, 24 months. It’s a large project. Another strategic project that we are moving forward on is procuring and implementing low-code enterprise platforms. So that for our own team, we can rapidly deploy solutions, (and) reuse components of those solutions. And also, we’re pushing out things to departments where it’s low code or no-code so that they can develop their own solutions that don’t require a lot of back-end processing or workflow. Then on the collaborative project, the community-based project I mentioned — it’s actually called Digital Marin — we are drafting the infrastructure strategic plan. It’s almost done. We are going to move that plan into operation, and what that means is we will be deploying much more broadband infrastructure; we will be looking at distribution of laptops and computers and other devices to those who don’t have the means to obtain them themselves. We’re going to be increasing digital literacy training across the whole county. We also plan to move forward with data sharing projects among government but also among government nonprofits, businesses, health care, so there’s a lot of opportunity there. And we’re looking at potentially managed services where our cities and towns and the county work together to buy single systems or roll out single systems instead of each one having their own.

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?

Massey: Well, first, I define digital transformation pretty simply. It’s using technology to improve business. In this case, it’s government’s business, but to improve our business processes to meet our public’s needs, our residents, our businesses, our visitors. ... And that includes internal and external. We have to use solutions to improve our internal processes to better provide services to the public. We’ve been moving steadily forward in our digital transformation efforts for some time. Even before I joined three years ago ... . I mentioned when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, we really accelerated those digital solutions. We had to pivot really quickly and we actually reprioritized and took some of our resources — both funding and our IT people and people in other departments — and focused them on the COVID-19 response. Our digital transformation, the good news, silver lining, is the digital transformation really accelerated and there was significant progress made. Because it wasn’t just COVID-19 response solutions like you now can get your marriage license online, you can schedule appointments for pretty much anything — pickup and delivery. All of those things that people just took for granted they’re going to come on-site, they now can do online. In addition to — there’s traditional online services but it really was out of the box. In terms of finishing, I personally believe we’ll never finish, for two reasons. The public’s needs will continue to evolve. They just do. And then, the tools and technologies continue to evolve. We’re looking at how do we integrate bots and AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning? We have a little bit of machine learning on our information security side, but how do we continue to integrate that, especially to serve those that want to use the digital resources? Not that we want to turn off phones or not let anybody come see us. But there are people like me who would just as soon interact with a computer and get it done at 11 p.m.

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

Massey: Our operating budget, or our baseline budget in IT, is around $21 million a fiscal year. But we also get IT funding for projects. We have a governance process and prioritize things across the county. And this fiscal year, we have a little over $2 million that was given to us to do ... IT projects with departments. And that number varies year by year. Last year it wasn’t much, because we were worried. The county budget overall is approximately $620 million. We’re a county of about 260,000 residents. My department has about 90 employees, but again, that number expands based on projects that get funded. And so, due governance, we look at projects. The only way we approve them and say we’re going to do them is if we actually look at the staff resources as well as the software, hardware and ongoing costs.

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?

Massey: This is probably going to sound a little harsh, but this is my process after, again, over 30 years in the business. First, my senior leadership team in IT, which happens to be the departments, division heads. They’re really strong leaders. I trust them completely to identify solutions to the county’s business problems and to identify vendors, talk with them, and make recommendations to me. I do not typically talk to vendors. I’m in a large enough department and I have this trusted team that I believe I don’t need to, because I don’t want to be looking at solutions in search of a problem and then pushing it from the top down. I think vendors really, really need to consider that. They don’t have to go to the highest decision-maker. But I do reach out to vendors if I’m working on a project myself. I’ve already reached out to a few this year that we’re contracting with for the project I’m working on. And I’ll just tell you, I seldom answer the phone unless I know who’s calling. I do not return voicemail messages, unsolicited voicemail messages from vendors. I don’t respond to unsolicited email or LinkedIn messages. I actually block unsolicited vendor emails. I do accept LinkedIn requests to connect even if I don’t reply to their message because I want to build the network of vendors that I can contact or suggest my team contacts. Again, I think that probably sounds harsh. But frankly, if I responded to all of the phone calls, email messages, etc., that I get, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. And I know many of my peers feel the same way. ... The suggestion I would give is that the vendors contact the division heads, an executive or a leader over the operating divisions. And if they can’t find that person’s contact information or they don’t see an org chart, that they ask me — I don’t mind answering that, passing stuff along — or they call the main department and get information. These people know the county’s needs ... even better than I do since my main focus is on leadership and I typically do one big thing, one big project a year, which this year is Digital Marin. Now, with all of that said, I prefer to talk to vendors at conferences, when I have a choice to select which of them I meet. ... But again, I appreciate vendors, I contact them through my networks, and I like to keep them in mind or pass along their information when they do things like sponsor an event. ... Support or write white papers. Show us what you know and share it with us to get us a taste of what you provide or other things — conferences, webinars. ... Those are of value and they get your name out there without being just cold calls.

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

Massey: My answer might be a little different from what most people would say, but I’m really most proud when my employees achieve some kind of success, whatever success is for them. Often, the people that I work with or even mentor from other departments and agencies, I’m proud when they rise through the ranks to leadership positions, and some I’ve watched for years and years. That’s honestly what I’m most proud of. I will say, if I had to look at projects, the project that I mentioned, Digital Marin, that’s the community-based project, I feel really fortunate to lead that. And I will say that given how far I am in my career, my sense is that will be my legacy project, and at some point Marin will bridge the digital divide and everyone will have access to the Internet, the tools, the devices, the literacy that they need to thrive in this digital world.

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

Massey: I’ve worked in several government organizations, and I would say that the procurement process in Marin County is one of the easiest to use that I’ve experienced in my career. But if I had to change one thing, I would increase the ability for vendors, especially the larger ones, to be more flexible with their contract terms, so that we could have contract terms that favor both parties, not just vendors. We’ve been in situations, especially with the big vendors, where it’s sort of “take it or leave it.” And that’s not a good foundation for building a partnership. I know that some of my colleagues, they like to beat up on the vendors and say they don’t like them. ... The vendors are in business, they’re often the experts, or they’re experts about the products and services they provide. They’re necessary. But we need to have our contracts based on partnerships with them.

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

Massey: This is the beauty of the evolution of technology encircling media and communications. I subscribe to a lot of daily updates, things like GovTech* and Governing* daily updates. Other professional publications, even some vendor weekly updates. I get email updates from — we’re members of Gartner and Info-Tech (Research Group). And then I also get some daily updates from a few news organizations. What this allows me to do is quickly read the headlines and see what’s out there. But anything I ... want to investigate and get more details about, I can. ... And then, another silver lining of ... staying home and being virtual is the fact that webinars and forums are virtual. So many of them are virtual now that they’re on during lunch or during off-hours or even during the day that I’ve been able to participate in more than ever before. And that’s really helped to keep me up to date, not just on the technical side but also in leadership and other aspects of my career.

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

Massey: I tell people I have my little slice of paradise here. I live in Corte Madera, which is in Marin County. We’re just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, so we have a lot of open space, and the weather is beautiful most of the year. I literally have no air conditioning, my windows open and I have a sweatshirt on. In August. It does get hot here but it’s usually temperate. I love to garden; I have a vegetable garden and some fruit trees. I like to kayak with my family and we spend time outside. I like to snowboard, which gets harder as I get older. And Lake Tahoe is close by. I’m hoping this year that we’ll have more snow and a longer season. I also am a crafter — I like to sew and make things. I don’t get as much time as I would like to do that, but I certainly have lots of supplies and do it when I can.

In terms of reading, I am a voracious reader. I usually read one to two books a week. It’s sort of my nighttime thing. I prefer historical fiction and I like fantasy, especially if it involves magical beings, but I also make sure that I read “broccoli” books because I’m a lifelong learner. And so those are those “good for you” books. Most of them, though, I’ve read over the last year have been related to racial inequity. I just have to point out that one of my favorites is How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It is — it’s such a great book. It will change your thinking and open the eyes of, I believe, anyone who reads it. The county sponsors quarterly community conversations and the author was actually a speaker at one of them that I got to participate in.

*The GovTech Today newsletter is produced by Government Technology magazine which, like Governing, is a sister publication to Techwire.

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

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