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Techwire One-on-One: Mono County IT Chief on Broadband, Process Improvement

“I guess I would say I’m kind of equal parts technology evangelist, strategist/futurist and project manager. I think in the big picture, (I) really focus on pushing forward the importance of technology as a whole and often in an environment which is resistant to change or adapting some old processes to technology,” says Nate Greenberg, IT director for Mono County and the town of Mammoth Lakes.

Nate Greenberg
Nate Greenberg, IT director for Mono County and the town of Mammoth Lakes.
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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.

Nate Greenberg is the director of Information Technology for Mono County and the town of Mammoth Lakes, a position he has held since August 2013. Mono County, a regular honoree in The Center for Digital Government’s* annual Digital Counties Survey, placed second by population in July. In addition to transitioning nearly 90 percent of its workforce to remote during the pandemic, Mono has recently stood up a new HR management system in Quickbase; implemented Palo Alto Networks’ GlobalProtect firewalls in late 2020; and deployed two sets of portable infrastructure to support remote Emergency Operations Centers during disasters.

A 21-year county employee, Greenberg joined Mono in June 2000 as GIS coordinator, adding the title of Digital 395 project manager in March 2012 when the county embarked on installing a 525-mile, 423-strand fiber-optic cable linking Barstow and Reno. An avid outdoor enthusiast, Greenberg has a bachelor’s degree in nature and culture from the University of California, Davis.

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

Greenberg: I guess I would say I’m kind of equal parts technology evangelist, strategist/futurist and project manager. I think in the big picture, (I) really focus on pushing forward the importance of technology as a whole and often in an environment which is resistant to change or adapting some old processes to technology. That is ultimately aimed at business process improvement, regardless of the technology parts of that. I think that’s more or less how my day-to-day looks. And I think in the past, CIO roles were probably a little more fundamentally focused on the traditional aspects of technology, be that database, or mainframes and systems, and applications, network telephony. I think today, those things are kind of table stakes, and I think we’re expected now to really operate a little more at the executive level and think big picture on sort of the things I started at the top with.

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

Greenberg: So, within Mono County, we have an IT strategic plan, a department-specific strategic plan, and I take the lead in ... overseeing that alongside my three major division heads. It is a team and a collaborative process, and certainly there’s stakeholder engagement across the organization. But with regard to the overall organization’s strategic plan, the last version of that, I actually led the entire process at the request of our CAO (chief administrative officer). And I don’t know that that is something that we’ll continue in the future necessarily, and it wasn’t based on technology being a core element per se but more just my capacity. I think going forward, obviously, we as a department and myself as a department head will have an integral part in those conversations. And I think that there’s this interesting push-pull ... in terms of to what extent IT is reacting to the organizational demands and expectations and to what extent we’re pushing on them and trying to drive some of those strategic planning components.

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?

Greenberg: Fundamentally, over the next several years, we’re focused on overall process improvement efforts. And really looking at business process redesign and how we can better leverage and incorporate technology into process improvement as a whole. I think in service to that, one of the things that we are investing heavily in and really starting to leverage across the organization is low-code. And in doing that, really aiming at finding gaps in existing applications, business processes, automations, etc., and aiming development efforts in those areas. Also developing some new “enterprise-scale” applications in a low-code capacity to help streamline, deal with comprehensive project management solutions, various other things like that. And then, ultimately, also leverage low code just in service of needs that are emerging from departments and individualized gaps that they’re all seeing. We’re really seeing low code as being a new enterprise platform for us as a whole, and kind of fundamentally joined at the hip with our Office 365 offering, our GIS offering, and we use Laserfiche for document imaging and archiving. Those four ... we’re seeing as being, I guess, the new modern enterprise-scale platforms that are really pushing forward a lot of those dynamic process change things in the organization. That said, I don’t see any major RFPs coming in the next six to 12 months. I think we have most of the technology that we need and we’re really focusing now on leveraging that effectively. I think we’re in a good spot and we really just have a lot of legwork, essentially.

One of the things that I’ve said a lot in recent months and years is that I think, especially for a smaller organization, we are very small and certainly budget constrained. Our ability to find effective commercial-off-the-shelf solutions for enterprise-scale business systems and the like is difficult. We can’t afford the multimillion-dollar systems and so we end up going to smaller systems and they ultimately, as you well know, they’re so expensive, they take a long time to implement, and they don’t necessarily always meet the mark. And so, we’re just finding the ability to really, I guess, bridge those gaps and fill in a lot of the holes through some more creative homegrown solutions.

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?

Greenberg: I think digital transformation in my mind is defined through truly leveraging technology to drive forward organizational change and improve the way that we work and operate. As opposed to just relying on technology in support of that work. I think for us, we are at the early stages of that. We’re heavily leveraging low code and I think through its enterprise standard, it is starting to change ... the way that we operate and think. I don’t know that we’re ever going to be finished, to be honest. I think there is always going to be something out there which deserves attention and probably a bit of an overhaul. I think that we’ll know that we’ve been successful when essentially every department in the organization has come to us to ask us to help them in reimagining the way that they work.

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

Greenberg: The overall county budget is $125 million, essentially, about $41 million in the general fund, the rest of that in special funds and internal service funds and the like. Of that, the IT budget represents about $3.7 million. And we have 12 employees within IT.

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?

Greenberg: It’s a tricky one. I hate to say that I don’t want to be contacted by vendors, but I think I generally prefer direct introduction or meeting and engaging at trade events or conferences and the like. I think that a lot of vendors out there are looking for a client and they don’t necessarily always understand what it is that we need. To that end, the IT strategic plan is certainly not a comprehensive representation of what our needs are or where we’re at in terms of projects and the like. But I think having a better understanding of who we are and what we’re working on and what we’re doing, what we need ... it’s part and parcel to that. Ultimately, having a good vendor relationship is incredibly important and I think that partnership is incredibly important as well. We certainly do value them dramatically and we have some incredible partnerships with vendors we work with every day.

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

Greenberg: I’ve been CIO for a little under 10 years. And prior to coming into that role, I served in a project manager capacity for three years helping manage the county’s interest in a very large regional open access broadband project. And that broadband project today — it’s known as Digital 395 — is basically responsible for delivering gigabit-capacity (Internet) to about 95 percent of the residents and businesses in the county. That’s something that we’re extremely proud of at a high level and has served us extremely well. In my role as CIO for the last nine years or so, I think really the thing that I’m most proud of is the last 18 months. I think that my team reacted extremely well, we had technology well-positioned to support our workforce going fully remote or hybrid. And then ultimately putting technology in place to support the folks on the frontlines that were working in emergency operations and in support of COVID. And really, I think, having a really effective response with good communication in the public’s eye, and ultimately, effective solutions for everybody to use.

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

Greenberg: Internally, I wish that there was a better understanding of the difference between goods like software and services in the traditional sense. And that there was a little more clarity within the industry around how those things work. I think from a vendor’s standpoint, though, more externally facing, I wish that vendors took a little more responsibility and fully recognized the risk components of security, privacy and governance. Especially when it comes to working with government entities and just recognizing the challenging conditions around procurement and just the risk mitigation factors that we need to sort of manage.

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

Greenberg: Well, I do read Government Technology*. I think it’s a really good publication and a resource as a whole in that industry space. Both hard and digital copies. But then, also, resources coming from our state associations, the California State Association of Counties, and then I also sit in an advisory role in the National Association of Counties. I think through all of those, I get a pretty decent view of what is happening whether it’s in the legislative space or otherwise.

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

Greenberg: I’m an avid backcountry skier, a climber and a mountain biker. I live here in the mountains and really, the job is an excuse to be here full time. I spend as much time outside in the hills as I possibly can. I am not the best reader, to be honest with you. Usually, at the end of the day, I’m pretty worked and I don’t keep up on my reading as well as I should, probably.

*Government Technology magazine and The Center for Digital Government are part of e.Republic, parent company of Techwire.

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