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Techwire One-on-One: Placer County Exec on Being County’s First CIO, Broadband Work

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As part of Techwire’s ongoing efforts to inform readers about state agencies, their IT plans and initiatives, here’s the latest in our periodic series of interviews with departmental IT and cybersecurity leaders.

Jarrett Thiessen is the inaugural chief information officer at the county of Placer, a role he has had since January 2019. A longtime employee of the county, he joined in March 2015 as IT manager in the security services/project management office and was named deputy director of IT in August 2016 before becoming CIO. Placer County has regularly been recognized in the Center for Digital Government’s* annual Digital Counties Survey — placing fourth in its population category in July, fourth in 2020 and third in 2019.

Thiessen joined the county from the private sector, where he was IT director for SBS Site Services from November 2013 through March 2015, according to LinkedIn; before that, he was project manager for Xerox Services from January 2011 to November 2013. He is a graduate of California State University, Sacramento, with a Bachelor of Science degree in finance and a Master of Science degree in management of information sciences from the university’s College of Business Administration.

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?

Thiessen: The role has definitely, I would say, changed significantly, because it was just created in January of 2019. Before that, IT was a division under the administrative services department. And so, starting in January 2019, the county executive office wanted to uplift the IT organization into a department of its own, just because of the importance of IT, and have it be more of an equal playing field as the other departments. The CIO classification was created also in January of 2019, so I’m the very first CIO for Placer County. I’d say not just the CIO has changed, but the role of IT in general has changed over the years. Prior to that time period, we were seen more as a service provider rather than a business provider. That was a big part of the shift, too, in uplifting the IT organization into a department. We wanted to be seen more as a partner. And we wanted to be more involved with the departments earlier on in projects. Prior to that, being a service partner, the departments would initiate projects on their own outside of the IT organization. And once they had an idea that was fairly well baked or fairly well developed, then they would bring in the IT department, so it was really hard to have an influence at that time. Now that we’re a department and I’m at an equal level with the other department heads, we’re being involved much earlier in the process. We’re being involved when they’re seeing an opportunity or a challenge from a business perspective and then we come in and we’re trying to understand that business need. And then we’re bringing technology solutions to meet that business need rather than in the past, ‘Hey, here’s a new technology, who has a business challenge that fits this technology?’ We’ve definitely flipped that around. I’d say that’s the biggest change. We’re definitely a hybrid shop overall ... . The majority of the departments rely 100 percent on county IT for all of their IT services. And then there’s a handful of departments that do have their own IT services and that can range anywhere from a person that’s providing just desktop support within the department, to a team of IT professionals that are managing servers, managing their department’s specific applications. In all cases, 100 percent across the county, all departments rely on county IT for network services for telephone services and for directory services and email.

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

Thiessen: Todd Leopold, our CEO (county executive officer), his vision for IT was to definitely have a seat at the table when creating the organization’s strategic plan. And I feel like that’s definitely what I got. First of all, I meet with the department heads individually and we have our strategic planning sessions, and we do that formally. Informally, that happens all the time, but we do it formally once a year in November ... . Individually, I get the opportunity to really talk about, ‘Hey, what are your challenges, what are the opportunities that you see for the IT organization and really how can we help you achieve your goals for your business?’ Because the county government, it’s really like 20 ... or 25 individual businesses running. So, we have to understand each one of those, and each one is unique. They have their unique goals and objectives and their unique challenges. But when the department heads got together to develop the organization’s strategic plan and the eight critical success factors, we played a direct role, me specifically. I was there with the other department heads and played a specific role to contribute to those critical success factors and what projects go along with those directly.

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?

Thiessen: If you haven’t seen it, we just recently, within the last six months, published our IT Strategic Plan. ... I’ll just touch on the big two that we’re working on right now. One is 100 percent focused on expanding ... broadband services to the rural parts of the county. ... And (what) we’re learning through this process is that some of our more urban or suburban areas ... also have broadband challenges. So, we have a big focus on expanding broadband throughout the county and the Board (of Supervisors) has done a great job of allocating CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding and ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding for the expansion of broadband. ... What we’re doing there is we’re looking for public-private partnerships and we recently ... awarded a contract to Wave Broadband to expand their broadband services to 1,500 homes in Auburn, Penryn and North Auburn. On that project, the county is contributing $500,000 and Wave Broadband is contributing $1.7 million to expand into those areas. That’s just one of many projects. You’ll see many more of those where we’re developing a Broadband Strategic Plan right now which we hope to bring to the Board by December. From that, we will develop specific Requests for Proposals from Internet service providers for specific communities of need. ... We may say, ‘We’ve got a specific need in Meadow Vista; we want to do an RFP for that region,’ or there may be an area of Tahoe, for example, Olympic Valley or somewhere of that sort. And we’ll do a specific RFP and we’ll look for more public-private partnership opportunities. That’s a big focus of ours right now and it’s going to be a big focus for the next several years, expanding broadband throughout the county.

Another big project that’s going to span the next couple of years — we’re looking at a network redesign, and I want to first say that our network is completely stable. It’s been a great resource since I came to the county, and it hasn’t been a burden at all. ... We’ve been moving a lot of our services out to the cloud, and so we realized we’ve got a need and an opportunity, so we want to do more expansion into cloud services in the future. We want to really improve the network performance between our on-prem offices and our cloud infrastructure. And at the same time, we want to make our network more resilient and more flexible. We’re working with some of our partners to redesign our network, really take it to the next maturity level. Once we have the overall design, we’ll parse that up into smaller projects and those projects will get executed over the next couple of years.

Editor’s note: The county is currently surveying residents on the quality of their Internet services and, the CIO said, wants to hear from anyone who is struggling with broadband or would like to provide feedback.

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?

Thiessen: That’s kind of an interesting question because I see digital transformation as ... one of those buzzwords — there’s also ‘digital enablement,’ ‘digital engagement.’ To me, it’s a buzzword that’s going to die off in a year or two, but I think the meaning behind it will persist as far as I can see. It’s really leveraging technology to become more efficient operationally as an organization and to be able to provide more access to county services for citizens through whatever channel they choose. And so, I think that effort is going to be ongoing. That’s not something you snap your fingers and all of a sudden, all the county services are online and accessible for citizens. So, the process of doing that is IT working with the departments to identify ‘Hey, what services do you offer the citizens that aren’t currently online?’ And then what are the tools that we can use from a technology perspective to automate those? To make it both easier for internal staff to process the work, and for citizens to access those services. And then through the channel of their choice, I think that’s really important also. And that’s something where the channels are constantly changing ... . What new channels become available in the future and how can we leverage them to make more county services available? I think that’s an ongoing process. But the actual term ‘digital transformation,’ it’s probably going to go away and get replaced with some other buzzword in the near future.

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

Thiessen: The IT budget is $29,760,410. ... We have 81 allocated positions to IT ... . Yesterday, I was working with a research firm that was looking at the number of allocated positions versus the number of county staff. They compared that to over 300 other government agencies and we were right at the 50th percentile. I feel like we have the exact number of allocated positions for the number of staff that we are supporting. ... They’re going to do the same thing with budget — with the IT budget versus the overall county budget.

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?

Thiessen: I’d say that I receive between 25 to 40 cold contacts per day, and I don’t think that’s a really great way for vendors to contact me. The interesting part about that, in my 20s ... I interned for a company and that was my job. I was doing cold calls and cold emailing CIOs trying to get them to set up demos of the technology. ... I’d say the best way for vendors to meet me or any California county CIO is to join our California Counties Information Services Directors Association (CCISDA). That’s the best way to make contact with any of us. ... That by itself filters out all the vendors that are not serious about participating in this space. That ... gives us a great interaction and an opportunity to get some one-on-one time with vendors. The other way that I like vendors to contact me is if I get a reference from another CIO or ... another county IT agency that says, ‘Hey, I want to introduce you to this vendor. I’m working with them on this project.’ That’s a great way to be introduced to a vendor. Then, you get a little bit of context before engaging with that vendor.

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

Thiessen: We’ve had a lot of great projects; I could name any of them. ... But I think what I’m most proud of, the achievement that I’m most proud of is, I feel like we’ve really changed the culture of the IT organization during my time with the county. What I said before — with moving from more of a service provider to that business partner and really changing what our staff do. We’re basically pulling people out of the data center and into the business. That’s been a big culture shift for the department. Understanding the business challenges, understanding the business opportunities, rather than just understanding the technology and providing the technology services to the departments. We’ve improved a ton in that area; I get a lot of feedback from departments on that topic. But we still have a long way to go. ... That’s another one where we may never be at the end. But I’m definitely proud of the changes that we’ve made over the past six years that I’ve been with the county.

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

Thiessen: This was another interesting question. We definitely have a process for procurement. I will say that our procurement team is excellent. They do help us move our projects and our purchases through the procurement process as expeditiously as possible. I don’t think I’m going to change anything on procurement. Government procurement is what it is. But as I was reflecting on this, I think one of our biggest challenges is just around procurement of Microsoft services. They’re such a large organization. Microsoft is a huge, huge organization, a huge company, and we’re just one small little piece of what they’re doing. So, there’s not a lot of leverage there. If I could ... wave a magic wand and change something, I would make Microsoft more flexible in their pricing to assist government agencies like Placer County in receiving the best pricing possible for all their services; we do use Microsoft for quite a bit of services.

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

Thiessen: I already mentioned I’m working with technology research firms; I use two ... of the leading technology research firms. They publish a lot of articles; they publish trends in technology in various areas and functions of IT and so I leverage those heavily. I do analyst calls with both of them all the time, especially if we’re taking on a new project. One of the first things I usually do, I look for what research they have available. I will meet with an analyst and say, ‘Here’s our challenge and here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. What are you seeing, both in the private sector and in the public sector?’ They provide a lot of insight into those areas. But I also value the inside recommendations from my peers and from the vendor community as well. ... I mentioned CCISDA earlier; that gives us a really good platform to interact and to ask questions of other county IT agencies, other CIOs. And security also; they have a really nice security committee there. We exchange ideas; we exchange experiences and that really helps set our direction. I’ve got a team of 80, I’m No. 81; I really rely on their expertise and knowledge in the areas of technology as well. Just as I do with my peers from other counties.

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

Thiessen: Anything I read or typically anything that I watch on TV, I try to do it from a learning perspective. I don’t watch a lot for entertainment purposes. I like to learn how to do things; I like to build things. I like to work on cars, I like to work on my boat, I like to work on home projects. So, most of what I do is based around those three things. I always like to do a big winter project, so last year I renovated my kids’ bathroom. This year we’re planning a backyard remodel, so right now I’m ramping up on that. And I like to do the majority of it myself. I also devote a great deal of time to my kids’ schoolwork and their sports, their athletics. I coach both my son and daughter in baseball, soccer and basketball, and the one area of entertainment that I like to watch on TV is the Kings; I’m a hardcore Kings fan.

*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.