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Techwire One-on-One: Sacramento County CIO on Modernization, RFPs

“I have a passion for this job. I really do. I look at every day as an opportunity and a blessing to make a change for the county and help support and improve business processes across the organization. It’s definitely a privilege and an honor to serve in this position,” says Rami Zakaria, CIO and director of the Department of Technology for Sacramento County.

Rami Zakaria, chief information officer and director of the Department of Technology for Sacramento County.
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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.

Rami Zakaria is chief information officer and director of the Department of Technology for the county of Sacramento, positions he has held since November 2011. He was previously chief of the county’s e-Government and Business Services division within the Department of Technology. Zakaria has worked for the county for about 30 years, starting in its programming division. During his time as CIO, the county has been a winner in The Center for Digital Government’s* annual Digital Counties survey. In 2015, Zakaria was named one of Government Technology* magazine’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers & Drivers, following a large-scale IT centralization and consolidation effort at the county. In his private life, he enjoys traveling.

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?

Zakaria: In Sacramento County, I serve as the CIO, the CISO (chief information security officer) and also the director for the Department of Technology. ... Since most of the county business processes are heavily driven by technology solutions, my primary responsibility is to ensure the county IT applications and infrastructures are current with supported releases, highly available, and secure to support the county’s critical business operations. As you know, Sacramento County, like just about every county out there, provides health and social services to the community, provides municipal services, law and justice services and administrative services. In Sacramento County, we also support elections; we support the airport. So having robust and highly available and secure information technology platforms goes a long way to ensure that these business operations continue. In our efforts to make sure these systems are always up and running, every year we examine the county’s major information systems and infrastructure, and we develop a technology improvement plan much like the facility improvement plan or the capital improvement plan that every county develops. And we present this plan to the Board of Supervisors for consideration. Our goal again, as always, is to maintain highly available, highly secure IT infrastructure for county departments to conduct their business.

I look at myself as an advocate for implementing innovative, secure and cost-effective technology solutions that streamline the business and expand digital services to our community. We operate in a consolidated manner, or a consolidated plan, so all county IT staff report to the central IT organization with the exception of the elected officials. The elected officials have their own IT staff, but for the rest, we operate in a consolidated environment. I believe our work in creating an awesome and highly available IT infrastructure and applications goes a long way to establish trust with county departments. So, when we are proposing new projects, collaboratively working on new projects, there is a high degree of collaboration and trust that’s there that helps us complete these projects successfully. How the role has changed: The role has changed quite a bit in the last few years, and I’ve been with the county for most of my career. When I started, IT was really like a back-office operation, and it has evolved to be a front-office operation — and not just the front office but a way for community engagement. For example, we are working on a redistricting project right now. And staff from the Department of Technology are out there in the community. They’re facilitating the redistricting means for their supervisors, they’re broadcasting them through Zoom, and they’re bringing in audio and video systems to support those kinds of things as well. So, a couple of things have changed. The ever-increasing pace of technology change is something that I think is just unprecedented. Also, the challenges in cybersecurity and keeping the systems up and running and keeping the infrastructure and applications secure have changed what we do dramatically.

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

Zakaria: I am definitely a contributor to the county’s and to the department’s digital plan. Every year, we develop an IT plan along with a capital improvement plan. Our IT plan is based in large part on the county’s and the department’s strategic plan. The county provides diverse services to the community that range from social services to health services, municipal, public safety and administrative services. Our plan responds directly to the projects and initiatives in those departments. So, in many ways we are joined at the hip with these departments in their daily operations and their project execution, and this joined-at-the-hip is something that was started by our county registrar of voters and I really like it. When we implemented the county’s new voting systems, when you went to the Department of Voter Registration and Elections, there were just as many IT staff as there were voter registration and election staff, so I like that environment. We work very closely to maintain it.

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

Zakaria: Contingent on the Board of Supervisors budget approval, the county is planning to release a Request for Proposal to replace the property tax system. That project, I expect, will be the biggest project that we will take on probably in the last 10 years. I expect that project to last three years or so. We’re very excited about that opportunity. This is our last critical system that’s in the mainframe, and we are really looking forward to implementing a new technology solution that changes how we work internally and how we provide services to the community in the area of property taxes. I expect that we will release an IT security assessment; probably penetration testing. We’re going to have a staff augmentation RFP that I expect will probably go (out) sometime in 2022. More importantly, I think for the vendors, to kind of stay abreast of what we’re working on is to sign up at the Department of General Services Contract & Purchasing Services webpage. Vendors can go in, enter their information and be notified whenever a new RFP is established.

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?

Zakaria: In my definition, digital transformation is the adoption of technology solutions into the county’s business processes. I think the value of digital transformation is most evident when we streamline business processes to increase efficiency, productivity, and improve the user experience. I believe that digital transformation is a continuous process, driven by ever-changing business processes and technology solutions. I think it’s a state of mind more than it is anything. If I had to define it, I would say digital transformation is a state of mind, always seeking better methods to achieve desired outcomes.

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

Zakaria: The Sacramento County Department of Technology budget ... is $206,088,787. We have 408 full-time positions; we have 38 contractors and 12 student interns. We’re looking to increase the number of our student interns, so we’re actively working with California State University, Sacramento, with the University of California, Davis and the other colleges that are here in the region as well. I believe the county overall budget is about $6.5 billion.

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?

Zakaria: On the education part ... we publish annually an information technology plan that has all the projects that we plan to work on. We do it in the time period between Jan. 1 and June 30 of every year in preparing for the next fiscal year and it involves working with the county departments and a lot of iterative processes. If they have any ideas, really a good time to come in is sometime between September and December and maybe closer to September, October every year if they have ideas that are game-changers. The way that I like to be contacted by vendors is I accept phone calls and also emails. My phone is constantly ringing, and I try to answer as many calls as I possibly can. The ones that I find really difficult to connect with are when there’s a call center that calls in ... . But I’m more than happy to speak with any vendor representative that is directly involved in vendor operations and (doesn’t) just want to get me to somebody else. I feel like if those things need to happen, they can happen at a lower level in our organization.

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

Zakaria: The county IT plan that we publish annually has, on average, 50 or more projects. We average completion of better than 90 percent. And 90 percent on time and on budget. Those other 10 percent, they’re probably just delayed, they’re not necessarily budget-challenged but they’re delayed due to scheduling, either with us or the vendor or the customer. I’m proud of all of them, I really am. We recognize successful projects here internally; we recognize them with our customers as well and we celebrate them together. With that being said, the IT consolidation project that was done when I became CIO, shortly thereafter, has to be the highlight ... when I look back at what we’ve done. We work in a very distributed environment and we consolidated; we save millions annually. More importantly, it gave us the opportunity to use some of that funding toward updating infrastructure, updating applications, more investments. We have less IT staff today than we had in 2008, but we’re delivering better, more consistent service and we’re excelling at working together and supporting our departments. When I look back at it, I think it was a transformational moment that allowed us the opportunity to earn the trust of our Board of Supervisors, department directors and our staff as well.

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

Zakaria: I thought about this quite a bit. And I really would not change anything. The process that we have in place ensures fairness and consistent methods of acquiring goods and services. We continually strive to improve the process and reduce the time to acquire goods and services. But I think the process in and of itself is working. I have seen procurements for goods and services that went flawlessly and were able to finish very quickly ... and I’ve seen some that had dragged on. We always look at the ones that did not go as smoothly and try to learn from that for the next opportunity ... to make sure that if we fall into something, that we don’t repeat it. And if there is something on the vendor side, we can advise them too and can avoid these pitfalls in the future.

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

Zakaria: I read a variety of publications. A lot of it is in project management and leadership, but I’m also a subscriber to Governing,* Techwire* ... and many, many more publications.

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

Zakaria: Traveling tops my list of hobbies. I’m an avid traveler. I try every year to take two weeks off and travel somewhere. This year, I was lucky enough that during the period when the pandemic was down, I went to Jordan, Egypt and UAE (United Arab Emirates), and to Dubai. It was my first time in Dubai and I thought it was really pretty amazing. I love golfing, hiking and staying active. As far as reading, I enjoy many different genres. And I just started reading Tuesdays With Morrie again. I read it years ago and I was like, ‘I’m going to read that book again.’ I just started a couple nights ago, and I expect I will finish it this week.

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

*Government Technology magazine and Governing are sister publications to Techwire.

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