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Techwire One-on-One: SF CIO on Human-Centered Design, Projects

“We ... see digital transformation as a continuous process of improvement. Importantly, we take a human-centered-design perspective. It focuses on accessibility and takes many forms of customer feedback to direct our improvements. In this way, all new city digital services are built for and by city residents,” says Linda Gerull, chief information officer and executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Technology.

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Linda Gerull, chief information officer and executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Technology.
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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.

Linda Gerull is chief information officer and executive director of the Department of Technology for the consolidated city-county of San Francisco, positions she has held since July 2017. She was previously IT director for Pierce County, Wash., for nearly eight years during a more than 22-year career with the county. Before joining the public sector, Gerull was in the private sector for approximately 15 years, most recently as executive manager at Intergraph Corp. in Huntsville, Ala.

Gerull studied civil engineering at the University of Florida and at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and holds a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from the latter. She is the former chair of the Institute of Technology Advisory Committee at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

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?

Gerull: My role in the organization is to motivate, consult, and convene city teams envisioning the technology future for their business needs. Specifically, I act as:

1. Motivator/champion for IT excellence in government and (to) help overcome the challenges of competing requirements and strategies.

2. Consultant and coach for best practices, solutioning and engineering technology implementation.

3. Organizer/convenor for partnerships, transparency and group decision-making that results in better decisions and outcomes.

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

Gerull: The city’s technology strategic plan is developed by our Committee on Information Technology (COIT), who canvass all city IT teams to develop vision and goals for technology investment. I fully support this effort and work with COIT to:

1. Define opportunities for technology to contribute to and support the mayor’s strategies.

2. Lead investigation of new technologies.

3. Lead discussion of large investment decisions and prioritization.

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?

Gerull: The city is closing the digital divide, and our work in connecting affordable housing units to free Internet service is accelerating. We have clear support from recent capital investments. We will also be investigating and piloting wireless technology that can be used to deliver Wi-Fi service to neighborhoods as well as communication smart poles for digital city initiatives. We will continue to build out our Next-Gen software-defined network to our City Hall-based departments and deploy new robust wireless service and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). RFPs this year focus on modernizing legacy applications for 911 emergency communications, deploying an enterprise satellite phone service, publishing human resource modules for EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaints, and onboarding and releasing a Public Works permitting system for work in the right-of-way.

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?

Gerull: I see digital transformation in three different buckets:

1. Digital accelerators — devices and tech that can offer new opportunity or process such as mobile tablets with GIS for routing and resource allocation, phone apps, wireless communications.

2. Digital optimization — improvement or new uses of information and systems to modernize legacy systems and reduce technical debt (better/faster/cheaper) such as document management, cloud, permitting and tax systems, 911 systems.

3. Digital transformation — must be net new and enabling technologies for transforming business service, operating model or customer experience such as resident engagement with text, SMS, email, and call centers integrated with office systems like voice scheduling, dashboards and data analytics.

We also see digital transformation as a continuous process of improvement. Importantly, we take a human-centered design perspective. It focuses on accessibility and takes many forms of customer feedback to direct our improvements. In this way, all new city digital services are built for and by city residents. We reach community stakeholders in myriad ways. To name a few: user community surveys, ongoing constituent research and a “helpfulness score” based on a quick thumbs up or down on each of the city’s web pages. Improvement must be an ongoing process that allows the community to provide input at any time, even after office hours. This keeps city digital services relevant, useful and beneficial as the community needs change and as city services change to meet them. This openness to change and process improvement also fosters a work culture that is open to new ideas and innovation.

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

Gerull: The Department of Technology budget is $140 million, 250 staff. The overall city budget is $12.6 billion and includes funding for 52 departments, Airport, Utilities Commission, Port, Transit. There is a significant focus on housing and homelessness.

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?

Gerull: Participate in industry conferences and panels. Show you are a partner with government and are here to solve problems. When talking to city IT leaders, it is best if you have a solution to a known problem. Know what the business need is and how your solution would be best-in-class and cost effective. Please know that all procurements are competitive, so know how to respond to a proposal. Unfortunately, every city is different.

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

Gerull: It would have to be the last 15 months, during the response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The entire DT family and I are extremely proud of our work as we:

  • Moved over 10,000 employees to work-from-home in one week and procured/deployed 5,000-plus new computers.
  • Supported and provided leadership to the COVID Command Center Logistics Technology Branch since 3/20.
  • Supported devices, applications, phones, and four new call centers for 400 employees.
  • Provided coordination and leadership for IT requests across multiple departments.
  • Virtualized public meetings in the first week of shelter-in-place and delivered daily mayoral briefings, 523 commission meetings, 252 full BOS (Board of Supervisors) meetings, and conducted 235 virtual meeting training sessions for 49 departments. These communications were essential to keep employees and residents informed and safe.
Leveraged enterprise software to rapidly build 15 new paperless business systems for COVID-19 asset management and document processing.

  • Delivered Teams unified communications to 13,000 employees (8,500 active per day) in 2020, totaling 19 million chats, 1.2 million meetings, 20 million online files, and 6,000 Power BI reports.
  • Accelerated the city’s Fiber-To-Housing and provided free Internet service to seniors needing telehealth access and students learning remotely, with a 100 percent increase in the amount of resident Internet service to 33 affordable housing locations, 31 community rooms, and 3,227 units (total of 7,000-plus installed to 105 locations).
  • Equipped 40 emergency worker child-care facilities and Community Hubs with municipal Internet service and installed Internet connectivity at COVID-19 test sites, shelters, quarantine housing, and three mass vaccination sites to support staff using city business systems.
  • And did not delay or reschedule major IT initiatives to build a new software-defined network for a new 16-floor office building used by 1,000 employees. All legacy servers moved to our SFCloud environment and the entire city primary data center was relocated to city property, resulting in $2 million in annual savings.
Most importantly, over the last year, there were so many “unknowns” during the pandemic. What I am most proud of is that despite the “unknowns,” every day, DT staff bravely entered high-risk workspaces and did their work supporting our great city by broadcasting the mayor’s press conferences, replacing radio communications in hospital emergency rooms, wiring Internet service in isolation hotels and homeless shelters, and working at the COVID Command Center to deliver the highest level of customer service to stressed, tired and scared emergency workers. I am so very proud of the dedicated public servants in the Department of Technology.

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

Gerull:

  • Longer contract terms so we estimate our operational costs with more certainty.
  • Easier way to procure professional services and staff augmentation.
  • Vendors that understand the market and provide competitive pricing early!
Techwire: What do you read to stay abreast of developments in the gov tech/SLED sector?

Gerull: I read news emails and attend many virtual conferences, webinars, information sessions from industry knowledgeable teams such as e.Republic*, Government Technology*, CIO 100, Evanta, Gartner, Statescoop, BayAreaCIO, the California County Information Services Directors Association (CCSIDA), and the Center for Digital Government*.

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

Gerull: Right now, I am reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, who I heard speak at an e.Republic conference. It shows how making 1 percent improvements every day add up to real progress in business and your personal life. Architecting your habits is a way to have a very “present” life. We will be using this book to strengthen and expand our continuous process improvement efforts in DT.

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

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