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Techwire One-on-One: State Fair IT Chief on Setting Direction, Fiber Upgrade

“With different events every week and our big event, the California State Fair, every July, my role as IT manager is closely tied to the operation of our events. I don’t think my role differs all that much from a CIO’s role in that I am given the opportunity to play a big part in strategic planning,” says Pat Conner, IT manager for the California Exposition and State Fair.

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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.
Pat Conner
Pat Conner, IT manager for the California Exposition and State Fair.

Pat Conner is IT manager for the California Exposition and State Fair, a position he has held since 2015. He was previously the Fair’s operations manager for more than 25 years.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from California State University, Sacramento and during his time at the California Exposition and State Fair he has played a major role in the entity’s move off paper to computerized, electronic ticketing.

Techwire: As IT manager for the California Exposition and State Fair, how would you describe your role and how does it differ from the role of CIO at the organization? Has your organization always separated the roles of IT manager and CIO?

Conner: Since our agency is on the small side, my role as IT manager encompasses all six domains of IT: Business Technology Management, Client Services, Security Engineering, IT Project Management, Software Engineering and System Engineering. On a regular basis, I have interaction with management, staff, sponsors, promoters, exhibitors, vendors and the public. With different events every week and our big event, the California State Fair, every July, my role as IT manager is closely tied to the operation of our events. I don’t think my role differs all that much from a CIO’s role in that I am given the opportunity to play a big part in strategic planning. Yes, our organization has always separated the roles of IT manager and CIO.

Techwire: How big a role do you personally play in writing or shaping strategic plans and future planning at your organization?

Conner: With general direction, I am fortunate to be able to play a big role in our strategic plans and future planning. This has allowed me to set the direction and manage some exciting projects over the past six years, including a server refresh and consolidation, fiber replacement, switch replacement, 120-access-point Aruba wireless network, 200-camera-view surveillance system, and a complete overhaul of our grounds-wide sound system.

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?

Conner: We don’t expect any RFPs for the remainder of 2021. As an event facility, we were hit hard by the pandemic and have not been able to hold public events since March 2020. Our facility has been used for COVID-19 testing and as a mass COVID-19 vaccination site in the past year, and most of our efforts have been spent supporting those endeavors. We hope to be able to get back to a more normal event schedule by the fall of 2021.

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?

Conner: I would define “digital transformation” as using technology to modify or create new business processes as well as create new customer experiences. When I started working at the California Exposition and State Fair in 1989, we were using a Vax-based computer system and each department had one workstation. The workstations were mostly used to produce paper documents. Everything was paper-based. Working from home consisted of taking paper files and documents home with you and hoping you remembered to bring them back the next day. Our transition from that to a Microsoft Windows-based network with Internet and email was the start, for us, of a digital transformation on the business side that hasn’t slowed down, only accelerated. On the customer experience side of things, there has been a night-and-day transformation as well. Our State Fair and all other events were 100 percent cash-based. When a customer spent all of their money, they went home. Now, a customer is able to purchase admission tickets, parking, carnival wristbands, concert tickets and other items online in advance. In addition, debit and credit cards are accepted nearly everywhere on the grounds for events. A customer does not need to bring any cash with them to enjoy a trip to the State Fair or any other event at our facility. For the State Fair, the customer is able to plan their entire visit online in advance, and then use our app while on site to get any information needed for their visit. I don’t think that the “digital transformation” will ever be finished for our type of facility. Certainly not during my career. It seems that every business process or customer experience improvement uncovers other exciting opportunities.

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

Conner: Our pre-pandemic IT budget was just over $1 million and we had a full-time staff of four, including myself. We have downsized and are currently at just two, including myself.

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; and how would you differentiate your role in procurement from that of the CIO?

Conner: The best method to contact us is via email at info@calexpo.com. The best education about the California Exposition and State Fair can be found on our website at calexpostatefair.com. There is a plethora of information about our facility, a calendar of events, and recent press releases and newsletters, along with other information. Our Facebook page, California State Fair, is also a great source of information. The only difference I see in my procurement role from that of the CIO is that I go to the CIO for final approval on purchases.

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

Conner: There are two projects that stand out as more satisfying than the others in my career at the California Exposition and State Fair. The most recent of the these was during my tenure as IT manager. We successfully completed a fiber upgrade project where we replaced all of the original fiber to 30 buildings on our 350-acre facility, upgraded from a 1gb to 10gb network, and eliminated almost all of the many switch dependencies on the network. The project took the consistency and reliability of our network to the next level, which has been vital for our operation but also vital during the past year in providing reliable network services to the many emergency service providers that have used our facility. Circling back to the “digital transformation” question above, one of my proudest achievements was being able to play a key role during my tenure as box office manager with the California Exposition and State Fair’s transition from completely paper-based ticketing into computerized, electronic ticketing. This transition allowed for real-time attendance reports, ticket scan data and credit card processing at all point-of-service locations. It was a game changer for management, marketing, operations, accounting and the general public. Of course, the advancements since then in the ticketing industry have been nonstop with advent purchasing tickets online, carrying your tickets on your mobile device, and being able integrate ticket sale data into accounting systems and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools, just to name a few.

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

Conner: I suppose the easy answer is to streamline the process to make IT procurement easier and faster. While I appreciate the rules, regulations and guidelines, I do wish the process was faster when needed.

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

Conner: I read Government Technology,* Techwire,* CalMatters.org, LinkedIn, and The Sacramento Business Journal.

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

Conner: I enjoy spending time with my wife and four children. Vacations and day trips are at the top of our list of fun things to do but there is always a game, dance recital, or other kids’ activity to go to and enjoy. I mostly read nonfiction with most of that being business, history or productivity-related books or articles.

*Government Technology magazine is a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Techwire.

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