The five minute CIO: Jonathan Reichental, City of Palo Alto, California

17 Apr 2015

“IT leaders should be hyper-focused on getting out of the traditional support and maintenance business,” warns Jonathan Reichental, the Irishman who is CIO to the City of Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Reichental is a native of Dublin and graduate of Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).

Palo Alto is the Silicon Valley neighbourhood of major tech CEOs, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page of Google and the late Steve Jobs of Apple.

Reichental is a technologist with two decades experience in software design and a CV that includes stints at O’Reilly Media, PricewaterhouseCoopers and TEDx talks on digital privacy. He has contributed his thoughts on technology to NPR, CNBC and Forbes, among other highly-acclaimed publications.

In his current role for the City of Palo Alto, he is focusing on modernising the existing technology environment, as well as pushing the boundaries of innovation in local government, such as open data and broader civic participation through mobile devices. He also informally advises several technology start-ups and is engaged in a variety of charity efforts in Silicon Valley.  

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll-out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

Our three-year IT strategy includes a comprehensive approach to maintaining existing systems, upgrading others, and adding new capabilities.

To date in this strategy cycle we’ve completed more than 77 large technology projects, which have included deploying a new data network and VoIP telephone system; a new public-facing website and a new intranet; a new 911 system for police and fire; enterprise-class Wi-Fi across City facilities, and deployed a comprehensive open government platform and a number of mobile apps for our community.

We have 35 more in-progress technology projects that are coming to completion, but we also have a tentative roadmap that includes seven years’ worth of new projects ahead of us.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

Our current three-year IT strategy has four core areas:

  1. To deploy a range of digital capabilities to our community (to date we’ve rolled out more than 50 online services)
  2. To design and implement an IT governance process (completed)
  3. To standardise and increase the quality of service delivery
  4. To modernise our infrastructure and administer a comprehensive security framework.

We’re on-schedule to meet and exceed this IT strategy as it comes to completion this summer.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We have a 40-mile dark fibre ring that connects City buildings and many businesses; more than 300 active technology solutions; several hundred virtual and physical servers; more than 1000 desktops and laptops; hundreds of tablets and smartphones; more than 35 connected buildings, including an airport and a full-service municipal utilities; more than 50 online apps; a public website that receives more than four million hits a year; one main data centre and a handful of smaller data facilities, and we solve more than 9,000 support tickets per year.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

Too many leaders focus on costs rather than outcomes. If an IT investment costs US$200,000 and it results in US$800,000 of value, the question of justifying the spend should be rather straightforward.

IT leaders should also be hyper-focused on getting out of the traditional support and maintenance business.

Many IT functions, like email, are commodity items now and should simply be fixed and predictable operational costs. 

Where other providers can do commodity-like work better than the internal IT organisation, this work should be done elsewhere.

As much as is possible, the IT budget should be directed at moving the organisation forward in its marketplace and in new market opportunities. In this desired state, the CIO is a business leader with a strategic role in the organisation.

How complex is the infrastructure and are you taking steps to simplify it?

We’re getting out of the data centre business. More and more of our systems are moving to software-as-a-service and managed services.

We’ll have a few systems left internally, but most services will be provided by others, allowing us to focus elsewhere.

We’re gradually moving to providing high-value services such as business analysis, data science, and vendor and project management.

Do you have a large in-house IT team or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a small team and use outside resources as much as possible.

In this way, we can focus on what we’re good at and bring in others on a temporary basis to take care of specialised project work. This provides us with the maximum flexibility to grow and shrink as an organisation dependent on organisational needs at any point in time.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

The main responsibility of my role is to get stuff done. I am focused on delivering our agreed IT strategy on-time, on-budget, and by exceeding customer expectations. This means creating a work environment that enables my team to get results and for them to have satisfying careers in the process.

I’m also the senior technology adviser to our City leaders and community. Only a small part of my time allows me to be hands-on. But I’ve been known to write code, address a service ticket, and run a project. I’m not sure my team is keen on that.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Cities present one of the richest opportunities for technology investment over the next few decades. Globally it’s worth trillions of dollars to upgrade, improve, and reinvent how cities operate. Making cities smarter includes better energy management, new transportation systems, efficient buildings, a greater focus on community health, and more. The challenges are enormous and complex and technology and data will play a central role.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

Everything we do has a metric. You know the saying: what gets measured gets managed!

If something doesn’t have a metric, I don’t let it happen.

My team know this. IT leaders need to measure performance and be accountable to it. 

Our core metrics involve customer satisfaction (currently 94pc of our customers rate our service as excellent); project management metrics such as on-schedule. on-budget, projects delivered, and time-to-completion.

We measure our service management in terms of number of issues, types of issues, and time to resolve. Metrics are a priority for us and it is certainly one of the reasons we succeed today. We hold ourselves accountable to our promises.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

Everything can be improved. IT teams should always be in a constant state of continuous improvement. Two of our focus areas for improvement include better use of data-driven decision-making and project management.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

Our upcoming upgrade to Microsoft SharePoint will enable a higher degree of collaboration in and between teams.

We’re also looking forward to upgrading all our media equipment at City Hall to enable higher quality broadcasting and less support. In the year ahead we’ll be finalizing our enterprise resource planning (ERP) multi-year roadmap and also making some decisions on fibre-to-the-home for our community.

We’re very excited about all the new value we’ll bring in the year ahead.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years