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Focus on People, Not Technology, Says New York CIO Bob Samson

Though Bob Samson was named New York State’s CIO only in April, his work in the state stretches back for more than half a decade.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his first term put together the Spending and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission to examine the state’s organization and spending habits. Samson served on the commission and helped put together a recommendation for the governor on how to organize the state’s technology.

Bob Samson serves as CIO for New York state. (Photo: ITS)

“In a bold move, Gov. Cuomo pulled all of the budgets and resources out of the agencies and created an integrated IT service delivery organization,” said Samson in an interview with 21st Century State & Local.

This type of reorganization was unheard of at the time, according to Samson.

“This was an all-in technology play,” Samson said. “At its highest level, it was recognition that IT is horizontal across all agencies, it’s highly transformational, and it needed to be secure.”

As CIO, Samson leads the Office of Information Technology Services (ITS), which was created in 2012. ITS’ mission is to provide statewide IT strategic direction, direct IT policy, and deliver centralized IT products and services that support the state’s mission. ITS is also heavily focused on IT consolidation within the state.

“As part of that, we are consolidating 53 data centers into two and 27 separate email systems into one Microsoft Office 365 platform with approximately 120,000 active email accounts,” Samson said.

IT consolidation is a common goal among CIOs, both in the public and private spheres. What distinguishes Samson from his colleagues is his focus on people, not technology. His guiding motto is “Innovation that matters for all New Yorkers,” placing the emphasis on the user, not the machine.

“We built out a robust delivery system,” Samson said. “We’ve got an immense infrastructure that we use to serve our agency clients every day. Our whole point of view is to create an agenda of innovation for our agency clients.”

Creating that agenda of innovation starts with ensuring ITS and the whole state are on the same page when it comes to technology. “We have one strategy and one set of standards,” said Samson. “We are continuing to make evolutionary and innovative changes.”

Samson knows that in order for a team to be innovative, they must have the tools and resources to create.

“The most important thing to remember is that IT is rapid pace, but at the end of the day it’s all about the people who work with technology,” Samson said.

Communication is also key at ITS. The organization has regularly scheduled meetings across all levels to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working together.

“We have a good, deep bench of skills and talent,” Samson said. “The bigger challenge isn’t the skills and talent of our leadership team. It’s about getting the team synchronized around our goals and priorities. It’s very easy to get consumed with technology, but all of it is only as good as your ability to apply it in transformational and innovative ways to help citizens and the government.”

Aside from the ongoing consolidation effort, Samson’s office is fielding a number of projects–from more typical IT modernization efforts to loftier goals.

“Our governor is a governor of bold ideas,” Samson said. “In the IT space we love bold ideas because it challenges us to build new systems to achieve our goals.”

When it comes to helping agencies streamline and improve their work, Samson focuses on getting inside the head of the business process owner.

“How do you translate a business need to an IT solution? Very often you have business leaders in agencies that aren’t IT people,” Samson said. “What they know is how they do their work and that there might be a better way to do it. It starts as a dialogue.”

A perfect example of Samson’s process is the recently released Department of Agriculture and Markets app. The app helps streamline the inspection process for New York’s nearly 9,000 nurseries, greenhouses, and retail markets where plants and flowers are grown or sold.

“For the agriculture app, our IT team rode in the car with plant inspectors to see how they did their work,” Samson said. “It’s spending time in the car with the inspectors, learning how they did their job currently, and then going back and thinking through how to automate and transform the process. It’s about getting as close to the business owner as possible.”

When asked what is the top IT problem facing states today, Samson asked if he could pick more than one problem–his answer is three-pronged.

“Every state suffers from the same problems,” Samson said. “First off, in some cases you have infrastructure that needs to be upgraded because they’ve been around for a long time. Second, attracting, retaining, and developing the skills you need in a skills-based organization. Third, ensuring your organization is a desirable place to work. Not just from a compensation perspective–do you offer an inspiring place to work? People love to come to work and make a difference.”

As for advice for other CIOs, Samson says to focus on the people, not the technology.

“It is not about technology,” he said. “At the end of the day technology is cool. My advice is to recognize first that it is not about tech, it’s about the people who help you shape it, develop it, maintain it, implement it, and have the clever ideas to create it. With the agriculture app, the starting point wasn’t the technology. It started with the person who rode along with the plant inspector. Don’t be captivated by the technology, it’s the people who help you use it.”

Kate DeNardi
About Kate DeNardi
Kate DeNardi is 21st Century State & Local's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs
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