ITEXPO: CIOs Explain Where We Are, Where We're Going


The wrap-up keynote session of Day 2 of ITEXPO in Las Vegas was in a word, “scintillating.” I will admit that is not a word heard very often in our industry, but it aptly describes the session where TechZone360 Group Editorial Director Erik Linask led a discussion on topics of intense interest, with three CIOs with big jobs and great insights on where IT is now and where it is going. 

Sharing their views with the ITEXPO attendees were David Gustafson, CIO, for the State of Nevada; Bill Schrier, CIO for the State of Washington and the former CTO for the City of Seattle, WA; and Dr. Lori Temple, Vice Provost for IT, UNLV. While this panel was unusual in that its focus was on the IT challenges of government agencies and a large public institution of higher learning, the lessons to be learned in many ways are universally applicable, despite the unique requirements of the verticals represented.

It’s hard to know where to start, although the observation that these are big users is probably a good jumping off place. 

Gustafson, for example, is responsible for the all of what I would characterize as the “Infostructure” for the state agencies in Nevada. This includes Internet connections for all government traffic on the networking side of things. He said there are roughly 18,000 people in his office and when you throw in things like sheriff’s offices and other agencies, the number grows by roughly three times.  

Schirer has gone from the not insignificant job of being the CIO for Seattle to now being the first point of contact for a radio network that serve 50,000 users, provides services to 450 school districts and is leading the State of Washington’s implementation of the U.S. government mandated and sponsored FirstNet national dedicated LTE network for first responders.

Dr. Temple, as CIO for UNLV, oversees the IT operations for a campus of 100 buildings with roughly 30,000 students and thousands of employees at a basically commuter campus in Las Vegas where the average person brings three to five connected devices with them on a daily basis.

Hoping to do some justice to the session (which was recorded on video and will be available on the site in the next few weeks), a few of the questions and their answers are worth highlighting.

The leadoff question was on security, and particularly security in a BYOD world.

Dr. Temple noted that the mission of the university is to enable students and faculty to have as much access to as much information as possible. Hence, the idea of enterprises worrying about device management was not foremost on her mind. “We focus on securing the apps [that are] on the network or are accessible via the network.” She added that this is why, “We are working on implementing an identity management system.” She noted that the goal was to assure that based on who you were, the need was to create an environment where you could not get into information resources that you should not, but were allowed access to the tools required for you to perform optimally based on whether you were a student, faculty member administrator or support person.  In short it is about identity i.e., authentication and authorization

Gustafson said that the government comes at this a bit differently from enterprises as well, because their No.1 job is protecting the assets that were entrusted to them. In fact, it was noted that government is willing collect personal information, and lots of it, from all of us, and we have expectations as citizens that it will be kept safe. He noted, “Our priority is to secure the data at all costs.” What was also striking in his answer was the admission that the traditional ways of protecting the network were insufficient and that the bad guys are so talented the “network will get compromised.” That is why he noted that identity management is key and that core data must be secured at all cost.

Schirer added some context to the government challenges. He used a hypothetical example of what would happen if he had a heart attack on stage. He noted, he would want the first responders there fast and armed with his medical records and the ability to contact hospitals and doctors, but would not want that information in the hands of -- as he said – “the water company.” Again, this highlighted what many in the security industry have been saying about “identity is the new perimeter.” 

What followed was a really interesting discussion as to why first responders cannot rely on the public cellular network services in emergencies and why the FirstNet LTE network is so important. In fact, Schirer used as an example the recent celebration of the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl victory.

“We had over 300,000 downtown rejoicing, which made the use of smart devices almost impossible,” he said. Left unsaid was the obvious. How would public safety people have been able to communicate with each other? This is especially of concern given the need now for exchanging rich media capabilities in real time (dashboard cams, stationary surveillance sensors, and high fidelity voice communications) in the case of major disasters.

The discussion that really resonated with me involved the answers to a simple question, “What about video?” Schirer’s reaction was echoed by the other two panelists, “That is a scary question!” He noted that we are moving to a world where the next generation wants to watch video on their devices and that video as a component of all traffic will predominate in the not too distant future. From his public safety perspective he was thinking about those police cams transmitting in real-time and not just recording, body-worn video, bus surveillance capabilities, etc. “They are likely to saturate the network,” he explained. 

Gustafson probably summed it up best when he observed that, “Video has destroyed traditional concepts of bandwidth use.” He and Temple both said it seemed that because of the heavy reliance on video, service providers were likely going to have to use next generation capabilities to prioritize traffic, which is a need they are already seeing. 

As I noted at the top, this was a content-rich session in the extreme. Panelists pointed out such things as the need to not stifle usage (although they do block access to known malware sites in government), but basically block nothing at the university since even adult-oriented material (particularly here in Las Vegas) is a subject of academic as well as prurient curiosity. They also foresaw much of their current operations ultimately moving to the cloud. The reasons were not just the usual but also had to do with faster provisioning of large user bases and business continuity benefits. However they each expressed concerns about licensing arrangements, especially in regard to storing all of that video.

The concluding part of the session in many ways may have been the most revealing and relevant to all IT professionals. All three panelists acknowledged that what’s next for IT is daunting for two reasons.

The first is they all agreed that the skills required for the future are not ones we are necessarily teaching today and there is a major mismatch that has to be addressed. The second was stated as the need for existing IT people to be retrained as virtualization and the cloud automate many of the things they have historically done, but are creating a new paradigm for IT. As Dr. Temple stated, “We are going to have a different type of IT professional.” She explained that as more things move to the cloud and become automated, IT professionals were going to have to “broker services instead of offer them. This will not be about boxes but about the business of providing services.”

In short, despite many people predicting that the cloud is a job killer, the realities are that the role of IT will be different but no less important. We have all heard about the growing stature of DevOps and data scientists as focus shifts to apps and big data and sophisticated analytics. These are obviously critical IT skills for the future, but don’t under-estimate the need for those service brokers. 

In closing, the panelists were asked for some final thoughts. Schirer emphasized the need for hybrid public and private nets and came back to the need to re-skill the IT workforce. Gustafson wondered why the federal government was busy clamping down on security with volumes of rules to be followed when the rest of the world including state government was hoping to use more open and transparent technology solutions to better serve citizens. And Dr. Temple got what were great last words when she said, “It has to be about striking a balance.”

That balance, of course, is giving us access to the tools we want and desire to enable us to do our work better and obtain compelling experiences in our personal lives, while assuring mechanisms are in place to mitigate risks and protect our privacy. It is a delicate act indeed, and underscores why being a CIO now and in the future is going to be a very challenging and very important job. 

Edited by Rory J. Thompson
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