CIO Conversation: Michael Sylvester makes the leap

Michael Sylvester, CIO for the Human Services Agencies, discusses data management and business intelligence challenges.

For Michael Sylvester, the business of information technology is a life and death matter. The CIO for the Human Services Agencies in Riverside County, Calif., since 2002, Sylvester oversees the operations that serve the county's most vulnerable -- the homeless and the abused.

A math major at California Lutheran University, he earned his MBA from Pepperdine University before embarking on a career in the private sector that included stints at Unisys Corp., Cap Gemini Consulting and Ernst & Young LLP. Since then, Sylvester has found plenty of inspiration in the public sector, including a top-notch IT team. With a staff of about 120 and a $20 million IT budget, Sylvester is taking on one of the hallmarks of government bureaucracy: piles of paperwork.

Do you have a project earmarked for the budget increase?

Sylvester: One major initiative is in the business intelligence (BI) space.

What's BI going to do for you?

Sylvester: We're heavily regulated, so reports and data are extremely meaningful to us. We are working closely with business units to ensure that the data presented actually provides the information needed to make executive decisions. … Everything for the most part has been paper-based, and it works very well, but we're moving people over to an electronic base.

You still must deal with lots of paper files. Is that part of your responsibility?

Sylvester: Yes, it is, and it is eye-opening to me coming from the private sector. There is so much paper! Some of it is actually out of our control. We're working closely with the state to show that there are opportunities here to cut back on the use of paper and to use more electronic means.

Which software are you using for this project, and how many users will you have?

Sylvester: We are using the blended products of Business Objects and Crystal Decisions. We've had it for a couple of years now and have been very happy with it. We have approximately 3,000 people in the department, but it would be fraction of that using it -- in the high 1,000 range.

What are the main differences you're seeing between the private and public sector?

Sylvester: There's a fallacy out there about the quality of people who work for the government. I have great people; I wouldn't pick another team. The big hurdle to get over is the ability to adapt to change. That is probably our biggest stumbling block. We are a mature organization, so change takes time and a lot of perseverance by the leader.

Why did you leave the private sector for a job like this?

Sylvester: I left the private sector because I was truly enjoying myself as a consultant, but the travel was starting to get to me. Most of my engagements ended up on the East Coast. I have young kids; I had to make a decision.

How would you compare the bureaucracy of government with the bureaucracy of private enterprise?

Sylvester: They are comparable. This is 'Welcome to politics.' And I spent my career with 'Welcome to partnerships.' The private sector is revenue and bottom-line cost driven. When you come inside here, a lot of the decisions really are strictly risk-based. There is no revenue component other than 'Can you pull down more funding?' Much of the focus in government is around risk-management and exposure.

What kind of risk?

Sylvester: The risk of not meeting your mandated obligation. You have news media that is constantly there ready to publish anything that might look a little awry. You don't have to be an Enron to get headlines. That has people real antsy about making decisions, so you have to work within the political structure to keep things moving forward so people don't stagnate.

What is IT employment like in the L.A. area?

Sylvester: I tell people we're at a turning point. The county as an employer has benefited from the stagnant IT market in recent years. We've been able to pull in people -- and not underpay them -- but get them in for pay they may not have accepted before. I'm concerned about the turn coming. And I have talked to our Human Resources director about reassessing our competency-based skill pay system so we can anticipate the turn and stay competitive.

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