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Hiring IT staff, mobility, security: New year, old challenges for CIOs

New year, same big issues: Massachusetts CIO John Letchford talks about hiring IT staff, mobility and security in 2013.

In the first part of this interview, John Letchford, CIO for the commonwealth of Massachusetts, talked about using collaboration and creative problem-solving to meet IT challenges in the face of tight budgets. Here, he talks about his biggest non-technology challenge: keeping and hiring IT staff. He also discusses his top technology priorities for 2013, which line up with those of many of his fellow National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) members in the organization's annual IT priorities survey.

John LetchfordJohn Letchford

You've talked about dealing with this tough economy. Beyond budget constraints, what is the biggest challenge on your horizon?

John Letchford: In Massachusetts, we are facing extraordinary challenges in trying to recruit IT staff. There is a lot of competition in the hiring marketplace: Many of my current employees will be retiring in the next five years, less than 2% of my staff is under 30 years old and the pipeline of potential new IT employees is drying up nationwide. So, we are looking at a number of reforms to recruit, retain and re-skill our IT employees, and also will aggressively consider cloud computing solutions where appropriate, in partnership with unions, to ensure our remaining employees' careers remain the best we can make them.

Building the right IT staff is increasingly cited as a challenge in the private sector too -- which skills are you finding hardest to fill?

Letchford: It's technical skills across the board, but especially business analysts, architects, engineers and service managers. Boston is a very competitive market for IT, and trying to compete is hard.

What kind of reforms are you looking at to address the issue of 'recruit, retrain and re-skill' your IT staff?

Letchford: There are a number of reforms being considered as we speak, but I'm not at liberty to share details until Gov. [Deval] Patrick releases his budget toward the end of [January]. However, in general, they cover creating an environment better suited to fostering the needs and wants of the Millennial generation, and retaining existing staff, for example, by offering greater flexibility in the workplace. For those not retiring, we will be more deliberate about re-skilling the government IT workforce for future needs in parallel with driving toward more cloud-based solutions.

I believe cloud computing needs to be top priority for all IT organizations -- both private and public sector -- looking ahead.

John Letchford,
CIO, commonwealth of Massachusetts

Also, we want to increase the pipeline of potential employees who are skilled and motivated to work in IT within state government, and we also are working with the Governor's STEM Advisory Council to look at how to address the challenges across all industry sectors that seek IT resources in Massachusetts.

Finally, to remain viable as an organization, in the Information Technology Division we will focus on service delivery oversight, data management, mobility and integration across the government enterprise. And we'll look at restructuring of funding and chargeback models for shared services to incentivize adoption of cloud services where appropriate.

The NASCIO survey showed mobility and cloud computing as top technology priorities for 2013.

Letchford: Yes, these are key priorities for us here. Enabling the mobile workforce is essential to building an environment capable of supporting and sustaining the workforce of the future.

The challenge for state government is ensuring the appropriate levels of access and security for each of our employees in the many varied roles that they fill. The commonwealth has recently completed a bring-your-own-device policy, and we are in the process of selecting and deploying a mobile data management platform. We are also in the process of rolling out a new mobile platform, based on the city of Boston's Citizen Connect App, to Massachusetts' towns and cities to enhance the level of civic engagement with constituents.

Ensuring that the commonwealth makes optimal use of cloud computing is also a top priority for my team. I believe it needs to be top priority for all IT organizations -- both private and public sector -- looking ahead. We've recently completed a draft outline of our cloud computing strategy.

What is your cloud strategy?

Letchford: Cloud computing has so many implications, whether it's security standards, data classification, relationships with the unions, the changing workforce, agility, service levels, financials. We realized we didn't really have a clearly defined strategy, other than it was a good idea because we're going to run out of employees to do all the work we want to get done, simply because the workforce who focus on IT is decreasing. So first of all, our cloud strategy framework lays out a summary of why the cloud is a solution, not a threat.

Secondly, if somebody in a business sector is interested in utilizing a cloud service, then you need to make a determination as to whether that is a viable option. A lot of that is determined by how you classify the data. What is the purpose of it? How sensitive is it? Is it subject to HIPAA [the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act]? Does it sit at rest or is it in transport, based on the function of the tool or the solution? There's a lot to look at to make that determination.

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And you may find that cloud solutions out there today just aren't where they need to be in order to provide the level of comfort that the data will be managed appropriately. But there are other areas that I don't really care if they are in a cloud solution, such as GIS [geographic information system] data, which is pretty much open and public. If someone is able to get that information anyway with a Freedom of Information Act request, why would I hide it -- and why not do it as cheaply as possible?

The third part is how do I actually go in there and go about implementing a cloud solution? If something is in-house, how do I transition it? So, we're building this framework over time, and it will take years. We want to do it in partnership with the vendor community to make sure it's a framework that basically over time will standardize and simplify the approach we take. We don't want to build from scratch every time.

Where does Massachusetts stand in terms of NASCIO's top strategy priorities -- consolidation and security?

Letchford: We began consolidating our IT environment across our executive department early in 2009, and I'm happy to say that we have made significant and very valuable progress on that front. We took on consolidation of the most complicated government vertical first -- Health and Human Services. It has been challenging because the applications and infrastructure we are consolidating need to be standardized before we can bring them into our managed environment. Implementation of the many threads of consolidation, however, is of course a long-range endeavor, so we are still engaged in this important work. Seeing it through to completion is a priority for us.

And security?

Letchford: Simply put, the importance of security cannot be overstated. We are constantly vigilant in our efforts to protect the commonwealth's infrastructure and digital assets against persistent threats. Those of us who spend our professional lives steeped in IT know that it's not a matter of whether systems will be attacked, but when and how often. While we continue to employ education and collaboration as a security strategy, as well as prevention and detection, we are also focused on nuanced access management: strong, yet flexible perimeter defenses and internal monitoring. Having the appropriate responses at the ready is also critical to dealing with the challenges we face on this front.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.

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