State Of IT: The View From Pennsylvania

By Esther Shein

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Gerhards is responsible for the establishment of policies, standards, and guidelines governing the planning, management, acquisition, security, and use of IT assets in all Commonwealth agencies under the Governor's jurisdiction, impacting nearly 80,000 state employees. Gerhards was appointed to this post by former Governor Tom Ridge in January 1999.

He began his career with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1970 at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB). While there, he was co-project manager for the successful development and implementation of the first automated state liquor store, an accomplishment that won national recognition for its innovative use of mini-computer technology. In 1980, he became the assistant comptroller for systems and special accounting for the Department of Revenue. From 1981 until 1995, he worked as an assistant director for the Office of Budget (OB). He became director of the CTC in 1995 and presently manages a staff of over 200 IT professionals as deputy secretary.

Q: What are some of the emerging technologies you are utilizing?

We're in the process of actually rolling out a new public safety radio system, which will provide both data and voice communications for all our state agencies (there are probably two dozen that will use it) and it's a digital 800 MHz system. It uses IP technology as the underlying system. That is cutting edge...I don't know of any other states using that. We now have about 500 state police cars that literally have the radio in their car, the computer in their car and are now using our radio system to access information remotely that's maintained on the mainframe computer back here in Harrisburg. So we're using our radio system basically as a wireless network. A number of police organizations use cellular tech to do that. We're one of the first to use the radio system as our backbone for data communications. We started to roll it out on June 24, and the state police seem to really like the system. Before, they'd have to call dispatch and ask them to run vehicle registration numbers, license numbers, now then can do that on a touch sensitive screen in their car and get that information immediately. They can also do emails from car to car using the radio system. It also has a GPS built into every radio so we can identify where these cars are at any one time, and that's critical when you have an emergency.

We also have JNET, our criminal justice network -- we've interconnected all our criminal justice databases including our courts, the attorney general, who is independently elected and we have lot of capabilities. One, we can put in a name and find out if an individual has been in any part of the criminal justice system...for example, if they were in prison we can bring up their electronic photo and all the information about them. We can bring up a driver's license picture. The system is programmed if we have a local law enforcement officer who wants to know if a person has been arrested they can put information into the computer like alerts and emails that say this individual has now been arrested and give specifics on where the individual is now located.

There's a series of various technologies that we're using: digital certificates, so that we know definitely who we're dealing with, and we're using browser technologies [the backbone of JNET is Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition, or J2EE]... We have now rolled this out to 5,000 people. When Flight 93 went down on Sept. 11th in Somerset county near Pittsburgh, the FBI there requested that we bring the JNET capabilities to them because they wanted to try and use it to help with the investigation. One of the suspects they thought was on the plane, we were able to show very quickly that that person was actually in a state prison. We ran their name and had a hit and it told us, if I remember correctly, we had a driver's license on this guy but also a hit that he was in the Department of Correction and all the particulars about his incarceration. Currently the FBI office in Harrisburg is using the JNET technology. We have had a number of other federal agencies ask us if they can use the technology.

Q: Is more money being spent on network security this year?

Yes, but I'm not sure how much offhand. Every year we spend several million dollars on network security just at the enterprise level to protect our overall network. Individual agencies then spend money to protect their agency requirements as well.

Q: Has the Commonwealth hired a Chief Security Officer?

No. The director of our CTC, who reports to me and took my place, serves as chief security officer.

Q: What's your view on the implementation of new technologies and bleeding edge versus a more conservative approach?

We have been on not so much on the bleeding edge. I don't believe in being completely out on the edge where there's a high probability of failure. I don't think that's responsible. However, I also don't believe in waiting and ensuring something is completely reliable and stable and then buying in at the back end of its life cycle. Most of the things we've done we've been among the first to do, at least in government. At one time I did feel we were at a significant risk by adopting the [new] technology, but at the same time -- I'm a believer you should be on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge. Because that gives you a competitive advantage and it gives us an extended life cycle of the technology -- it gives you the value longer rather than waiting until its stable and at the end of its life.

Q: How has the economic downturn affected the pace of technological change and change management in IT?

I can only speak for state government. We've had excellent leadership first with Governor Ridge and now with Governor Schweitzer. Our technology budgets have fared very well in the budget process this year and we have not taken major cuts. The reason being is the governor sees the value of using tech to improve services to our citizens and employee productivity and efficiency. On July 1st we launched a new ERP system (MySAP), certainly that is a significant investment. The governor felt very strongly it was a strong investment for Pennsylvania state government and he ensured the proper level of funding for it.

Q: You recently outsourced the operations and maintenance of 17 agency data centers. What have you found to be the ingredients of a good vendor relationship?

We outsourced to Unisys and they have a close partnership with IBM. We were the first in state government to successfully outsource our mainframe operations (we probably got the last mainframe transitioned about two years ago), and early on we knew this could not be a vendor customer relationship, it had to be a partnership. The real difference is we both share a common objective to make it successful. Frankly we wanted to make it successful because we thought it would improve our service delivery. Unisys and IBM wanted to make it successful because that would make it an offering for other governments. We brought Gartner in to evaluate and benchmark the performance of the new consolidated outsourced data center. We got rated number one out of all the data centers Gartner has evaluated.

Q: What staff skills are you in most need of right now?

I can't say we're begging for any skills. We have completely reengineered our IT retention and recruitment program for employees and we literally have more applications than we can process. Our turnover is probably one-half of what it is in the private sector. A few examples: we had 17 jobs, which were for an IT associate program we started, where we accept non-IT degreed individuals. They have to have six credits of IT to apply so they have a flavor for IT and we put them through a one-year rigorous IT training program. I just welcome our third class the other day. Nearly everyone who has started in the program is still here. We did it because I was hearing from some of our agencies that IT people had very good technology skills but they weren't always relating well to the various program managers or the business. They were not so good at understanding the business objectives. So we thought every year we'd bring in individuals who didn't grow up with the hard core technologies and give them a substantial background and help them better relate to the business. I think we've only lost two out of 17 to 20 [people in the program] per year. They go back to individual state agencies. Most [applicants] we get we hire right out of college and come with liberal arts or business administration degrees.

Q: What else is occupying the bulk of your attention these days?

We were the first ever to do ERP applications -- all financial, procurement, HR and budgeting...most governments will do just accounting or HR, and according to SAP we are the largest government in the world to do what we're doing; that is to deploy five of their major modules: finance, budget, personnel, payroll and procurement. So we have many, many other states watching us. We just started implementing finance and procurement and budget to one third of our state agencies on July l. In October we will do another third of the agencies. In December we will do last third and then in January we will do all functions of HR for all agencies.

We have the largest telecommunications transition in country [going on] as well and we're converting from one service provider to another. We're going from Verizon and AT&T to Adelphia Business Solutions. They are putting several thousand miles of fiber in Pennsylvania and local governments and communities will now be able to connect to that fiber. We're hoping to save tens of millions of dollars in telecom costs when we're done. We're about 85 percent done, and we expect it to be finished in December.

Q: Which of your skills has served you best in managing IT?

Probably project management skills. When I first started, 90 percent of this was about technology and 10 percent was about people. And today it's a complete inverse. You can do almost anything you want with technology but the real challenge is culture and people. I've had years and years of managing all kinds of IT projects, large and small, but a key ingredient also is being able to relate well to the workforce and your interpersonal skills. That's incredibly important because most of this is done through encouragement and motivation. To be successful you have to use many more carrots than sticks. Your carrot has to be longer than your stick. You have to engender in people why they have to be doing these things and that takes a lot of interpersonal skills. When all of that fails you need to use the stick, but sparingly. I see myself as a cheerleader and a motivator but not a dictator.

Q: What advice would you give someone looking to advance their career the same way you have?

I honestly think there's value in working your way through an organization and getting lots of experience doing many different types of activities. Don't limit yourself to being an expert in only one area. I also think its important to find someone you really respect and use that person as a mentor to guide you in decision making and to ask advice. The third thing...this is all about people, not about technology. So even though you're a technologist you're going to be successful if you can relate to people. So spend as much time improving your people skills as you do your technology skills.

Q: What keeps you awake at night?

I think I just gave you about 12 projects. Technology is very complex and it isn't always predictable. Areas like network security -- we try every day to be as good at it as we can and use the most advanced tools we can find but it's not a perfect science. After all our preparation I'm continually concerned someone may breach our security. I think you would find most CIOs, particularly post 9/11, share similar concerns about security.

Q: What do you do in your spare time?

I don't have any, that's my problem. I recently purchased a boat, so I'm going to try and take up fishing again and I do play some golf. But it's tough.