Seeing Through The Noise Of Government IT With Joe LaCroix
Internally, the noise is always going to be there in the Government IT—every department has its say. How do you cut through the noise? Today’s guest is Joe LaCroix, the IT Director in the town of Farragut, Tennessee. Joe discusses with Abhijit Verekar how talking to the executive management about the goals of the entire town is an essential first step. Then you try to put the pieces in place for the individual departments. On top of it all, having a managed service provider model to partner with is a tremendous advantage. Join in the conversation and find out crucial differences between government IT and the private sector.
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Seeing Through The Noise Of Government IT With Joe LaCroix
My guest is Joe LaCroix, the IT Director in the town of Farragut Tennessee. Joe, welcome to the show. I appreciate the conversations we have before the show. I met Joe when I was pitching our services to the town of Farragut and we’ve remained friends. Joe, thank you for making time for this. Tell me your story. How did you end up as the IT Director at a small town in Tennessee?
I started in the IT industry as a database programmer and realized quickly within a few years that programming was not in my blood. It takes a special breed of person to be good at it. I had several positions from that point where I learned to break and fix stuff and eventually into networking. I became employed with a company called Radware who manufactured intelligence switches and routers. They were a phenomenal company to work for. I took that company. I was one of the early employees in the US and went public with them. I was afforded the opportunity to retire for a short time when my son was born in 2000.
From there, I was particular about going back to work. I made a couple of choices. I went to work for a regional size CPA firm, which put me in contact with governmental accounting and IT audits for some governmental agencies. I decided at that point that I wanted to give back to my community. Once again, I was offered a position and an opportunity with a special taxing district in Florida. I went to work for the fire department for about a decade. It was satisfying for me to give back in a small way. I wasn’t a firefighter. I wasn’t a paramedic but I did support those operations and I thought it was self-satisfying. From there, I came to Tennessee to the town of Farragut to be closer to family, and here I am.
You’ve been with Farragut for how long?
You’ve got quite the story from the public sector, exit and then going back to the government to give back. What was it like coming to government from a public company, high stakes, international travel, and here you are in a small fire department?
The pace has changed. The way that the government looks at technology is quite different from how the private sector looks at technology. They’re both call centers but with the private sector, the competition drives a lot of the innovation that you have in technology. With the government, the competition isn’t there. We are the government. There is no other competition. I don’t think there should be competition there. When you bring thoughts and ideas to the government, the process of getting it implemented is completely different.The rollout of innovation in the government is different. They don’t want to be competitive, and they shouldn’t be. Click To Tweet
When you apply a competitive purpose to your innovation through a private sector, when you come out first, it means something when you put a process or a product in place that’s going to either save money, save time, create efficiencies eventually. The government is a little different. The government is not on that bleeding edge. They don’t want to be and shouldn’t be. The rollout of innovation is much different than it is in the private sector. That was the biggest one, slowing down and being able to look at what’s critical right now. If it’s critical, is there technology that’s already tested, already evaluated, and ready to put in as opposed to creating that bleeding edge and making sure that, competitively, we are outpacing our competitors?
You make a great point on the competition. It’s not like a city or a town like Farragut. They are competing for residents but it’s not the same when the profit motive is not there. In terms of government innovation, one of my clients likes to say, “I don’t want to bleed out on the bleeding edge.” The government tends to take advantage of the smart ones and leapfrog bad technologies. What have you seen in your career with the government that hasn’t been smart? Meaning, you were looking at older technologies that are not leapfrogging and you’re doing things that were years behind in the private sector?
One of the things that irked me in the beginning and ripped out under my skin was the idea of, “We’ve always done it this way, so we’re going to continue to do it this way.” There are other little pieces that go along with that and it’s the lack of knowledge in what technology is bringing to the table. If we’ve always done it this way and we’re always going to do it this way, there’s little room for improvement. At the end, when decision-makers finally realize, “There is something out there that we could be doing that’s different and we’re going to bring in technology. Technology is going to fix this.” Technology doesn’t necessarily fix it, especially when the process that you’re using is also decades old. Looking at the process is probably the biggest piece before you get into how you’re going to implement the technology as well. It’s a frustrating piece of my job to go back and discuss the process before we could discuss technology but that is probably the biggest part of my job.
You’re saying that innovation, especially in government, needs to start at the process, idea definition of the outcome and what are you trying to do?
Set your goals first.
We have a lot of opportunities where clients say, “I want to go to a managed services model.” The scoping of it doesn’t happen. You don’t talk about why. You don’t talk about what parts of your process you want to outsource. There are companies that specialize in managed services that go, “We’ll do it. Sign here and then we’ll figure all of that out.” You’re stuck in a contract that isn’t working for you. You’re stuck using systems that don’t work for you because you didn’t think things through. I like to call it going back to eating your vegetables because you didn’t clean your plate. How do you cut through the noise in technology? There’s so much going on. Things change quickly. All kinds of vendors are coming at you with the same product with a different sticker. How do you cut through the noise?
We do utilize the managed service provider model. There are benefits to it. There are some issues that are involved with that. When I came into this position, we had a managed service provider that had been here for years. There was a lot of comforts there. The end goal that I had wasn’t being met. Opening that up to RFP, one of the first things that I made known to all of the vendors who were coming in is, first and foremost, I want a partner. I don’t know everything. I am focused on my little world here. That partnership was critical to me. I need someone to bounce ideas off.
You’re talking about cutting through the noise. Internally, the noise is always going to be there. Every department has their say and needs. Usually, they’re screaming. The squeakiest wheel gets the most attention and most pieces. You have to listen to each individual being. That’s when I go back to my partner, my managed service provider. I say, “These are my general overall needs. Like the town, every department has its own specific needs.” I get that feedback. Cutting through the noise, maybe I don’t listen well. You talk to the executive management, “What are the goals of the entire town?” You try to put the pieces in place for the individual departments. Those are your noisemakers. The squeaky wheels will get the attention that they need. They might not get it right now. Part and parcel of IT, in general, is to be able to parse that noise and get to the nitty-gritty.
It sounds like you have to run the available solutions and answers to your problems through the filter of what does the town want, what does the city want, what is our overall strategy, and what does leadership wants to get accomplished in the next years. In your opinion, are those the foundations of a good IT strategy?
Going back to executive management and getting priorities from them, the government is a little different from the private sector. In the private sector, you go to the stakeholders. In my case, for local government, the stakeholders are, first and foremost, the citizens. The citizens tell the elected officials what they want. The elected officials tell the executive management. My role is to go to executive management and have them filter all of that before it comes down to me. The executive management is setting my goals.
In conjunction with me, we discuss what our goals are going to be and then I put together the plan to implement or the plan to address it. I have to go back to executive management and say, “This is my plan.” It has to be approved there. Citizens, elected officials, coming to executive management, executive management is the one who’s going to say, “This is our number one priority.” Customer service and citizens are top of that list.
You’re one of those guys that understand business and the application of technology for achieving a certain vision. You don’t have a team around you, but when you did, how did you translate that high-level vision goals and objectives to the more technical of our colleagues that don’t understand any of that? How does vision get translated? “Here’s what you need in this week or this month.”
Communication is key. I’ve been blessed throughout my career to be associated with some smart people and their ability to work through problems and issues. The beginning of that is taking that goal and going to the team. Now my team remembers but it still works the same way. I go to my team and I say, “Here’s our issue. This is where we stand. This is our goal. This is where we want to be in X number of months or 1, 2, or 5 years,” whatever that plan is, “How do we get there?”
That brainstorming and communications with those people who are smarter than I am. They start throwing out their ideas. I don’t want to call it a negotiation but it is in a way. It’s a negotiation on strategies and ideas that they have. Once that starts to gel, then we know which way to go. I have the best ideas, but they might not be feasible or practical in implementation. Through that banter back and forth with your team, that’s how you find out what that practical solution is.
My next question is, buzzwords. You might get a citizen calling you about, “What are we doing about being a smart city?” The council members who go to a conference or read something in a magazine are saying, “Why aren’t we a smart city? What are you doing?” Help me define that term because it means many things to different people.
Most cities are implementing some type of program that creates a smart environment for their city. Smart cities are not only data-driven. You’re collecting data on how the city is providing for its clients but it’s also giving a technological solution to the end-user, the citizen. I’ll give you an example of what a smart city is or what I view as a smart city. Transparency is huge in government. In the past, where we’ve had a citizen complaint come in, that complaint went into a paper file and the citizen lost the view of where that complaint was in its process.
By implementing a forward-facing software or interface for that client, I allow that citizen to have transparency on where that complaint is in the process. I created this complaint, this complaint was accepted, and it was forwarded to the proper department. The person who is involved in that proper department or the town staff is now tagged in it. That citizen can now contact that department personnel directly. That’s a smart city. That gives that citizen the ability to see exactly where their complaint is in the process. That transparency is what’s allowing our city to become smarter and adjust to our citizenry in a faster manner. The data that’s collected through smart city technology is self-explanatory. Maybe that goes to my data background.
The point I make to a lot of people that heard me say this is you don’t realize you’re a smart city but you are. You don’t have to have IoT devices that are tracking vehicles and talking to each other or be advanced to be a smart city. A great example that you brought up is how do you allow communications to flow between your citizens and you?
It’s a buzzword. People like to condense a wide range of issues into a small space. In this case, smart city and there’s a lot to it. We’re doing some, could we be better? Could we be a smarter city? Probably so. Condensing the word down to a buzzword, the phrase to smart city, we’re doing it and most cities are doing it as well.
There’s no limit to it. You’re talking about neural links and putting chips in people’s heads. How much smarter can every one of us get? I don’t know. We’ll have to see.
It’s across the board too, automated traffic management systems. Does that make your city smart? It does and it helps. You’re using that technology to help congestion or public transportation. There’s a lot to it. Using a buzzword is nice to get people to think about it but it’s not all-encompassing. There’s a lot more to it.
You can’t stop deploying technology if you don’t use the data that it’s producing.
You have to go back to data. Analyzing your data is critical and truly being smart.
The other buzzword, which I don’t think is quite a buzzword, it’s probably one of the top priorities now and will be for the foreseeable future, is cybersecurity and protecting our infrastructure and people from the bad guys. You and I know there are armies of robots that we’re up against. How do you think about cybersecurity, especially working for smaller governments that don’t necessarily have the man or money resources?
I was reading an article about a small city in Texas that got hit. If they hit us, we’re not paying this huge ransom. We don’t have it. Cybersecurity starts at prevention and starts at your end-user. You have to think about it. Also, there’s another piece to cybersecurity that gets pushed by the wayside a lot of times. The most secure network that you can provide is something that’s never connected. You can’t network it. You don’t put a cable into it. You don’t put a USB flash drive into it. That’s safe and secure.
The best tablet is a stone tablet.
That’s ludicrous nowadays. There are simple industry standards that are ignored daily for convenience. When I think cybersecurity, I think, “What is the best balance between allowing my end-user the freedom to do their job without so many restrictions that they are hampered?” There is no hard and fast line to say, “This is the best method to secure this network.” You have to give access but you also have to be cognizant of what’s going on. It’s the daily grind.Cybersecurity starts at prevention and your end-user. You have to think about it. Click To Tweet
Almost every time, it comes down to the non-sexy stuff. Do you have documentation? Who do we call if there’s an attack? What is our policy? Do we have insurance? It’s not in the blinking lights. That’s one aspect of it. It’s like a layered cake. You’ve got one layer and you still have cake. Is it better if you have many layers?
If someone tells you that they’re going to be able to put a device in your network and make you 100% secure, that’s magic fairy dust that they’re sprinkling. It’s not going to happen. For me, the non-sexy, the non-flashing look-at-me type of thing is the end-user. The end-user training is critical to cybersecurity but it’s not pretty. My end-users don’t want to sit through me jabber jawing about, “Don’t click on this link. You’re not going to get $1 billion from your Nigerian uncle.” They’ve heard it. They don’t want to sit through that same training but it’s critical.
What’s the best way, according to you for having that dialogue? Is it formalized training? Is it ongoing communication?
It’s a combination of things. Every year, especially with new people. When you’re talking about policies, you go to that training and talk about your policies, “These are our policies. This is what’s going to happen. Don’t do this. Don’t click that link.” That’s the beginning but there are other things that must happen at that same time. “What are you doing with your backups? How are you going to fix an attack? How are you going to even address an attack? Are we under attack?”
“How do you know?”
“What do we do?”
What are your thoughts around Pink-Panther-type surprise attacks on your user community to see how ready they are?
There are some companies, some vendors out there that do a great job of testing your end-users. Are they doing what the training has provided them or showing them what they needed to be doing, especially with phishing and those kinds of attacks? That simple piece of implementing that and then looking at the data that comes out of it. When we first started testing our end users after training, we were good. We were on the good side of being compliant. After seeing some of it come across some of these phishing attacks and other things, they’ve gotten a lot better. We went from about 48% to about 32% of my internal users clicking on that link. That’s good. We still have a long way to go.
How long? Over five years?
We still have a long way to go. That 32% is still an open door for that.
You’ve been in the government for many years and you’ve seen your role has evolved from being the nuts and bolts, blinky lights person to more strategies, security, transparency, reporting to the executives. The role of the CIO overall has changed. I had one city manager that said to me, “You’re going to see CIOs becoming city managers in the next ten years.” How do you see the role of the CIO having evolved over the years and going forward?
When you have a progressive executive management team, when I say progressive, people who see the use of IT and see the big picture with it, you are going to see a lot more integration of that position into a higher executive themselves. That’s going to happen. You get good executives across all of your different departments. You’re going to see these people in the CIO role get a higher position in that hierarchy. They’re going to go from reporting to your finance directors, reporting to your assistant city managers, to being on par with that.
Let’s take GIS, for example. GIS should be rolled up in IT. That data mining is critical. You see them in your development or in other departments. The data that they’re collecting is an IT role. I can go deep in that. You’re going to see that position rise. They’re going to come out from underneath other direct reports to the executive. Eventually, you’re going to see more people move into the executive manager’s role in towns. That’s going to be driven by more savvy elected officials. Your elected officials are going to start realizing that there’s data that’s being lost.
I’ll keep going back to data because that’s what they’re training for mostly. There are going to be ideas that your CIO is going to bring to the table that these elected officials are going to look at and go, “Why aren’t we doing this here in our town? Why aren’t we doing this in our city or county?” It’s like the role of your utility director. The utilities in many counties are in such a high position. You see them come across your economic development directors. Those guys move into that role because it’s such a critical part of a successful town or city. You’ll see the CIO on par with those positions.
Especially as you see more automation and more IT taking care of itself, you need the manager to rise above it and set the policy.
You look at the positive side of things. This pandemic we were in was rough in a lot of ways. IT stepped to the front and drugged a lot of these cities and towns into a posture where they could affect a good response to the pandemic. That’s the beginning of it.
This has been fantastic. Is there anything else you want to bring up or talk about?
I’m going to go back to a couple of things that I always kept in mind. There’s a fellow out there that you may or may not have heard of and his name is Bill Gates. He’s got a quote that I live by. I tried to get executive managers and even department heads to look at this. I go back to the process almost always. The exact quote is, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” That quote is something to live by for an IT manager and executive management should look at that first when making decisions on what their end goal and solution should be.
The other thing that fits into that is going back to innovation. My definition of innovation is the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of products or services or the improvement in the offering of both those products and services. That definition has nothing to do with technology. Innovation can be done with or without technology. Innovation nowadays uses technology as a tool to get that efficiency, to get that improvement in the offerings of products and service. Those are philosophies that I live by and try to live by when I roll out the technology to my town. I try to get my executive management team on board with those ideas. Usually, it’s successful when you keep that in mind.
It’s rare to find a like-minded individual like you when it comes to thinking about processes and doing the right things first. I always enjoy talking to you.
I love the conversation.
Thank you for coming to the show. I look forward to talking to you some more.
About Joe LaCroix, MBA
Accomplished City Management professional with 18+ years of success in supporting multimillion-dollar operations, leading complex projects, and systematically maximizing resources to improve operational performance.
Track record of aligning multidisciplinary teams with organizational goals while leading mission-critical initiatives to improve efficiency and position communities for long-term, sustainable success.
Experienced Information Technology Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the government administration industry. Skilled in Analytical Skills, IT Infrastructure Management, IT Service Management, IT Strategy, and Management.
Strong information technology professional with a Master of Business Administration – MBA focused in Business Administration and Management, General from Western Governors University.
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