I always find it interesting to learn about the backgrounds of our leaders. So when I sat down with AZ Deputy State CIO J.R. Sloan, I was fascinated to learn about his unique trajectory from construction engineering to the world of government and technology. J.R. is not only a successful technology leader with a vision, but he also happens to be very approachable person who takes time to listen. If you have met J.R. then you know what I mean.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born in Portland, Oregon and we lived there for only a couple of years. My dad was transferred with his job a few times, but we came to Phoenix around 1973 so that my dad could join his father in the family business. I was about seven years old when we moved here. I grew up near the Arcadia neighborhood and went to Phoenix Christian High School, graduating in 1985. So I like to claim the title, “nearly native.”
What did you study in college?
I started in electrical engineering, then switched to construction engineering and finally landed on architecture and environmental design.
How did you end up in technology?
It’s a long story. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up at the time I set out for college, but I started playing with computers and enjoyed it. There wasn’t the concept of computer science yet (at least not as we would look at it today). So I had some friends whose dads worked in engineering and they thought I should do that. I studied electrical engineering at the University of Arizona and didn’t really like it. During this time, I was also working at my father’s business over the summers, which was a one-stop shop for outfitting an entire convenience store – shelving, equipment, counters, cabinetry and such. I always liked construction and became licensed to be a finish carpenter.
I ended up transferring to ASU to do construction engineering, but left school to get married and took over the parts of my father’s business involving the interior layout and design of the buildings. Following that, I went back to school for architecture and eventually ended up in a variety of project management roles involving building design. I also wrote a software manual for a quality function deployment tool, worked as a system engineer for a call management software startup and became a product manager at Syntellect Inc. (now Enghouse Interactive), where I eventually grew to oversee the product management and marketing functions. Aaron Sandeen, the former state CIO, and Phil Manfredi, the former deputy state CIO, worked for me for a few years. From there, I eventually ended up at the state.
What are some lessons you have learned over the past several years working with a variety of departments and government officials on IT initiatives?
Government is way more complex in ways that you would not expect. The complexity has little to do with the technologies – it’s politics, funding, and those things that inhibit the government from working together. There is so much history and a deep seated distrust of centralized government, so the state set up a federated model that now seems to be a confederated model. The agencies are all encouraged to be independent, but there are good and bad aspects of that. It allows an agency to move at its own speed, but in times like this when you want get cost savings and we have so much overlap and duplication – how do you unwind that? If we can consolidate core functions, then do we become this unwieldy beast?
Since coming to ASET, I’ve also seen that there are times in which we have not served our agencies well in the past. Sometimes that’s been due to a lack of a customer focus, lack of resources, or because we simply dropped the ball. The key thing is to be accountable. But it is also a new day in that we are working very hard to rebuild trust with the agencies we serve and to elevate the level of service we provide. We are committed to renewing the partnerships with all the agencies. I’m excited to see the priorities and direction of the new administration with its focus on serving the citizens of Arizona, seeking to increase the efficiency of government and break down the walls that are holding things back.
In addition to the acting deputy state CIO, you are the state’s digital government manager. Could you tell me more about what e-government initiatives are on your plate in the coming year?
One of the first things that I hear when I tell someone my title is that it sounds really cool! Everyone wants to be a digital-something. The core areas that fall under digital government center on the state Web portal. Having successfully transitioned the portal platform from the former vendor contract to a new value-based model, we have deployed a new payment processing solution, we have increased control over all of the applications that are well-maintained through a better partner, and are in the process of moving out of an aging infrastructure into the cloud. It’s been a long time coming.
The next transition is to get those applications into an infrastructure that will be easier to maintain going forward. Those are the overall cloud initiatives. The following phase will be to take those applications and move them into our services platform – the Arizona Enterprise Services Platform (AESP). We’ve done the initial build of the platform, so the capabilities are there. There are a number APIs in place that we are running for agencies like ADEQ, the ACC and Lottery. We are also serving up an API for lookups for the new BREAZ/AFIS Advantage platform and we are also looking to move the user authentication to run through the AESP.
The long-term vision for the Web portal is to work with our partner vendor to say we have these applications and we can see the commonalities, so let’s now re-implement those applications using shared components in our services platform – which gives us infinite scalability and component reuse. I also want to get our payment processing fully implemented in the AESP. We handle $60-70M a year in transactions. We take credit cards and are adding ACH capabilities, which are all fully integrated and reconcile with BREAZ/AFIS Advantage.
The other area I would like to continue to make progress on is the Agency Platform. These are the new websites we are implementing for a number of agencies. The underlying technology is Drupal and it was a great visionary move Aaron Sandeen and crew chose to use. What we have been able to do is to create templates for agencies to use as a starting place. It allows for customization to meet their individual needs, but also maintains a level of consistency. The vast majority of agencies, boards and commissions do not have Web developers and would prefer to focus their efforts on the site’s content. We have already converted about 87 agency websites off of older technology. We do the design and the agencies manage the content, and we have a vendor that specializes in Drupal hosting to deliver our solution. I am excited that all of these are coming together. As agencies want to do applications on these sites, we have the resources and the support functions.
A great leadership coach and friend, Len Fuchs, has said, “Leaders find that the simplest advice is also the truest.” What is some of the best advice you have received (or given)?
The one that I go back to a lot is, “seek first to understand.” At least once I day I have to go into a room and understand multiple peoples’ views. I am amazed all the time at how people can come away from the same meeting with different stories. With our different personalities and communication styles, we all bring a different framework to anything we are doing and that can also be influenced by the last phone call, news that’s come through, or something in our personal lives. I’ve found that I need to increase my own awareness of how I am engaging with others.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for our state in terms of technology in the next year? In the next five years?
I think it is something that the state is already working on: How are we leveraging technology to better serve the citizens? We can’t just do technology for technology’s sake. If what we are doing doesn’t make citizens’ experiences better, even the coolest things don’t matter. It has to help them get done what they need to get done. When they come to any government entity, there is a task that they need to perform. Service Arizona is an example of doing it well. Are there places that we can do it better? Yes. So much of what is coming is mobility and mobile access to transactions. Fifty percent of our website traffic comes from mobile devices and this trend is growing. We have designed our sites using responsive design so it automatically reformats the website for whatever device is accessing it. Two benefits – one is the agency has a mobile version of its website and two is the user having a single place to get information. Other key areas include data management identity management. This where I want to focus my attention.
I’ve heard about the new PIJ process – PIJ EZ – could you tell me more about this initiative?
PIJ stands for Project Investment Justification. This is a process where ADOA is tasked by statute to come in and play an oversight role alongside an agency to evaluate skillsets, funding, and ways of monitoring it over time to ensure the success of IT projects. Certain baseline elements were put into statute that we then monitor. These projects are using taxpayer dollars so we need to be good stewards, but at the same time we can’t slow things down with unnecessary bureaucracy. Based on feedback from a number of our partner agencies indicating frustration with the existing process, we chose to include the PIJ process in the first group of several Lean initiatives being addressed within ADOA. One of the key items identified was that there was a whole category of IT projects that were being pushed through the PIJ process that did not have a lot of risk, so that is what the PIJ EZ process Is designed to address. It is a set of questions for low risk projects like buying laptops or moving to a new version of existing software. Generally, these types of projects don’t justify the rigor of the full PIJ. We still fulfill the statute and have an appropriate level of visibility, but now it is 15 to 20 minutes of answering questions and then it can then go straight to their procurement officer.
We have also worked hard to ensure alignment between the PIJ and statute and are working with the existing ASET team members to distill a standard set of questions so we have a consistent process. In many cases, agencies were spending three to six months prior to approaching ASET. When ASET got involved, we would then start asking our questions and get into this iterative cycle. So we were viewed as the gatekeepers when all we really wanted to do was to fulfill our statutory obligation and help ensure their success. Now, we have collapsed the process. Before the agencies put pen to paper, we are going to have a meeting. The idea is to invite all the stakeholders and our goal is that you come out of the meeting with an approval. Worst case, you have a set of action items and one more meeting is needed. We have received very positive feedback so far.
You have a background in IT product management and marketing. Do you have any tips for IT vendors looking to sell to the state?
Seek to understand! If you want to talk to people at the state, the first thing you need to ask about is the agency’s priorities. Everyone has a solution that they think will solve a problem and, having been on the private sector side, I can see that view. But the fact is we have a limited set of priorities we can work on in any given period of time and I really appreciate vendors who take time to ask what things we are working on. Be prepared to educate state officials. We know what we have, but vendors need to help us understand their technology and why it is special. But don’t start with that. Give us a broader perspective of the industry.
Do you have any favorite expressions?
There is one that I have used in business when things didn’t go as planned: “It is what it is.” I’ve recently tried to stop saying that because it says I’m stuck and I can’t affect change. So, that’s something I am trying not to say anymore.
Do you have any pets or pastimes?
My wife and I have four kids ranging from 11 to 23 years of age. We’ve gone through phases of the small things in cages, like JJ the hamster who is well beyond his life expectancy. Now my youngest wants a dog. We don’t want to buy our daughter a dog that becomes the dog we have to take care of!
As far as hobbies go, I have been involved in archery for a number of years. My dad and I used to go dove and quail hunting. At one point my dad and I bought some compound bows and started shooting. We attempted hunting, but were never very good at it. But we have enjoyed participating in field shoots around the state. Even my son now joins us. For the rest of the family, we like to go hiking. Every fall we go to Oak Creek Canyon and hike. We also enjoy Watson Lake in Prescott.
What would you tell someone thinking about a career in public service?
Two things… One is start early to get all of the benefits! Being someone who has made the transition from private sector to public service, I’ve come to learn there isn’t much disparity in benefits. It is more of a lifestyle change. If you can afford public service, there are many things to enjoy about it. Second, the thing that was a great draw for me was to say my work has a positive impact in people’s lives. Even though we are one step removed at ADOA-ASET in that we serve the agencies that serve the citizens, I can still see a connection to the constituents. I have always had a strong view toward customer service and wanting to meet the needs of customers – that could be someone in ASET or vendors or agencies – even the lobbyists! If these are things that resonate with an individual, then working at the state could be a great fit because that is what public service is about. People laugh that you don’t come here for the money (some may though), but there are a lot of good careers. I have found a lot of good people trying to do good things and the opportunity to work on interesting things that are truly meaningful. There are certainly businesses in the private sector that serve the public, but here you can see more directly how the work you are doing attaches to the citizens and is a stewardship of taxpayer dollars.