If you’ve paid attention to the Arizona technology scene over the years, you likely remember Chad Kirkpatrick. Chad was our state CIO from 2009-2011 and really took the reins in leading Arizona toward an all-encompassing and strategic adoption of technology. In this blog, Chad talks about why he kept rejecting job offers in the technology space, how a trip to the Soviet Union influenced his worldview and his advice to those considering a government career.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I grew up in Dallas, Texas.
A Texan! What brought you to Arizona?
Very much so! I went to school in Washington, D.C. and worked for about three years after I graduated. After that, my wife and I wanted to move to a place that had no winters, good job opportunities, affordable houses, was close (but not too close) to parents and in-laws and where I could get out of politics. So, we move to Phoenix and accomplished four of those.
What did you study in college?
I received a bachelor’s degree in international politics and a master’s in economics with a concentration in math from George Washington and American University. I liked math and at the time I was doing statistical analysis for an energy consulting firm . One of my best friends was an economist. So, I thought I would enjoy economics. I applied to a few schools, was accepted and decided to stay local in Washington D.C. Econ and stats — you didn’t expect that one, did you!
What were some early influences?
A couple of things influenced my world view. My first job out of college was working in the U.S. Senate so I was able to observe how laws are made and it is a bit of a sausage making process. I also went to the Soviet Union I learned that a government simply saying it helps people doesn’t mean that it really is helping people. You have to take an objective and honest look at the results. The third major influence came from the biography of Teddy Roosevelt that my in-laws gave me. He overcame so many physical debilitations and had a lot of people constantly telling him how to behave. He ignored them and took ownership of his destiny, and I learned that if you want something, you go out and get it.
How did you end up in the Soviet Union?
I was finishing up high school and my mom asked me where I wanted to go for my graduation trip. She was thinking a beach somewhere in the carribean or Europe. Well, I said I wanted to go someplace off the beaten path, a little exotic and that I don’t know a lot about, so I said, “let’s go to the Iron Curtain.” And this was right before the Iron Curtain had fallen in the late 1980s. So, my mom found a summer camp for two weeks in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia and said, “have fun.” I skipped Czechoslovakia, hitchhiked around the Iron Curtain and had a little adventure. It was a great time.
Are there certain values that your parents taught you?
I am probably the only member of my family who has not become an entrepreneur. But watching my dad, stepfather, in-laws, and my wife who are all successfull self-made people, has taught me to own your career, be confident in your beliefs and decisions, and treat everyone around you as if they were your only customer. You also need to be humble enough to ask for input, guidance and support. If you really want something, go out and accomplish it – you can!
Did you always have an interest in technology?
I know it seems strange, but I never had a desire to be in technology. I always wanted to do corporate or market strategy. But, somehow every employer kept asking me to do IT. In the mid-1990’s, I built the website for two different employers just from picking up a book and teaching myself how to do it. They both asked me to work in IT, and I said no. Finally, I was a finance manager at MicroAge, which was at the time a $6 billion company. I was puzzled why the financial reporting process was so manual and cumbersome. I sat down with one of my analysts, who was taking a programming class, and we redesigned the process and created the right technology solution. We rolled out the new reporting app company-wide and I thought “well, I just freed up my time to do more strategic projects for the executive leadership.” The Group VP said he was making me the IT Director. I shocked him when I said “no.” I told my wife this and she pointed out this was the third time I was asked to be in technology and I would be a 28 year old director in a Fortune 500 company. That was my “a-ha!” moment. Very smart wife! I now have more than 15 years in IT.
Do you have a particular area of IT expertise?
Most of my experience is with databases and business intelligence. I owe a lot of my success to starting on the business side and focusing on the customer’s needs and the business’ goals. After MicroAge, I went to MSS Technologies and did all types of IT-consulting work for about three years. While I was there I created the technology strategic plan for a community college. Funny story, 10 years after writing the strategic, I bumped into the college’s CIO. He told me that they still use the IT strategic plan – I said that’s great but now it’s 10 years old! At Wells Fargo, I ran IT for the CFO and then spun up an IT team for the compliance division. I would learn the financial products or compliance rules just as well as a business analyst. It got to the point where the business analysts reported to me, the technology guy, on projects.
You have mentioned a lot about understanding the business process before implementing technology. Tell me more about your philosophy.
It’s true. You need to understand the desired business outcome before you introduce technology. My former boss at Wells Fargo would always say, “If you automate a bad process you will get a poop-covered Twinkie.” (laughter!) It’s critical that you define the strategic goal, understand the current process and plan the correct path to achieve the goal. All technology efforts should be looked at as a business process improvement effort first.
You were the AZ state CIO from 2009 – 2011. What are some of your favorite projects or most memorable moments?
My favorite moment came before being officially appointed CIO and I was urged to come to the Governor’s cabinet meeting. In very my first meeting I sat right next to Governor Brewer. That was pretty cool! If you are going to start, you might as well start with a bang! It was a great two years as state CIO.
We made significant progress on the programs my department owned. We oversaw the awarding of federal grants to fund broadband technology in rural Arizona. We won around $60 million in grants and the NTIA said it was one of the best run programs in the country.
We also drove public safety communications interoperability with the various state and local entities. The Department of Homeland Security said that Arizona was a role model because of how we were doing our planning exercises and communicating with local governments. The one area I would have liked to have made more progress is the project management office (PMO). While we moved the needle in the oversight process and collaborating in the right direction, more work remained. I hear Aaron Sandeen made solid improvements there after I left, which is great. Overall, I am proud that we moved GITA in a very strategic direction.
What are you doing now?
I am the VP and General Manager of a management consulting firm, MSS Technologies. We are a 30 year-old firm with offices in Phoenix and Denver. I’m very honored to work with the firm. We focus on people, process and technology and look at making processes and systems better. This includes help with supply chain, customer effectiveness, M&A and capabilities assessment, and the more traditional project, BA and change management services. We advise from a strategic level, and are a thinking partner. We work with some of the largest and well know companies and government agencies in Arizona. It’s a really fun and exciting place to be.
How does being a former State CIO affect your approach to working with government today?
Patience – understanding procurement, all of the legislative and federal mandates and personnel rules From the private sector mindset, you want to get from point A to point B immediately. Knowing that there are rules and you just have to be patient and keep the lines of communication open. Government is institutionally set-up to be cautious. It can be frustrating, but they are working with taxpayer dollars and frankly, they should take precautions. You just have to know how to navigate it.
Do you have any favorite expressions?
I like to use the phrase, “spot on.” I believe in “get it done” or “git r’ done” if I am in the south. I ended my very first ITAC meeting with, “get it done.” I inspire my teams with the phrase “onward and upward!”
What about favorite pastimes?
I am a big hiker, and I recently got into mountain biking so I am learning how to go fast without crashing into rocks and cacti. I used to do a lot of reading and writing, which I haven’t done in a few years. I actually wrote a collection of children’s stories and sent it to a publisher who rejected it. But that is okay. I’ll get it done when I’m retired. Every night I would make up stories for my kids. After a few years of doing this, my wife suggested I write them down and some poems too.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in the public sector?
To me, the great thing about government service is that you get to do the big things. I could have stayed a VP at Wells Fargo, run projects and been very comfortable. But at the state, I helped put in broadband for rural Arizona. You get to do the things you read about in the newspaper. You can see the difference in the community. Its an extremely satisfying experience. Something to be wary about – you need patience. It is all about cultural buy-in from the very top to the people doing the day-to-day work. They all must be in alignment. It will happen. It just takes patience.