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How Cloud Computing Jump-Started A State Agency

A new CIO, a shrinking budget, and a commitment to serving mobile employees pointed to the solution: cloud apps and a cluster of virtualized x86 servers.

In the 15 months that she's been CIO of the California Public Utilities Commission, Carolyn Lawson has had to undertake a number of initiatives, such as finding a way to serve mobile employees and initiating an internal cloud. But few initiatives have been more important than redirecting the energies and talents of her staff of 38.

In February 2008, the IT developers and their customers, the general staff of the PUC, eyed each other with what can only be described as healthy, mutual suspicion. "The biggest problem was that IT was reactionary," she said. The staff had invested itself in a host of underplanned or ill-conceived projects, many of which became maintenance problems, forcing the staff to spread itself over too many commitments, she recalls.

It was "flavor-of-the-day technology" without a self-sustaining plan or consistency of direction. It was leadership by magazine article. "'I've read this cool thing, and this is what we're going to do,'" she recalled.

At the same time, there was a lack of appreciation for the Herculean efforts made by the IT staff to meet ill-conceived demands. They'd acted on so many poorly thought-through requests and reached so many dead ends that by the time Lawson arrived, "they seemed unresponsive. There was no planning. We had an odd patchwork of systems without any real consistency," she said.

"By the time I got here, the staff was not going to step up or take risks. It was just too painful. There was an antagonism between IT and the rest of the organization. There was a chasm building, and my job was to close that gap," she said in an interview in Sacramento in the midst of the Conference on California's Future last week.

She took the position that IT had to always be available. "It appeared to the staff at first as a betrayal. They already felt that no one understood how hard they worked. So we went through a rough six months at first." At the end of six to seven months, she and the staff sat down for a tense meeting. She insisted they meet users' needs; they said, "Look, we didn't make all the decisions that got us here."

Lawson used the confrontation as a moment of opportunity to reinvest the staff with its own decision-making powers. They could decide on the technical direction of the department, she said, provided they produced for users. At the same time, a state budget crisis was looming. The department could anticipate a 25% budget cut. They sat down together again a few months later and she told them, "Look, we're not going to get more stuff. How do we make people more efficient and keep the commission running?"

She was researching cloud computing, among other things, and the staff was interested. She suggested that services in the cloud might provide a less painful path to the future.

One result was Open Campus, an application based on an internal cloud or cluster of virtualized and unvirtualized x86 servers. It would let employees log in to the cloud from anywhere in the state.

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