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Aug. 10, 2012 11:34 am

Chris Tonjes: new city CIO on leading with “a startup mentality” [Q&A]

Photo credit: Greg Pearson Baltimore didn’t have much luck with its last chief information officer. First Rico Singleton was forced to resign in March following news that New York State was auditing him for questionable deals he made with software security company McAfee while working as deputy chief for New York’s Office of Technology. Then […]

Photo credit: Greg Pearson

Baltimore didn’t have much luck with its last chief information officer.

First Rico Singleton was forced to resign in March following news that New York State was auditing him for questionable deals he made with software security company McAfee while working as deputy chief for New York’s Office of Technology. Then Lillian Buie, the person Singleton brought in to fill some of his role, resigned abruptly last month from her position as chief digital officer.

But on July 23, Baltimore city’s new chief information officer—and it is chief information officer, despite the inconsistencies in the press releaseChris Tonjes officially began his tenure with the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology. Here’s hoping.

Tonjes comes to Baltimore by way of D.C., where he was most recently CIO of the D.C. Public Library System. Before that, Tonjes was working in the office of the district’s chief technology officer, where he was responsible for creating an online service request system for D.C. residents. Once service orders were filled out online, the requests were propagated to different service fulfillment systems in various D.C. government agencies, and the status of each request could be tracked.

“In the year 2003, that was a really big deal,” says Tonjes. “The very first day we tested that, I put in a broken fire hydrant request—that was one of the best days of my career in IT.”

And it has been a long career—this will be his twenty-third year working in IT. He actually declined to give his age, but did say he “was afraid I might be too old for this job.” Technically Baltimore spoke with Tonjes to find out more about running a city IT office with a startup mentality, his broader vision as the new CIO, and why he left D.C. for Baltimore.

TB: How did you end up in public sector work?

CT: It was a happy accident. I had been working as a consultant doing primarily IT work for financial companies and I was in between assignments. I was sitting at home reading a trade paper and I was reading a story about the CTO of Washington D.C., Suzanne Peck, and how she had made D.C. go from worst to first, and I thought, ‘Wow that looks like a great place to work.’ Well the very next day somebody from the HR department there called me because they had seen my resume on Monster.com. So they called me in and the rest was history.

TB: Aside from the fact that you’re the new CIO—why Baltimore? Why leave D.C. and come here?

CT: The job appealed to me because the challenge of it was very interesting to me. The chance of having as much responsibility as this job entails is very, very appealing to me. There’s a lot of things we do: very basic bread and butter things such as the help desk, the city’s network. … We also oversee all the crime cameras, and all the 911 and 311 operators are part of our department. … I thought I’d reached kind of a plateau where I was and I wanted to do something kind of a bit different, with a bigger reach. So this is really ideal. And I like it here, because this is a nice place. I came here a lot before I took this job and I could see myself living here.

TB: So when are you moving in?

CT: [I’m] going to move in the month of September. So, I’ve sort of narrowed it down, because I’m a city person I like being able to walk around. I’ll probably move somewhere downtown.

TB: You said you wanted to bring more of a solution-oriented, startup mentality to the job here. Is that something you feel has sort of been lacking?

CT: There are very rigid processes and the same things happen … every single minute of every single hour of every single day. That’s what IT is. Half of IT is very boring. … [But] we should be able to do things quickly. We should be able to understand how some consumer trends affect us or don’t affect us. We should be able to really quickly whip out mobile apps or BI [business intelligence] apps or things like that. And a lot of my suppliers, before I came here, were small companies, and the way they ran their own businesses and the way they applied technology and the way they solved problems was leveraging things that already existed and very creative, and that’s the kind of spirit I would like to bring here. … I would like to infuse this place with the kind of creativity and energy of a startup while at the same time having the consistency in delivery and the kind of results that a big city would expect in IT.

TB: So how do you strike that balance? Municipal governments aren’t known for being nimble.

CT: It’s very hard. It’s difficult to do and it’s a continuous work in progress. I don’t have an easy answer for that. The only thing that I can say is that there are certain personal attributes that I bring to the job myself and there are things I want to encourage my employees and my suppliers to have. A willingness to experiment within the constraints of available resources and knowing that if you’re gonna fail, make sure the failure is pretty quick and pretty cheap. Leveraging that kind of attitude really helps. I have a little bit different background from some of the people that do this job. … I have a degree in English, so I started out in life being a newspaper reporter, so my background is somewhat more creative than other people who do this type of work. So I value that and I try to bring it in the things that I do as much as I can.

TB: How much can a city IT department really do, though, considering that government budgets are shrinking?

CT: We have quite a few challenges here, and some of those challenges are the result of the fiscal condition that all states and cities have. There’s not a lot of financial resources to start new things. And even though there aren’t a lot of financial resources, the demand for new things is continuously escalating, and the demand to keep what we have going is continuously escalating, and the demand to provide additional services and to be better at them is continuously escalating. So you have to balance out a set of declining resources against a set of increasing expectations.

TB: The first time we spoke you mentioned the digital divide in the city. How do we bridge a digital divide, and isn’t it more than just increasing broadband access?

CT: To bridge digital divide there has to be relevancy, content, access and training. To some degree there are various people here that are working on those issues. I’m hoping that I can really quickly put together a map that’ll show what I call digital deserts in the city, those places where broadband’s not available under any circumstances, and I understand there are quite a few parts of the city that are like that. Once we do that we can start thinking of creative ways to mitigate that. … I’m still trying to get my arms around both what the resources are here to address digital divide issues and what’s being done and if I can do more than just add my voice to that I want to, but I need to understand a little bit better the landscape around that here and what I can contribute.

TB: And what of the city’s efforts around open data? When are updates to Open Baltimore coming?

CT: There’s an effort underway here to redesign that and to make it better. [We’re] going to form partnerships with some people to keep that updated and to add additional data sets to it. … I think we’re going to make some really good progress on that in the next 30 to 45 days, [and] definitely within 90 days. There are some challenges here … there are many bits of data that have to be compiled from data or from other sources. Some of that’s a little bit more labor intensive. … And then there are some internal technical issues that we have that we’re looking to solve. … People think that working in government in easy. It is not. It is actually harder than working in the private sector because the resources are going down every year, but the expectations are going up.

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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