Allan Frank and Tommy Jones could probably make a decent buddy team movie together.
Frank, who will next week leave his post as the Chief Technology Officer for the City of Philadelphia, is, by all accounts, high energy, a self-described ‘ideas man’ with a gravely voice and an ability to capture the attention of audiences that are usually expecting a stodgy bureaucrat to talk about servers and network capacity.
Jones, who has been Frank’s deputy since November 2009 and will become interim CTO on Feb. 1, would probably be the straight man of the duo. Though he has a playful chuckle, he is more serious and details-oriented than Frank.
In a phrase, if Frank might be more likely to ask ‘why can’t we?’ Jones would be the one to ask ‘how do we?’
Jones had been Deputy Chief Technology Officer in Washington D.C. for two years when he moved to Philadelphia to take a similar role with Frank, whom he had met at a function three months earlier.
“I like people telling me how impossible something is to do.,” Jones told Technically Philly earlier this month in a small conference room on the 18th floor of the Market Street Division of Technology headquarters. “[Frank] was telling me what he had going on, and he said ‘Tom, I need someone to come make this happen.”
Come he did, in November 2009, eventually settling into the Art Museum area. Now he has to actually make this happen. Fortunately, he says he has energy too — saying he’s a 26-year-old in the body of someone who is 53.
Jones, who grew up in Charles City County, Virginia, boasts a career that has taken him to various corners of the technology world, from retail to software development to accounting and other fields, including four years in the U.S. Air Force in the 1980s. Below, he talks about why slowing down is the best way to get the most done and what’s going to be different under this interim leader.
As always, edited for length and clarity.
What is your number one top priority when you take on the interim CTO title next week?
Top Three Priorities from Tommy Jones in 2011
1. internal city IT ‘customer service’
2. improve and stabilize city network
3. rebuild Phila.gov
Number one for me is customer service. Our customer service sucks. I’m going to admit that, the internal, DOT to the other agencies. I’m admitting that because I realize the sheer volume my people are dealing with.
One of the things I did [when I got here], I did a snapshot of emails — remember i told you my network group was two people? In September, October and November, those guys were averaging almost 1,000 emails a day. Now granted, a lot of those were CCs and things like that, but how do you not drop the ball when you’re getting that volume of emails? I can’t keep up with that.
So we’re focused very heavily on getting both control of that so we don’t create more traffic than necessary that makes it easier to drop the ball and also working with the organizations to say ‘guys, I know you have 58 projects, there’s no way we can do 58, so let’s focus on 10, let’s stop talking about the other 48, we can revisit them in six months, but let’s focus on 10 and i can actually get work done and you’ll be happier.’ So number one for me is focusing on customer service.
Do you have second and third priorities to round out an agenda?
Now, if I focus on customer service, that eliminates some of the thrashing we did. That gives me a little bandwidth to go back and get what personally my second issue is, and that’s I gotta get my network faster because it’s the foundation of so many things we want to do.
I also want to rebuild Phila.gov. I’m a very consumer-orientated person, so if you look at what i did in D.C., we took the dc.gov and you look at it now it’s being rolled out as we speak. It went from focusing on a department to focusing on what do you need to do. If you’re trying to get a business license, why do you care what department handles it? You care, can I get through this process. So we’ve been working with some of the departments, like L&I and commerce to build sort of a portal that makes it easier for a business person.
Are there any plans you will be changing?
The plans in place now aren’t just Allan’s plans, they are our plans.
We have been working on them for a year, fighting, arguing, changing…. Ninety-eight percent of what is there, I was a part of and agree with. It says interim role, but I look at it as my job until I’m replaced.
I think I have a slightly different focus than what you may have heard before. It’s not different than Allan, but we have both learned so much in the last year. We have so much, so many problems in the sheer capacity we have available to us that I got to focus on how the ‘running the railroad’ capacity can get a little more efficient and we’ve really got a huge focus on priorities.
The demands and needs and wants of the city far exceed its capacity and you don’t up-capacity very quickly, so what we ‘ve been working with all commissioners, deputy mayors and directors is to identify the initiatives and really talk what are the real priorities. So let’s face it, we don’t have an open checkbook, we can’t do everything, so some of those priorities are the ‘running the railroad’ priorities and some of those priorities are strategic priorities. So that’s where I’m focusing, to make sure we really have the priorities down.
Frank talked a lot about the Digital Philadelphia vision conceived in his tenure, which featured three prominent priorities, (a) of opening up more agency data, (b) of digital inclusion measures and (c) using technology as an economic driver. How do you personally prioritize those very big, simultaneous goals he had?
Those three priorities are very important to me.
I’ve come to realize the way we did it before was Allan drove a lot of the figuring out how to get the strategic initiatives off the ground while that meant someone had to be here worrying about the operations. So we sort of split the load. We’ve both did both, but which one we focused on [was clear].
In doing that, we both came to the realization that [the city has] such a crumbling infrastructure… compared to other cities. The years have taken [their] toll, and our network teams and server teams are minuscule in size compared to similarly sized cities.
I hate to use the word ‘slowing down,’ but in a sense, I’m slowing down out of necessity.
Before coming here, you spent two years with the city of D.C., which is generally considered a city government that is more progressive than Philly’s. What are the biggest differences?
It’s hard to compare. I look at Philly being where D.C. was seven years ago.
D.C. was crumbling seven years ago. The mayor was able to come in and convince all the people necessary of the massive infusion necessary of money and capacity to get D.C. to the state it should be at, and they got the money in the door.
Philly has a mayor who understands that and is working extraordinarily hard to support us, but we’re in the middle of a fiscal crisis, so there’s a ‘I understand the need and I’m going to work as hard as I can to fill it, but I have some unfortunate realities forced upon me.’
What happened in D.C., we had went through the three years of pain of putting in a full-fledged procurement system [to track contracts] that was all online. I didn’t worry about a contractor time sheet, contractors had to sign in the system, put in their time and got automatically approved and if I needed a contractor or skill set I logged in [to a database of approved vendors].
We went from an average of four months to get someone on — which is bout what it is here in Philly — to three weeks. I don’t have that technology in place today. I have a city that supports me doing it and a mayor in support of that, but you can only move so fast with the fiscal constraints we have. If you asked me what my frustrations here, it isn’t with people — I know I can make massive reform and efficiencies here — but in the current financial constraints.. It’s limiting us all.
D.C. went through this seven years ago and hit this when the times were better and went through the building to get reform.
So what is the core change once you take the lead next week?
In the last couple months and on Feb. 2 more so, there will be a much greater emphasis on getting these boring foundational things working, such as reducing the number of projects we’re attacking so we can knock them off, such as the data centers cleaned up, such as finishing off the network. Allan put more energy into the big picture stuff than I will for the next six months. I think if he was here Feb. 1, he would be doing the same thing because we’ve both learned. We need to focus.
Every Friday, Technically Philly brings you an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia s technology community. See others here.