(Photograph by Mitchell Leff.)
The first consolidated leader of IT in City of Philadelphia history stepped down earlier this month after two and a half years at the helm. While we covered Allan Frank’s legacy and interviewed his interim successor Tommy Jones, much was left unsaid.
Frank, who wants to be ‘the Pat Croce of technology,’ says his tenure as Chief Technology Officer has connected him to Philadelphia in a special way. He says he’s set the stage for a renaissance to come and is keeping his Overbrook Farms home so he can watch it all come about.
Below, in his own words, Technically Philly talks to Frank about how he wants to be remembered and what is next for him.
As always, edited for length and clarity.
What do we need to know to understand your tenure?
It’s important to know that I played two roles here. One was inside, running the railroad, using the information technology that makes the city run, some of which the residents see, like how every traffic light home runs to a computer within the city. [The second was working with the public.]
The number one gotcha of why I came into the city, in talking to the Mayor and that whole thing, is that technology cuts across all the Mayor’s goals. I see this role of looking at the role of technology from everything from economic development to the digital divide. What does the City of Philadelphia look like, how will we change Philly from a manufacturing base to the knowledge economy?
How will people look back on Allan Frank’s tenure as the City of Philadelphia CTO?
On the inside, I would have to say that even with me leaving, the city is on a path to understanding. First, they know what they don’t know. They know the gaps, the size of the investment required, the prioritization issues. We have more work to do than we have money, so, one, we know what has to get done.
I’ve laid out a high level strategy.
I was under no illusion that [I was going to be here forever]. I’m an entrepreneur, I’ve run tech consulting global firms, and I’ve done this for a couple years to satisfy my passion and to give something back, and it was an incredible thing to do. I can’t afford to do it. I don’t have a pension with the city. I have to eat, and I have children [Though Frank said he took a significant pay cut from the private sector, he was the city’s second-highest paid employee, at $209,000 annually, as the Inquirer reported].
This was never a long term. Someone can come and say that that [idea] should be green not blue, but the essence of my strategy, I feel good about. There is a sense that the sooner we can move, we’ll improve efficiency, so you can snap your fingers. It’s going to, frankly, take several years. With the $120 million [IT budget], well, how much can you really get done? I think we’ve set the stage.
Secondly, internally, I’ve brought in new leadership and identified new roles. We’ve created a new operating model, consolidating 100 percent of the people….
Third, the long term application needs… over the next year or two, the whole idea of how IT works needs to solidify around a new way of doing business… As people retire, it’s a great way to get from old to new. That’s heavy lifting. I estimate, and this is just Allan here, $150 to $200 million in remedial application refresh needs [in the city], so the $120 million is just a down payment. There is only so much you can do. It’s going to take 10 years [to play catch up].
I’m happy with the culture. The Jello isn’t entirely set, but the IT leaders are certainly better than it was… I think I’ve brought in 44 new pieces of talent in the city.
I didn’t need the job. I did it to get somewhere [with city IT]. I wish I could have gotten further, but it is what it is.
What are you proudest of in your time?
The public side I hope to be my true legacy. IT will come and go in the city and the city is on the path. There is no quick fix. I’m down in the basement here, and they want rockets. We’re looking at every piece of the website, the ingredients are on the table, but the baking is taking longer than I hoped.
I want to be the jawboner, the Pat Croce of technology…. for the region. We brought in about $18 million [in federal broadband stimulus funding] and $11.8 million is going to truly great nonprofits and institutions. We pulled it off.
Philadelphia will become Digital Philadelphia because we came together, not because of the city.
What was your greatest challenge in the CTO role?
The number one issue was attracting top talent. Finding four top X programmers that know Y who live in the city — because we have residency [requirements] — is very hard.
Now contractors, yes, but they cost more and might not live in the city, and I have 100 to 150 people leaving the city in the next four or five years [because of retirement]. My real disappointment is my inability to create more magic quickly.
Do you have lessons for others who might come from the private sector into City work?
I pride myself in dealing with the biggest, most complex companies and issues. We pooh pooh government, but if you want to deal with complex issues, spend one month as CTO in this government or any government.
If I’m talking to people from the commercial space, [I’ll say] ‘Do not expect the world to be the same. The customer is the citizen and the taxpayer. It’s a pure model. This is the hardest thing you’re ever going to do.’
Now… regardless of newspaper editorials on city workers, I’ve gone native. I’m proud of the people we have [in city IT roles]. It’s not about making money, it’s about improving people’s lives. It’s different.
I think I was naive about how hard it is to move the mountain. I think I moved the mountain farther in two and a half years than anyone. My hair is grayer. I’ve made friends and some not-friends. If there aren’t more people like me, who will take skills and come to government and apply them. … then [our communities will miss out.]
When we interviewed your interim successor Tommy Jones, whom you recruited from D.C., he talked a lot about needing to focus on fewer priorities. Do you wish you had focused more?
Unfortunately we have to do too many things in parallel. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry I have to replace $100 to $200 million in apps that are so creaky. Basically, I don’t think that anyone could have done any better.
I could have a 1967 Chevy that is all shiny and new but the inside is all rusted, and now I have to turn this thing into a Humvee, and you are waiting for the outside to look like a Humvee, but the car is moving.
There is an expectation of instantaneous, and I don’t think a lot of what we’ve done is readily visible, It’s foundational.
If we can’t fix a [city employee] Blackberry on time, then who cares? Which is why one of the first things I worked on was the help desk. We improved it. Now when things are creaky, you might not like the answer, but it’s improved… and so we had to deal with those smaller priorities and [change the culture with a lot of big plans].
What is next for you?
…I’ll be working with the Fox School of Business [at Temple], working on an institute on a city digital urban transition.
More personally, and maybe this isn’t the time to talk about it, but I have other plans.
[In 2008], I raised private equity to build another business, then the recession hit and I came in the city. I’m going to build another business… I can’t do work for the city for a year, but I’m here for free to advise the city [as chair of the newly formed Mayor’s Advisory Board on Technology].
The impact of Digital Philadelphia really hit me. I intend to make a gigantic impact around transforming urban centers. I’m changing a part of my business plan, so I can create jobs in Philadelphia to create something that can be replicated in other cities. I’ll have an intellectual platform at Temple, [a strategic one with the advisory board and a business one].
I will promise you some very interesting things. What I’m trying to say is, ‘Allan Frank is not leaving.’
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