Adel Ebeid: a conversation with the first ever City of Philadelphia Chief Innovation Officer [Q&A] - Technical.ly Philly

Aug. 12, 2011 11:00 am

Adel Ebeid: a conversation with the first ever City of Philadelphia Chief Innovation Officer [Q&A]

The City of Philadelphia has a new chief of IT. As reported first by Technically Philly Thursday, Adel Ebeid, the former New Jersey state CTO, will be announced as Philadelphia’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer at a press conference this afternoon. Described as “the perfect immigrant story” by the city’s Managing Director Rich Negrin, Ebeid, […]

The City of Philadelphia has a new chief of IT.

As reported first by Technically Philly Thursday, Adel Ebeid, the former New Jersey state CTO, will be announced as Philadelphia’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer at a press conference this afternoon.

Described as “the perfect immigrant story” by the city’s Managing Director Rich Negrin, Ebeid, who was born in Egypt but raised in Jersey City after losing as a teenager his father to skin cancer, rose through the ranks of New Jersey state government to become among the only cabinet level leaders that fiery Governor Chris Christie kept on.

Now, after ‘flatly’ turning down the offer, the soft spoken and succinct Ebeid is preparing to move his wife and new daughter to a city he admits he doesn’t know well to help inject innovation into the City of Philadelphia. Answering directly to Negrin, himself an immigrant story who lost his father young and grew up in a smaller North Jersey city, Ebeid joins Mayor Nutter’s cabinet in a role that is meant to “bring the most impact at the least cost,” he says.

Below, Ebeid talks to Technically Philly, before he even knows what neighborhood he’ll call home, about his priorities, his childhood and if he’s going to join Nutter and Negrin on Twitter.

As always, edited for length and clarity.

You’re going from a state job with more than 800 IT employees to a big city with fewer than 400. It has unique challenges and requires you to move from where you have always lived. Is this a job you wanted?

When [the search team] first called, I flatly said I wasn’t interested because I had never thought about leaving New Jersey and wasn’t sure this was what I would want to do if I did leave, but [city Managing Director] Rich Negrin, his staff and Mayor Nutter were very persuasive. I came to believe that I am now part of a team that is really improving Philadelphia. I felt that I was in the company of people who are extremely passionate. Although I knew very little about Philly, I was excited to be part of a team that hopes to turn around Philly and technology has always been a passion of mine to do that kind of work.

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[Ebeib will be making $170,000, as the Inquirer later reported, considerably less than his successor Allan Frank, who made $209,000 and was the city’s second highest paid employee.]

Are you coming in with new priorities?

I don’t want to be known as a the infrastructure guy. That’s often what the ‘I’ in CIO means, that you make sure all the IT basics turn on. I see my role as really bringing that new sense of innovation. Yes, we have a responsiblity to make sure data is secure and handle all those foundations elements of IT, but I think we have an equal responsibility to handle real innovation to help the customers who are eventually the tax payers get greater value and have a better relationship with the city.

So, for priorities, I want to help develop a stronger sense of entrepreneurship and innovation to bring cutting edge forms of technology from the private and retail sectors to the city. People have had different expectation levels from when they’re bidding on something on Amazon to when they are dealing with city government, but the younger generation is going to expect no difference.

If you want to do business with Philadelphia online, we need to offer the same or even better value [from the past] at a lower unit cost to the taxpayer. That’s what I need to do.

One of the first things I want to do before the end of the year is to reach out to the big, small and medium suppliers [of services to the city] to challenge them to help me solve the issues of making that process better.

These are the big goals. In my first 100 days, after doing due diligence, I’ll develop the real, specific strategy to decide on the right ingredients to get to the next phase of IT success here.

One of the big angles for innovation and efficiency is through the release of data, something that OpenDataPhilly.org has helped raise the awareness of. How big of a priority is that to you?

Well, history speaks for itself.

We have been very aggressive in New Jersey in publishing as much data as we can, who’s on the payroll and what’s the salary like what we have on yourmoney.nj.gov to comprehensive information, to different data layers and flyovers. We’re a very strong robust, GIS community in New Jersey and have a strong commitment to transparency and open government, something we’ll be bringing over.

Any data that is in the public domain should be published.

The only caution is that we want to make sure we’re publishing fact and putting data in the right context. I believe in transparency not only at the state level but behind the White House initiative at Data.gov. The more we publish data, the more public is well-informed and that is certainly a priority.

How public a role do you think you’ll play? For example, when it comes to an issue like flash mobs, do your think your leadership in technology in Philadelphia would mean you should get involved?

I don’t know the subject really well yet, but if the mayor were to see a role for us, I would think it would be to help collect intelligence to link individuals to events. As a city, you’re measured by how quickly and how well you respond to an event, and while technology may not have a pivotal role, there’s clearly a back office role to provide law enforcement the tools to link the events with individuals with intelligence and find creative ways to respond.

So if not with a public law enforcement issue like flash mobs, where will the public see the ‘innovation’ happen in your title?

I can guarantee you that what Philly is doing by announcing a ‘Chief Innovation Officer’ is thinking about squeezing value out of processes.

It’s not that no one cares about the infrastructure, but with cloud computing and virtualization, the infrastructure part has been made a commodity, anyone with the team can do it. The real question is how do you squeeze out that value.

You’re not going to solve real problems by maintaining servers. While that’s important, the more important questions are ‘How do we mine data and turn that into intelligence? How do you provide a consistent set of tools across different silos in government? How do you develop tools to combat fraud and abuse?”

In all of those ways and more, I’ll certainly start the things, even if I might not be the one to finish them.

What did Mayor Nutter seem to most want out of you?

He said, “Adel, we have the responsibility of bringing the best value possible out at the least cost possible. What you tolerate becomes your standard, so do not tolerate less than success.”

He’s very passionate about improving Philadelphia. He’s very passionate about technology. He might not have a clear bullet point on technology, but he wants to use it to make Philadelphia better.

I would have thought someone at his level would only have five or 10 minutes to talk to me, but we almost spent two hours talking. That’s what did it for me, when you see a top level executive give you that kind of support, when you see you have a seat at the table of the mighty, when you see you’re going to be empowered, those are things looking forward that make you want to get involved.

Why should the tech community care about a new CIO?

Because I am going to need their help to take on the challenges we have to face.

I believe in public-private partnerships. I am not smarter than the folks who are out there, I am smarter by the people I surround myself with. I will look forward to working with these folks to help this city. I need to figure out exactly what problems need the most fixing first, but the technology community and its businesses are extensions of us. All of those technology companies, particularity the small ones, are going to be vital. We’re not going to get the job done alone.

Why should average citizens care?

There’s a generation who will be interested in our civic engagement as it becomes more in-line with what they’re used to on social networking. But, really, if we integrate our services the right way, the only way the general public will care about city IT is if there’s an absence of leadership or a real failure.

So are we going to see you on Twitter with Mayor Nutter, Rich Negrin, Rosetta Lue and others?

I’ve drank the Kool-Aid on social networks. This is about everyone having value and being available…. I plan to, but I need a good level of understanding first because I want the tweeting to be well informed and valuable. I don’t think anyone cares about me having a cheesesteak sandwich, so I need to get my arms around the issues. But it’s my plan.

The first consolidated Chief Technology Officer Philadelphia had was the outspoken and personality-driven Allan Frank, followed by his interim successor Tommy Jones, who was much more driven by the day-to-day ‘running of the railroad.’ Which leadership style is more like your own?

My leadership style in the first 100 days will be quite different than the next 100 days.

I don’t shout from rooftops, but I’m not one to dive in the weeds.

In the first 100 days, I need to do an assessment and know what kind of leader I need to be. Do I need to be leading from the front or be more of an enabler? I’m going to establish my team and my style once I really decide what problems we need to solve first. I’m not going to over promise and then under-deliver. Really, I won’t make any promises in the first 100 days.

So who will be on that team? Do you plan to bring anyone from New Jersey? You worked there with Tommy Jones in the past, is he staying?

I’ve worked well with Tommy in the past, but I need to know what Tommy wants to do in the future. It’s probably part of my assessment.

I have a lot of contacts from the last 23 years, but I’m not looking to cannibalize New Jersey because that’s where my heart is. I might run into some great talent here and they might certainly be the candidates to build a team around. I need to know what kind of team to build first.

[For his part, Jones said this in an email to Technically Philly: “As for sticking around, that’s Adel’s call. There is still tons and tons of heavy lifting to do to support all the new innovation we’re pushing for, and I’m a weightlifter. So, I suspect you’re still see me around for a while.”]

Rich Negrin called you ‘the perfect immigrant story.’ Can you tell us a little about it?

My family came from Cairo, Egypt when I was 10, in 1974.  Four years later, my dad passed away from cancer. My mom had a defining moment, she could have easily gone back overseas where we had a strong family network. She decided to maintain my father’s dream, worked hard to provide for myself and my two sisters and now we are all happy and prosperous.

My dad wanted to create new opportunities. He wanted us to be all we could be. It’s very hard to do that in some places. The United States was the perfect haven for those who wanted to do that. He came here to do that. We’re all very thankful and remember the day we came overseas, the friendships. I grew up in Jersey City, near church and the restaurants and stores and it was a place I loved.

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