New city tech chief Charlie Brennan is a change of pace - Technical.ly Philly

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Jan. 27, 2016 12:31 pm

New city tech chief Charlie Brennan is a change of pace

An ex-cop who once ran the Police Department's tech initiatives, Brennan's hire could represent a shift from the headline-grabbing Office of Innovation and Technology under Mayor Nutter.
Charlie Brennan, the city’s Chief Information Officer, in his new office.

Charlie Brennan, the city's Chief Information Officer, in his new office.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Charlie Brennan applied for the city’s top tech job twice and didn’t get it.

Once, the Street administration asked him to be interim CIO. Brennan told them no. He wanted the real job. But the powers that be insisted on doing a nationwide search.

There’s something intoxicating, Brennan knows, about the nationwide search, about importing talent into the city. Fear of missing out, perhaps. The allure of fresh eyes. Since Mayor Ed Rendell created the Chief Information Officer role in the early ’90s, there hasn’t been one CIO or CTO who was born-and-bred in Philadelphia (as far as we can tell, but please correct us if we’re wrong). But Brennan, a former cop who fell into tech because he wanted normal, nine-to-five hours, thinks that line of thinking sells Philadelphia short.

“I always felt like there were people in the city who had a lot of talent, who gave their lives to the city — my whole life was given to the city — but you never quite get a shot a the top job because of this search,” he said to us in his new office at 1234 Market St., on his fourth day on the job as CIO.

Mayor Jim Kenney seems to agree.

As he read the paper as the Kenney appointments rolled in, Brennan, 65, noticed that Kenney was choosing Philadelphians for the top roles in City Hall. So even though he was comfortable, consulting for the State of New Jersey on a project to equip NJ Transit with radios, he wondered if this was his chance. Maybe this time they wouldn’t insist on a national search. He went online and applied for the job.

During the interview, one of the first things they told him was, You know you have to move into the city, right?

“No, I don’t,” Brennan said. “I live here.” (He was born and raised in Southwark but now lives in Roxborough, in a house that he and his wife built two decades ago.)

Now Brennan’s back in City Hall, after a 10-year absence. (For the record, he prefers the title Chief Information Officer over Chief Technology Officer.) He said his familiarity with how Philadelphia city government works is an asset.

“Understanding the city is difficult,” he said. “Like, how do you spend money? How do you get money? How do you move contracts around? How do you procure stuff? I’ve been through all that.”

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And then, without missing a beat: “It hasn’t changed a whole lot since I left,” he said with a laugh.

Brennan was the first and last cop to run technology at the Philadelphia Police Department. (After he left, the job was turned into a civilian role.) He introduced crime mapping at at time when mapping wasn’t sexy — and hired a young Robert Cheetham, who went on to found mapping firm Azavea, to build the system. He introduced computers to a slate of police captains who rolled their eyes at them. He grew fond of his role at the Police Department because he realized that technology had the power to push the department forward. It didn’t hurt that he was the only deputy commissioner who had control of his own budget, since it was largely grant-based.

It’s easy to talk to Brennan, who’s warm, cracks jokes and doesn’t seem to be overly conscious about delivering the right message. Maybe that’s a product of his older age. Though he doesn’t seem to shy from the limelight, he doesn’t seem to gravitate toward it, either. Talking to him about how he sees his role, you realize he’s content to stay behind the scenes. His job, he said, is to make sure everything is working in the background so that everyone else can do their job.

He thinks of himself and his team at the Department of Technology as the city’s “offensive linemen.”

“They’re never the heroes,” he said. “They’re protecting the quarterback.” In that way, the city’s tech staff is laying the groundwork for the other departments to throw a pass.

It’s a way of thinking about tech that’s incongruous to today: Tech is flashy! Sexy! Disruptive!

It’s also a shift from the Nutter administration’s innovation strategy. Think of the attention-grabbing moves like winning a $1 million grant to launch a startup accelerator, sending city employees to “innovation school” and opening a “think tank” to test out new ideas. It was the opportunity to run that innovation program that lured Adel Ebeid, Brennan’s predecessor, to Philadelphia and away from the traditional CTO job he had with the State of New Jersey. While Ebeid was never showy like his own predecessor, Allan Frank, he was often front and center, making headlines in civic tech publications for his initiatives.

You could sum up the difference between Brennan and Ebeid with their titles: Ebeid was Chief Innovation Officer. Brennan is Chief Information Officer. They seem to mirror their bosses in that way, too. Nutter was all about reaching for the stars and promoting Philadelphia on a global stage. Kenney seems intensely focused on the city’s neighborhoods, well beyond Center City, but some have asked if he’s not setting his sights high enough.

Brennan is more of the traditional CIO hire, but he seems far from out of touch. Remember, he was on the cutting edge at the Police Department — he believed in tech before anyone else there did.

“I always said to Robert [Cheetham], show me where the crime is gonna be,” he said, meaning that, back in the ’90s, he was already hip to the predictive policing models that are hot right now. (Azavea’s predictive policing HunchLab software has its roots in Cheetham’s days working under Brennan.)

He’s also in favor of open data, saying that citizens should be able to see where the crime is and how much city employees get paid (makes us wonder if that dataset will get released soon…).

“I always like to be maybe sometimes too far out on the edge,” he said, which he followed up with: “You don’t want to be on the bleeding edge, so you don’t get your head cut off.”

We’ll offer the above as way of interpreting the new CIO, with a caveat: it’s a reductive way to frame it. What we mean is, this isn’t black and white and it’s not productive to pigeonhole Brennan before he even really gets started, but these are the differences we’ve noticed. Some may say Brennan’s style lacks ambition or the notion of Philadelphia as a potential civic tech leader. Others might say that it’s refreshing — a CIO who wants to put his head down, keep the systems running and let the rest of city government shine. And, then, of course, the other thing to remember is that the CIO is just one part of the team. Tim Wisniewski is still Chief Data Officer and much of Ebeid’s team is still in place. We’ll be watching to see how it all plays out.

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