CIO Charlie Brennan's faux pas at the City Council budget hearing - Technical.ly Philly

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Apr. 13, 2016 10:03 am

CIO Charlie Brennan’s faux pas at the City Council budget hearing

A comment about office perks and the challenges of public-sector tech hiring upset a bunch of civic technologists.

CIO Charles Brennan (center) flanked by deputy CIO Ray Hayling (left) and CFO Chris Donato at the Office of Innovation and Technology's budget hearing in City Council.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

During his first 100 days on the job, CIO Charles Brennan has seen firsthand just how hard it is to hire government technologists.

It was the first thing that came up after Brennan’s testimony to Council President Darrell Clarke at his department’s annual budget hearing Tuesday afternoon. (Find a full recap of the hearing here.)

“Filling vacancies with technical positions has been a perennial problem here,” Brennan said.

Clarke had asked Brennan why he was requesting almost $1 million more to hire staff when he had nearly two dozen vacant positions. Those positions include systems engineers, a network technician and a developer who specializes in Adabas/Natural, the outdated programming language that powers, among other things, several Finance Department systems.

Brennan’s comment came as no surprise. Even the private sector is struggling to fill tech positions right now. What was surprising was what he said next.

It’s not really a salary issue, Brennan said. (The median salary for an OIT staffer is $70,000, according to OIT’s budget testimony.) It’s about perks, the sometimes over-the-top perks that tech companies offer its workers. Even tech companies in Philadelphia, he said.

“One city business, they have a nap room,” Brennan said. “A nap room wouldn’t go over well here in the city.”

He continued: “They have very flexible hours, they work from home. You know, things that the city would have a really hard time doing. … They offer things like free food, massages, things like that. We just can’t compete with that.”

A few giggles sounded across Council chambers. Some in the audience grinned, amused. Clarke looked incredulous. You could practically feel the eyerolls.

The sentiment was clear: the modern tech industry, with all its affectation and entitlement, can be pretty ridiculous — and city government suffers because of it.

That first part Brennan may have gotten right. But to link perks like free food and nap rooms to talent attraction at the city? His words just didn’t ring true, especially given the handful of technologists that left their private-sector jobs for roles at OIT in the last few years. (And yes, we thought again about Mayor Jim Kenney saying that the city can’t attract tech talent because it can’t afford it.)

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Brennan’s words hit especially hard since two technologists, presumably the types of highly skilled workers that Brennan is searching for, recently left OIT, without a word about free food or massages. (Though outgoing city developer Gabriel Farrell did note the city’s inflexible remote work policy, and an office he described as a “cold, dark box.”)

Many felt Brennan was completely out of touch.

Former Code for America fellow Michelle Lee, whose startup Textizen has contracted with the city, said that it wasn’t about perks at all, echoing Farrell’s words about the importance of purpose and autonomy.

Philadelphia’s first Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd, said that remote work is not a perk, but a necessity.

New York City civic technologists Dave Seliger and John Edgar said talent attraction and retention had nothing to do with perks.

Their comments reminded us of how former CIO Adel Ebeid said that vision was an important part of the CIO gig. “It’s sad when CIOs are relegated to just running the network,” he told us. Ebeid, for his part, jumped in, too.

Some OIT employees, including some who asked not to be named, said they felt Brennan’s comment was offensive. Here’s city developer (and former Code for America fellow) Mjumbe Poe.

We’ll say again that it’s only been 100 days since Brennan took the role of CIO. He’s new to this.

Up until now, he hasn’t had to hire this many software engineers, IT directors and GIS analysts in today’s competitive hiring landscape. There’s a learning curve. Not to mention that your first budget hearing, during which Councilmembers can (and do) grill you relentlessly, has got to be hard.

But here’s what we know Brennan knows: he gets why someone would want to work for the city. He’s expressed as much to us, quite eloquently, in fact.

There’s a kind of person who comes to work for the city because they want to do something “for the good of the people,” he said in a interview with Technical.ly Philly on his fourth day on the job. He said he’s proud to work for the city, a city he’s lived in his whole life, because his family lives here.

“I know that the decisions I make affect my family,” he said.

What seems to be missing from his understanding is that technologists, even highly-skilled ones that could go work for a startup with a nap room, can be convinced of this, and that they have been. Just look at the people in his office right now.

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