The city's Office of IT is still struggling with talent retention and says it's a salary issue - Technical.ly Philly

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Apr. 13, 2017 11:20 am

The city’s Office of IT is still struggling with talent retention and says it’s a salary issue

CIO Charlie Brennan took the mic before City Council to answer questions about his budget.

Charlie Brennan, flanked by OIT staff, faces City Council.

(Photo by Roberto Torres)

City of Philadelphia CIO Charlie Brennan took the microphone before Philadelphia City Council on Tuesday and shared a brief testimony on some of the budget priorities for the agency during FY 2018.

Once Brennan was done, the first question he got from Council President Darrell Clarke was quick and to the point: what’s up with caller ID at City Council?

“Up until recently you’d get a call from city government and you could see who it was  Now when you get a call, numbers come up and you have no idea where someone’s calling you. What’s the deal with that?” said Clarke.

Brennan deferred to deputy CIO Sandra Carter, who quickly explain explained that the City’s phone lines are undergoing a multiphase project migrating project to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) which uses different numbers to get calls across.

The proposed budget for FY 2018 was $84.1 million, which will let OIT tackle 98 IT-related projects (some ongoing, like transferring phone lines to VoIP.) The document reflects a $1,030,471 increase over FY 2017 for boosting the agency’s IT staff.

At last year’s budget hearing, Brennan railed against tech industry perks like nap rooms but this time around, the tune was slightly different as he fielded the questions from the City’s legislators. Brennan’s focus on legacy projects like the phone system overhaul is in line with what we know to be true about Brennan: that, instead of experimenting with new projects, he’s all about making sure the trains are running on time.

Here’s a look at three questions City Council asked Brennan.

It’s been over a year since the former cop took the helm at the City’s main tech office, following a shakeup that concluded with the departure of fomer CIO Adel Ebeid. “It’s sad when CIOs are relegated to just running the network,” Ebeid said then, in what seemed a reference to Brennan’s hiring. Now, Brennan is grappling with the same hurdle he pointed to in 2016: the City’s struggles to retain tech talent.

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Why is staff leaving?

Notably, Brennan said last year that the City couldn’t compete with the private sector because of perks that companies offer. A different response came from Brennan this year when asked by City Council why it was that the agency lost four staffers a month and had 30 positions open.

“The number one reason people give when they leave is salary,” Brennan said. “25 percent of people cite that reason when they leave. We’ve started a human resources program to standardize salaries. We’re trying to, not stay on par with tech business, but get close to it.” Last year, OIT testimony said the median salary for an OIT staffer was $70,000.

(Kenney, shortly before he was inaugurated as mayor, also referenced salary as the main reason why the City couldn’t retain tech talent.)

But availability of money wasn’t the issue, as Councilman Clarke noted: there was $10 million of unspent appropriations last year at the office. CFO Chris Donato then chimed in to say that the figure was the result of undeployed projects related to the 911 platform.

In any case, underspending budget is not uncommon to both city agencies and OIT itself. City documents show the office has consistently underspent its budget over the past five years (most notably in FY 2014, when it missed its projected expenditures by nearly 25 percent, or $20,916,643).

Former tech staffers, however, have balked at money being the main factor behind tech drain. Autonomy, flexibility and less-flashy perks like working from home policies have been cited by tech staffers as key points for staying on the city’s payroll.

Is Philly prepared to have federal funding for innovation pulled?

As per the new presidential administration, Councilman Bobby Henon asked Brennan if there was any monitoring of federal policies that would mean budget cuts in innovation. (One cancer moonshot startup already saw this happen and it wasn’t pretty.)

“We haven’t been doing that, but we will,” Brennan said.

Is OIT on board for a public WiFi plan?

This question came very close to being a big blunder, had Brennan not corrected himself. When prompted by Councilwomen Cindy Bass on OIT’s efforts to deploy citywide WiFi access, Brennan seemed to downplay the impact such a program would have on the city.

“If you’re a Comcast customer, essentially the whole Center City is provided with WiFi,” Brennan said. “I’m not sure that there’s this call for WiFi anymore.”

Whoa.

“Nevertheless,” Brennan quickly added, “we started in this administration a Smart Cities Initiative. Smart Cities mean different technologies to solve problems. And part of that could be WiFi.”

“So we’re preparing for that [building a public WiFi network]?” replied Bass.

“We’re planning for a smart city, whatever that is,” he said.

Prior to this exchange, Bass had praised Wireless Philadelphia, the city’s failed push to get broadband access. “It was a very innovative program,” Bass said. “It didn’t get to its full potential but right when it could, the administration changed and that was no longer a priority.”

Beyond the Smart Cities Initiative, expanding on OIT’s participation in the KEYSPOT program and the recently-announced Digital Literacy Alliance might have been a better response to Bass’s question. As the first round of grants for the latter are announced (May 12), we’ll see how the agency plans to shape its legacy for the future.

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Roberto Torres

Roberto Torres became Technical.ly Lead Philly Reporter in May 2016. Prior, he was a freelance contributor to Technical.ly and Al Dia News. The native Venezuelan moved to Philadelphia in 2015 after reporting on research at his alma mater, the University of Zulia. Whenever he's not fencing deadlines, he can be found standing in line at Overbrook Pizza in West Philly, running Netflix/Hulu marathons with his wife or reading news from Venezuela.

  • Chris Alfano

    Leadership with compelling vision is what the city needs to recruit and retain technology talent, it’s not all about dollars.

    We have a *lot* of great leadership already and many important projects with big visions, but we need a focus shift towards building more IT leadership capacity and a grander, more loudly-projected vision for modernizing the City. People want a mission, important problems to solve, effective teams, and team leaders that respect talent and results.

  • Gianfranco Altieri

    New York City solved this problem in 2 ways. They were able to raise the salaries a bit (not significantly) which helped but they also created hard to re-coup titles so there was no residency requirement for some of the hard to fill positions. I would gladly apply to some of the postings I see but I do not want to be forced into becoming a Philadelphia resident right now. Maybe when my kids graduate high school or is the city can improve their crime rate and their public school system.

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