Former AZ State CIO Aaron Sandeen on Innovation and his Legacy

March 31, 2015 by Jennifer Woods
Last week, I had the chance to meet up with Aaron Sandeen, the former Arizona State CIO, to chat about his experience at the state, as well as his latest adventure. We covered a variety of topics from his very first computer to what he considers his greatest accomplishments as State CIO.

Q. Did you always have an interest in technology?

A. Technology has always been a passion for me. I think I was 7 years old when Santa Claus brought me my first Atari. A couple years later, I got my first computer, a Timex Sinclair 2068. The coolest thing about the computer was that if you hooked it up to a color TV, you also had a color monitor. It had 72K of memory and you could use a tape recorder to store your programs. In 8th grade, I took my first computer class. I remember one test in particular. For extra credit, you could list as many basic commands that you knew. Each command counted as one point of extra credit. I think I got 3000 percent on the test!

Q. You became State CIO four years ago with a desire to innovate. What was your playbook?

A. Having come from the private sector, I built a senior team of experienced people with private sector background, including my two current business partners: Phil Manfredi and Kiran Chinnagangannagari. When we first started to evaluate different technology opportunities at the state, we saw projects that had a great ROI. But, when we would talk to the governor’s office about pursuing them, they would say: “That is a good project, BUT….”

That’s when our strategy changed. We finally understood the government is motivated by risk, and IT had done a poor job of identifying, articulating, and explaining the technology risks and mitigation strategies in the past. So, we focused our efforts on the state’s biggest technology risks, and then sat down with leadership to prioritize them. We created a long-term roadmap taking into account budgetary and legislative involvement. From that, we used an MBO approach to identify high-level objectives and key initiatives. We assigned owners to each initiative and put in place metrics to really go after them.

Q. Do you have any favorite sayings or expressions?

A. I do. I am probably pretty famous for so many. “Awesome” is my favorite word. I try to throw that into every sentence. When I am facilitating conversations, I really like to use phrases like, “let’s look at the big picture” or “let’s break this down.” I am very project management focused. So, whenever I am trying to find a solution I use these types of sayings. And, I can’t forget: “big, hairy, audacious goal,” “anyone, anytime, anywhere,” and “fail fast, fail forward.”

Q. We already have next year’s budget, and the majority of IT modernization projects continued to have full funding. What do you attribute this success to?

A. As Phil, Kiran and I were planning to leave the state, we were very conscious of our exit strategy. We wanted to make sure that the incoming governor was aware of our departure before it became public knowledge. We reached out to Governor Ducey’s staff early on and offered to walk through existing technology initiatives and risks, as well as what we had accomplished and where we thought the state needed to go from an IT perspective. Through those briefings, we were able to have a good, direct conversation about technology opportunities.

Q. What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment as the state CIO?

A. There are a lot of good things that we were able to accomplish. If I had to pick one, it would be creating the Automation Projects Fund. We allocated roughly $170M to IT projects over four years through this fund. We also improved the relationship between IT, the governor’s office and the legislature. This was a huge accomplishment. We gained a lot of trust during the process - earning every bit of it. From a legacy perspective, now the state can continue to use that strategy to fund many more successful IT projects.

From a technical perspective, I would say the greatest accomplishment was the creation of the Arizona digital government platform and the strategy to enable agencies to share information between themselves, businesses and residents.

Q. So, there has been a lot of talk about the need for Chief Data Officers. Do you think this is the next big trend for state government?

A. I absolutely do. Data is an asset. And, data in state government is very siloed because every agency is focused on delivering its own mission. So much so, that I don’t think the state looks at data holistically and how agencies can benefit by working together. To complicate things, you need metadata to compare data. In most state data systems, we don’t even have the level of metadata to make the information valuable – like, when was the data last updated? This is where a chief data officer could make a difference. But, I would call it a chief digital officer because this is really about digital transformation, not just data management. A digital officer is able to focus on the mobile, API, platform and security strategies.

Q. What advice would you give the next CIO on how to be successful in the role?

A. The CIO has to focus on the budget. The budget drives everything. And, you really have to have an 18-month roadmap for your budget, if not a two to four year roadmap. I think you also have to become a procurement expert very quickly and continue to work with the governor’s office on the risk-based approach I talked about earlier.

Q. Tell us about your new adventure.

A. Phil, Kiran and I have started a company, Zuggand. We are almost three months into it, and it is already moving faster than we anticipated. Compared to the state, it’s much more relaxed. I am sitting here with you and pinching myself that this is how people work today.

All three of us are absolutely passionate about digital transformation and helping organizations make this leap. One of the metrics we talk about is the lifecycle of a company on the S&P 500. It measures the American economy. As early as 60 years ago, the average lifespan of a company was 40 years. Today, it is 15 years, and it’s heading to nine years. This means that it is becoming more difficult for companies to hold onto their position. A lot of that is attributed to the rapid technology change and the inability to adopt new technologies. Companies who can’t keep up become obsolescent.

The business models are also changing. Look at Uber and Alibaba – they don’t even own any assets. APIs, mobile and the Internet-of-things is making this possible.

The world is changing and Zuggand is there to help organizations develop a strategy for the digital age. We look at the risks and marry that up with the ROI to identify the key investments, while helping to change the culture to embrace these new opportunities.

Q. Any other tidbit you would like to add? What was your first car, or were you in the high school band?

A. That’s just funny. I’m a very quirky person. My first car was a 1973 Chevy Chevette and it was orange. I paid $400 for it. Yes, I was in the high school band. I played a lot of brass instruments, including the tuba. When I was a senior, I was the president of the band. And, Phil was a band teacher. So, he is even a bigger band geek, except that he was a drummer. Drummers were always cooler than the rest of us.

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