Phoenix CIO Debbie Cotton: How she became one of the 50 most influential women in Arizona

May 19, 2015 by Jennifer Woods
The CIO of Phoenix, Debbie Cotton, is an inspirational leader in both tech and the government. She’s smart, humble and very relatable – and I’m bringing you in on a recent chat I had with her.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in the city of Chicago, and am the product of the Chicago public school system. I had wonderful teachers and also loved the culture of all of the museums in Chicago. I couldn’t have had a better childhood.

So, what brought you to Arizona?

The snow! I was tired of being cold – I could never warm up! I landed in Phoenix, got a job and have been here ever since. I’ve been fortunate to be well employed and achieve a great lifestyle. Arizona has been good to me, and is a beautiful place.

What did you study in college?

Well, that is interesting. I have a bachelor’s degree in speech and hearing science. I know, it is nothing related to technology! When I first moved to Arizona, my intention was to get my master’s degree. But, instead, I received an opportunity to work for Xerox Corporation. I was there for 11 to 12 years. And, then I earned a graduate degree in public administration from ASU.

You have been named one of the 50 most influential women in Arizona Business – what an honor! What do you attribute your success to?

I attribute it to a few things, mostly that I’ve had some great opportunities and have met some stellar people who have helped me. Here are a few of the things I consider priceless to my success:

  • Someone paved the way for me with my first big job. And, as I went to Public Transit and the Convention Center at the city, someone else helped lay the groundwork for me.
  • Another thing that really helped me was the love of family and influence of my education in Chicago. My teachers were tough and they cared. They told us we could do whatever we wanted, as long as we kept with it.
  • The training with Xerox was invaluable. The company had a training facility in Virginia, and I remember being there for weeks at a time learning different things. The ability and desire to do excellent work, to know your subject matter, to be prepared and be confident, and to speak clearly were all important.
  • I went to Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa and I remember walking into my freshman communications class. I will never forget my Communications 101 professor, Dr. Stromer, who was visually impaired. As we walked into class individually, he knew us by name. He taught us many things about speaking and clarity, things like being understood, not speaking with an accent, understanding your subject matter. He instilled all this in us and I’ll always remember these principles. People say, “you’re from Chicago and you don’t have an accent?” And, I say, “no, because Dr. Stromer told me not to have an accent!” At Xerox, we would practice presenting business cases and they would record us and critique our speech. I learned quickly how to present information.

The sum total of all of my experiences has contributed to my success, not just one thing.

What motivates you as a senior level government official?

Being given the opportunity to working for – and with – people who have given you their trust is so motivating. When you have this opportunity, it is up to you to make it successful. It is up to you to make a contribution. In every position, I strive to be helpful and improve things. That could be public transit, the convention center or IT. It is also important to be approachable for your colleagues. Whether it is staff, partners in the community, stakeholders, or anyone from the larger business community, it is critical to listen, ask for input and do what you can to incorporate those ideas to become better. I feel fortunate to work at the city. My role isn’t about me; it is about working for the public, so my ego is not tied into the role. While recognition is certainly nice, that is not why I do what I do. We are just the stewards of the community.

You have served in a variety of executive-level roles at the city. What are some leadership lessons you have learned over the years?

One lesson that I have learned is that the folks that work for the City of Phoenix are some of the best and brightest. They are smart, they care and they are hard working. And they do this to serve. As a leader, you need to set the vision for what your staff does. But, you need to listen to them because they are in the day-to-day. They have great ideas. Some of the best assignments I have done are because I asked for help. When you ask for help, they come. Also, I’ve learned to not be afraid to make decisions. It is important to be decisive and be clear. There is nothing worse that sending people off in multiple directions. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and accomplishes nothing. And, one more lesson - you have to know how to deliver bad news and let the individual know it’s not personal. It is not easy, but we must deal with tough issues – budget cuts, lay-offs, etc. Just communicate as best as you can. I lose sleep about delivering bad news, but you can be compassionate and kind in your delivery. It’s so easy to do the easy and fun things, but you need to be prepared for the things that aren’t easy or fun.

I can see why so many employees continue to make it a point to say hello to you even though you are now in a different department. You have earned their respect because you have treated them with respect.

Well, that’s what employees deserve. I’m just a public servant like they are.

The city is a dynamic environment with a variety of departments exploring new ways to use technology – like smart policing, the Reinvent Phoenix website, and the BI tools being used by the Public Works department. Can you give us a sneak peek of any technology initiatives on the horizon?

Sure. Right now we are in the middle of rolling out Microsoft 365. Our goal is to have that completed by the end of July. Another item is the telephone system RFP that is out right now. We also have the unified print initiative in the works. One of the most exciting projects is expanding the BI beyond the Public Works department. I think all of those are important. The city is pretty behind in terms of technology. So, we are doing major forklifts and throwing out old systems.

Cyber security and data center consolidation are hot topics. How is the city approaching these?

Cyber is huge. We have a CISO that is part of my management team. We approach it from a policy perspective and a technology implementation perspective. Like many other cities, we are grappling with a new normal. We experienced DDOS attacks last year, and since that time we have implemented some services and made some partnerships to help us. We have DDOS services from a local service provider and we have joined several organizations. Through this involvement, we have been able to get intelligence and know about some security issues. But, it’s not over. We are looking at our entire network to make sure that it is engineered in the best way possible end to end.

In terms of data center, we will be working to put together a data center strategy during the next fiscal year. We have our own data center that is aging. We have a presence at a leased data center. We don’t know if we want to be in the data center business or if the private sector can do it better at a price point we can afford.

In the FY14-15 budget, it mentions that employee retention and limited funding are major challenges. How are you handling these?

I’ve started a shared services initiative. We have a number of technology employees city-wide and only a portion report to me. Right now, we are thinking through what services should be consolidated, shared or left in the department. Through this strategy we can do some savings and manage our costs better. We are in the commodity phase. The next phase might be a help desk and remote application support. From an employee perspective, they are excited about shared services because it expands their skill set. The other thing I am looking at is partnering with ASU CABIT to develop a “grow your own” strategy and reach out to college-age people. I really believe that if you start public service, it becomes addictive. And, just a note, a lot of these ideas are from the Technology Summit we hosted in November last year.

Do you have any favorite saying or expressions?

I try to be grateful everyday for everything that I have and the opportunities presented to me. I try to practice the platinum principle – treat people the way they want to be treated.

Do you have any favorite pastimes?

I enjoy reading, being outside and traveling. I love spending time with people that are important to me. My favorite place to visit is Paris, only because I love their public transportation system! And, I like the museums. I enjoy being able to see the history, the artistry, and the workmanship. I also love Arizona because it is so beautiful. My favorite place here is the Grand Canyon - the beauty and peace are indescribable. What a creation! It is very humbling.

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