The State of Ohio Discusses Bringing IT Leaders to the Executive Table
Eric Schmidt - Central Ohio Tech Power Player Honoree
Assistant Chief Technology Officer
State of Ohio
VP of Cyber Security
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Assistant CTO for the State of Ohio, Eric Schmidt, discusses bringing IT leaders to the executive table.
RF: We're here today with Mr. Eric Schmidt, who is the Assistant Chief Technology Officer for the State of Ohio. Currently, his organization supports approximately 44,000 employees within the state of Ohio. My name is Ron Ford. I am the Vice President of Cyber Security for Belcan, and a member of the comSpark Executive Committee. I will be your guest moderator for today. Let's get started. So, Eric, how long have you been with the State of Ohio?
ES: I've been there approximately eight years now.
RF: Great! How long have you been the Assistant Chief Technology Officer?
ES: Only a few months at this point. I picked up the role here within the last year.
RF: Great. Is this your first assignment as a technology executive?
ES: No, it's not. Prior to joining the state, I was CEO and CIO of a technology company, and prior to that I was CIO of a major law firm, and then prior to that, CIO of the College of Humanities at The Ohio State University.
RF: That’s a tremendous amount of executive experience. At what point in your career did you decide you wanted to be a technology executive?
ES: Oh, my. I would say that it was when I was a United States Marine. I started working in the area of administrations, computer-related stuff, and I had a master sergeant pulled me aside and I took a test and he asked me where I got all my computer skills from. Of course, I hadn't seen a computer at that time, so that was sort of what steered me into the IT arena.
RF: Well, great! First, I need to say thank you for your service.
ES: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.
RF: And so, you just mentioned a couple of people in that last passage, and did you have any mentors early in your career?
ES: I did, both at Ohio State. One of the associate deans, Phyllis Newman, as well as the managing partner of Bricker & Eckler, John Beavers, when I got there. I would consider both of them to be really instrumental in my career and where I've ended up.
RF: Do you see those as your mentors today or do you have other mentors who you work with today?
ES: I do. I communicate with both of them still, although both of them have retired, but they're gracious enough to still lend me their ear and listen to me and sort of steer me when I need that.
RF: Wow, that's great! When did you realize you created your first big break for yourself?
ES: Oh, boy. I would say it was probably at Bricker & Eckler. We had worked a lot in the beginning when I got into the firm to stabilize the systems and things at the firm. But you know, we got the opportunity, after a couple of years Microsoft was paying attention to what we were doing, and we were beta testing Windows 95, and Microsoft started talking to law firms all over the country and came back to us and told us that we were the highest-tech law firm in the country in their opinion. They did a couple of case studies and my picture appeared in Microsoft ads for about two years. So, I think that was really the big break that sort of elevated my career really reputationally as well as visibility across the country.
RF: Well, that's great. Considering your vast history, there’s a couple things I'd like to ask. How have you seen your role change as an IT executive over the years?
ES: It's been an interesting landscape to watch over the years, because it used to be that IT people were, you know, in the basement typically, not really well-connected to the business. And I think that's been one of the best shifts that I've seen in IT that's really made a huge impact. IT has gotten a seat around the table with the executives and has really become a driver, and it's really never – unless you’re a technology company – it’s really never your business. It's a driver and a facilitator and a way to help you do your job and accomplish your mission more efficiently and effectively. But to see where we have come from, really being – the propeller head analogy comes to mind. A lot of folks were looked at as nerds or computer geeks back in the day, and now we're looked at more like business executives and I think that is the right alignment for IT.
RF: Great! So, how do you measure the success of your IT organizations?
ES: Well, I think you have to take a look at the impact that you're having on the people that you serve. That is the most important part because, at the end of the day, the technology is the technology, but how do you align it properly to your business? And are you making sure that what you're doing is accomplishing the mission of the organization? So, I think making sure that you're providing systems that allow people to accomplish what they're doing more effectively and efficiently is really the gauge of success, especially in today's world.
RF: Great! What is the best attribute you bring to your organization?
ES: Well, it depends on who you ask. I would say persistence and the ability to learn. I pride myself in trying to learn as many things as I can on a daily basis. And in technology, you know, you're only as current as the latest magazine you've read. I mean, I used to teach Lotus1-2-3 in Word Perfect for DOS. Now, if I'd made my career just doing that, I wouldn't probably be sitting here today. So, you have to be willing to change and learn. And I think persistence – especially in some of the larger projects and the things that you do, or that are aligned with areas of the business that maybe aren't as adaptive to technology in the beginning. You have to be persistent and you have to be able to show value to people. And I think that's what matters.
RF: Very good. What is the best part about working for the State of Ohio?
ES: Oh, boy. I think having an impact on the entire state. There have been opportunities for me to leave this state, honestly, but I like where I'm at and I like the ability to help shape Ohio for my grandchildren and the citizens of Ohio because this is a great state. I've lived here most of my life except being gone in the Marines for seven years, and I came back here for a reason – because I love Ohio. And so, I think being able to serve in public service and in state government is a way to give back and to help make the future better for everybody.
RF: What are the biggest challenges working for the State of Ohio?
ES: Scale is obviously a big challenge. It's one thing to work for a company that has global offices here and there, but it's another one to work in the state where you have offices, multiple offices, in all 88 counties. And each one of our agencies has a dramatically different business mission, as you can imagine. Agriculture is dramatically different from ODOT, the folks who take care of the roads, so not all IT fits one size. So, you have to be willing, I think, particularly in state service, to embed yourself within those agencies to understand their business so you can figure out how to apply technology to help them do what they do better. And I think that's been a big challenge, really. We have 127 agencies, boards and commissions and all of them have a different focus. So, being able to look at and understand those focuses and try to work for enterprise solutions that help everyone is quite a challenge.
RF: Absolutely. So, the next question I’d like to ask – and you’re in a unique position – what does the Columbus market need to do to become a tech hub or become a real thought leader? Now, you could obviously answer that based on the State of Ohio, if you prefer. Or what's the best fit for that?
ES: Well, I always try to keep that private sector mentality, and I do a lot of work outside of the state, obviously, at night and weekends and in my private life. So, I try to stay connected to the entrepreneurial ecosystems. And I think Columbus, first of all, has done a great job differentiating itself already. I think people are taking notice all over the country of what we're doing here. One of the earlier issues, I know years ago, was access to capital and that has gotten better. But I think that is still something that if we improved on, we could see more entrepreneurial endeavors launched and more innovation in Ohio. So, I think access to capital is probably large, and then continuing to expand that entrepreneurial community that we've created with folks like the Columbus Collaboratory, Etech and the different venture firms that are out there – NCT Ventures, Rev1 or iRev – all the different organizations continuing to focus on them. And I think volunteering and put our efforts into making those organizations better will continue to expand that ecosystem across Ohio.
RF: That's great. How do you see technology changing over the next three years?
ES: Oh, one sure thing in technology is change, and it's going to continue to change. There's a lot of focus today, for example, on new innovations. A lot of them will come to fruition, some of them won't. But I think down the road, continuing to look particularly at autonomous vehicles – and I say autonomous vehicles because you'll notice I didn't include the other word in there, which is autonomous cars. Autonomous vehicles are both cars and autonomous flying vehicles, which is honestly where I think the future is. Why would I want a car to come pick me up when I can get picked up by a drone and flown to work and skip the traffic jams and skip all the other issues? So, for example, there was one created by some engineers called the TF-X out in California right now. And I've been following this flying vehicle and it's amazing. I think we're going to eventually see The Jetsons here in the not too distant future.
RF: That would be pretty cool. How do you want to improve the State of Ohio in the next three years?
ES: One of the reasons that I went to the state was obviously to try to help the state, and to make Ohio better, and I think we have a lot of things that we've done that are getting us in that direction, but I think we need to continue to push some of those enterprise initiatives. You know, ways to share systems, to reduce travel, to make government more efficient and effective. I think we need to do a lot better job in government of understanding that all of our citizens don't just call on the phone. You know, the millennials don't like to call on the phone at all. They want to use an app or they want to text, and we need to embrace that multi-channel communication in government so government can serve the citizens the way the citizens want to communicate with the government, not us telling them “this is the way you will.” So, I think government has to become more acceptive and receptive to new communication technologies to allow us to communicate more effectively with the citizens.
RF: Great. Yeah, let’s talk about emerging and disruptive technologies, if you don't mind. In your opinion, what is one of the most exciting disruptive technologies that is beginning to impact the State of Ohio?
ES: Blockchain technology, I think, is one that I don't think is impacting Ohio tremendously yet, but we are studying it, we're working on it. There was a great article this past week about the auditor, Clarence Mingo, here in Franklin County, and what they're doing with property records to secure those transactions and to automate those transactions. And I think blockchain has the ability to impact our society the way email did years ago. Blockchain can be used in supply chain areas. It can be used to secure the food distribution system. There's lots of areas that blockchain will change our lives in the coming years.
RF: That's exciting. How do you feel about innovation efforts within your team and the state?
ES: Well, we obviously work a lot in research and development areas in the state, and I think in a lot of the conversations, I think honestly, some of the ways that we do have been able to fuel the IT optimization initiative that we're on is by getting all of the agencies’ folks together in the same room, which honestly hadn't been done a lot in government until the last few years. Each agency operated as a separate entity. Now we're coming together and we're talking, and we're sharing ideas and we're collaborating. and I think collaboration and communication within government can spawn some really wonderful things. So, I'm hopeful that will make a huge impact going forward.
RF: Great! Let's talk about security for a couple minutes. There is so much in the news these days about companies being hacked and critical data being stolen. Is this a worry for the state?
ES: It always is. I mean, obviously, we have a large mission with securing the citizens' data that we're entrusted with and to make sure that it is secure, to make sure it's tested. And you know, honestly, anything that's created by humans can be broken by humans, so you have to be constantly studying it, evolving your stance and taking a look at all the new ways that hackers are doing things; looking at the dark web, understanding what they're doing with identity theft and how we can mitigate those risks is huge. And the citizens expect us to do the best we can to secure their data. So, I think that's something. Obviously, we have a chief information security officer, Russ Forsythe, who's done a fantastic job for the state. But it's one of those things where you can do a great job today, but you’ve got to do a great job tomorrow, too. So, it is one of those things that you have to continue to be on guard for.
RF: Great. You had talked about millennials and the use of apps and the ever-changing landscape, which is now introducing in a big way the use of cloud technology. How has cloud technology changed the approach to security for the State of Ohio?
ES: Cloud technology is something the state is, I think, doing a great job at adopting, deploying and understanding. And we've moved very cautiously. I mean, you have to make sure that all the security controls are in place – NIST, CJIS – all the different security items are taken care of. But in the cloud, you know, you also have to define the cloud because we have a private cloud at the state, but we also have public clouds that we leverage with Microsoft and Amazon. So, our security folks work with them to understand and make sure that all the different security controls are in place, the compliance is in place, to make sure that the data is secure. So, the cloud is one of those areas that we have a cloud governance team in place, and I think that is something that governments – all governments – should do, to take a look at cloud governance to make sure that they're doing the best they can to secure that data and make sure that the cloud is being used for the right purposes.
RF: Great. And when you talk about securing data and devices, should all companies harden their devices?
ES: I think they should. The devices should obviously be as secure as you can get them, but again, it's one of those things you can secure it great today and then tomorrow you'll find out there's another patch or another update that you need. So, it's one of those things that requires constant vigilance.
RF: Great. Very good. And how do you feel about BYOD? Is that a big push within the State of Ohio?
ES: It's an area that we talk about a lot. In fact, I was in a conversation about this just last week because there is a tremendous amount of folks – particularly the younger generation – who want to come in and use the devices that they want to use. It’s different than it used to be 20 years ago where you were assigned a device and it was a sort of “thou shalt” kind of thing. And now that's different. So, I think you have to define what the attributes of that device need to be to make sure if it joins the organization's network that it's secure. And I think, again, that’s where that governance issue comes into play, to make sure that the devices that we allow on the network, that people bring, have certain attributes to make sure they’re secure.
RF: OK, great. Just a couple more questions. What advice would you give to aspiring IT executives?
ES: Be willing to learn, be willing to continue to evolve. You know, it's an area that if you don't like change, IT is probably not for you. It's a constant changing landscape and it's one where you have to be accepting and embrasive of change.
RF: Great. Well, thank you very much for meeting with me today. This interview has been with Mr. Eric Schmidt, the Assistant CTO for the State of Ohio, and me, Ron Ford, the VP of Cyber Security for Belcan and a member of the comSpark Executive Committee. To learn more about us, please visit comspark.tech. Goodbye, until next time.
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