San Francisco CIO Linda Gerull Identifies Key Elements to Deploying Lasting Technology and the Partnership Strategies that Make the Difference
San Francisco CIO Linda Gerull
With downtown streets bustling with software engineers, tech entrepreneurs and eager investors, San Francisco is an epicenter for digital invention. The innovative spirit is evident in the towering offices of tech companies that span its skyline, in its makeshift workspaces where startups test new ideas and products, and in City Hall, where Linda Gerull, San Francisco’s chief information officer, toils with her team at the Department of Technology to serve the city and county’s nearly 900,000 residents.
The work requires tenacity and an aptitude to engage the tech community in partnerships and new procurements. Since she accepted the position in June, 2017 she has vowed to be a facilitator, harnessing the city’s wealth of digital talent to fuel services for 52 departments and 32,000 city and county employees. One of these endeavors includes the development of a customized permitting solution that uses Accela’s Civic Solutions for Planning and Building. The project is a major undertaking to modernize permitting at the city’s Department of Building Inspection, and once complete, will help the city regulate everything from small home renovations to sweeping commercial developments.
Speaking with Accela, Gerull said the project is not only meeting expectations, but has provided a set of guide posts for how tech companies should work with local jurisdictions. From conception and planning, to development and launch, the project surfaced strategies she hoped fellow CIOs could borrow and apply to their own IT projects.
“As we talk about the San Francisco project, I think it’s absolutely a model for how to have that city and IT vendor partnership and what that partnership will deliver over time,” Gerull said.
1. Demand success, not support
Too often, the IT industry confuses customer support with customer success Gerull said. Support is reactive, typically nearsighted in its focus, and centers itself on solving product issues instead of city issues.
In contrast, when CIOs find technology providers that strive for customer success, they proactively uncover and answer problems. They design products of value, solving tangible problems and improving inefficiency. Further, Gerull said vendors who are driven by customer success are familiar with achieving outcomes and they engineer products that can generate or save dollars. For San Francisco, Accela is designing a planning and building solution that automates many of the permitting tasks. This cuts down on manual tasks, reduces time to process permit applications and offers San Francisco an opportunity to increase revenue from additional permit fees.
“When it comes to customer success versus customer support, there is such an incredible difference,” Gerull said. “Customer success is the vision you need to keep in your head, it really is the vision to change the culture.”
2. Create a robust game plan
Effective implementation plans are more than a series of tasks and phases, they ensure agencies adopt best practices in project development. This means a process is established to communicate and verify progress between an agency and an IT developer. Gerull said her experience in both public and private sectors has shown that there are five “critical success factors” in any effective development plan.
These include the following components:
- A clear understanding of requirement and needs
- Clear communication, early and often throughout the entire process
- A commitment to the project plan
- On-time deliverables for both project tasks and decisions
- Thorough and complete testing of the solution
3. Plan for ‘Plan B’
As with any project, Gerull said that sometimes priorities need to pivot and plans need to be reworked and redirected. Projects can run up against unexpected technical barriers, project workflows may require additional oversight, and there may be a call to bring in additional staff and digital resources. Whatever the case, transparency is key. Gerull said CIOs are well equipped to handle almost any immediate problem. What no one can handle is a problem past fixing.
Though adjustments are expected, to avoid major shifts in plans, Gerull outlined five project management suggestions IT departments may choose to consider as they plan or rework projects:
- Create documented, signed-off business requirements for the developer
- Involve business users before and during the project to ensure technology answers everyone’s needs
- Institute quality controls and checks in the project methodology to make sure that each phase of the project is completed before moving onto the next
- Assign solution architects to oversee design and development so new services and upgrades integrate easily and align with the project’s goals
- Make sure key development resources stay assigned to the project for the duration
4. One goal, one team
Whether a technology department works with the sales team, the development team, customer support or company management, CIOs should expect a vender’s team to be in sync. This extends to project status updates, timeframes, next steps, technical delivery, contract details and any other elements of the implementation process.
“My team here at Accela is just excellent. And what’s so important about them is that they work as a team,” Gerull said. “So whether it’s sales, or whether it’s professional services or whether it’s the development team, it’s absolutely seamless. Sales doesn’t say, ‘Well I’m not going to talk to you about development, that’s a developer’s job.’ No they ask what is or isn’t working and we talk about it together.”
5. Make responsive service a prerequisite
Stressing the need for responsiveness, Accela’s Executive Chairman Mark Jung said that whether Accela deploys solutions in San Francisco or anywhere else in the world, the company has a commitment to constantly improve communications and customer service.
“We owe that quick response time back to the customers and it’s my commitment in my role at Accela to advance this,” Jung said. “If we didn’t catch the problem before you caught it, you deserve an answer about what is wrong and how we’re going to fix it. At a very minimum, we need to be excellent at problem diagnostics and quick response to the customer.”
Currently, Jung said Accela is investing heavily into customer success. This comes through an expansion of Accela’s Customer Success division and sizable investments in quality automation technologies that monitor systems and log potential issues.
“It’s one thing to say you the customer are reporting a problem and then the clock starts, but the real answer is that we should see the problem and the answer before you do. From where I come from, ‘grade-A’ performance means you never call us with a problem because we see it so far in advance we’re already on it and we’ve got you covered.”
6 . Ensure your voice is heard
In government, every jurisdiction is unique. There are variations in department operations, different roles for decision makers, new communication channels and changes in the needs of stakeholders. Gerull said that when San Francisco’s IT department evaluates vendors, it looks for those that have spent the time to learn its business processes, its organizational acronyms, communications channels, and the names of the leaders and business stakeholders. Once projects begin, this knowledge is critical to advance implementations, solve problems and gain approvals.
“You really have to ask, ‘How do I make sure that the customer is staying engaged and that the voice of the customer is being heard, because it’s really the voice of the customer that is driving success.”
Echoing this point, Jung said this deep level of understanding and communication is a significant contributor for effective IT projects, big or small, and is a primary goal that spans across projects and teams.
“Once you communicate with a customer and they’re heard, their pain level drops significantly because they understand the path forward,” Jung said. “People want certainty. They want to know that you’re listening. They want to know that you care. This is something that seems so simple, yet it is really important and can be easily overlooked.”
7. Seek tech companies that finish strong
Savvy sales pitches don’t always translate into outstanding results. That’s why Gerull said she judges tech companies on their previous deployments as much as their proposals. A pitfall in the IT sector is to place too much weight on the sales in the customer journey and not enough attention on follow up support, updates and upgrades — services that fall at the end of the process. Gerull said if the objective of an IT department is to find an expandable service that can serve more residents and departments, this requires a company has a track record for delivering and maintaining services.
“[IT companies should] understand that your current customer is your most valuable asset,” Gerull said. “The end goal is always increasing use of the system because better ROI is achieved – increased use of the system happens when there is a focus on customer success.”