A Kiwi CIO in America

'Fundamental differences' between NZ and US

You may have heard of Andy Lark, Sun Microsystems' global communications and marketing vice president, or any number of other successful expat New Zealanders working at high levels for US IT vendors.

However, not all US-based New Zealanders in IT are working on the vendor side of things — one, John Emerson, has ended up on the other side of the fence, as CIO for California's Stanislaus County.

Emerson was back in New Zealand in December to visit family and also spoke at the CIO lunch in Auckland and Wellington, where he gave an outline of his work and projects he'd been involved in.

The first point he made is that there are some fundamental differences in the way things are done in the US.

"It's bigger, there's more funding available and there are three tiers of government, federal, state and local."

For most Americans, the face of government is local, a difference to New Zealand and other former British colonies that operate under the Westminster system, which puts central government in citizens' lives to a greater degree.

As CIO at Stanislaus County, which has a population of 500,000 and a $US21 million IT budget, Emerson has brought about some changes, including a shift from a mainframe/Cobol environment to a web services one.

At the time of his speech, 53% of Stanislaus' IT staff were web services-enabled and the plan is to take that figure to 90% over the next four years.

When he started in the job in 2001, Stanislaus had an IT staff of 182, there were different environments as mentioned above and governance procedures and business processes weren't defined, Emerson says.

As CIO, he set to work on the goals of moving to a web services environment, replacing the four different generations of computing technology that were present, reducing the county's IT budget buy 25% and setting up better governance and reporting.

Establishing a project office that tracked all projects was also an early move.

Over the next four years, the Stanislaus IT department's goals include having 90% of PCs managed via terminal services or browser-Linux, having the 20 most common forms used by the county available as e-forms and implementing e-procurement and customer self-service systems.

"We're developing a balanced scorecard to measure some of those things," he says.

Complete IT infrastructure standardisation and consolidation is also on the agenda and open source software is evaluated on its merits and utility, not "because its cheap," he says.

(The county uses open source web app JBoss).

Future challenges include keeping the county's systems secure and installing better IT governance processes, he says.

"We don't have IT projects, it's always a business project — IT is a service provider."

When Emerson took up the job, it wasn't his first stint in the US; he previously lived there in the 1980s before returning to New Zealand in 1988 and has also lived and worked in Australia and Canada.

He began his career at Canterbury Frozen Meats in Christchurch in the late 1960s and later, in Canada, ran his own consultancy, writing software for organisations transitioning from mainframe environments and in the US he consulted and also part-owned a chemical company for a time.

He came back to New Zealand for a family reunion in the late 1980s and decided to stay, working first for MAF and then the Canterbury District Health Board, before returning to the US in 2000.

He applied for the Stanislaus County CIO job because Stanislaus County's government "had a good reputation," and a "visionary" chief executive, he says.

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