Suma Nallapati: Mastering Data for Colorado
"Break the mold and create your own career paths."
Ben: Welcome to the Masters of Data Podcast. The podcast that brings the human to data. I’m your host, Ben Newton. You’ll enjoy our guest this episode. We’re going to talk to someone who has been recognized nationwide for innovative approaches and transformative policies, all while being in state government.
Suma Nallapati was appointed Secretary of Technology and Chief Information Office for Colorado, a state cabinet-level position, by Governor Hickenlooper in 2014. Under her leadership, her team has won both statewide and national awards, while also revolutionizing digital services for the citizens of the state of Colorado. I caught Suma in her last week as state CIO before she transitions her responsibilities to the new incoming administration and takes a new leadership position at Dish. Without further ado, let’s dig in.
Welcome, everybody to the Master of Data Podcast, and I am really excited to have with me today a very special guest, Suma Nallapati. She’s the Secretary of Technology and Chief Information Officer of the state of Colorado. We’re really excited to have you on the show, Suma. Thank you for coming on.
Suma: Thank you so much, Ben. I’m very excited and happy New Year to everyone.
Ben: Like we do on every show, we just love to humanize the people that we’re talking to, learn more about you. Like with everybody else, I’d like to start off with, how did you end up where you are? How did you end up in the CIO’s office in Colorado? What led you that direction?
Suma: Great question. Thank you, Ben. I moved to Colorado 1996 and made Colorado my home for all this time, and very committed to the state of Colorado. The Secretary of Technology and Chief Information Officer position became open in 2014, and I have been the Chief Technology Officer for the state of Colorado just for about four or five months, and then when the position became open, the governor’s office reached out to me, and I applied.
It was a very extensive process, very new to the public sector at that time. I wanted to have an opportunity to serve the beautiful citizens of Colorado in a way that I know the best, which is technology, so very, very fortunate and privileged to be in that role from that time and we were able to accomplish quite a bit during those five years.
Ben: Yeah. Absolutely, and I’ll definitely want to come back to that because I think what you guys have been able to do in a short period of time is pretty amazing, really, but I want to talk a little bit more about your background. If I saw right, you actually started out in nuclear physics, is that right?
Suma: Yeah, that’s true, Ben. Yeah, I’m very proud of that degree. I’ve worked very hard for it. Yeah, I have a master’s degree in nuclear physics with a specialization in variation physics and isotope technology.
Ben: Nice, I studied physics in college and in grad school, so I’ve always had an appreciation for it. The funny thing is that I think I’ve interviewed now four or five people in this podcast that come from a physics background. It must be a really good background for me.
Suma: Yeah, very smart people, I’m sure.
Ben: You actually started as a programmer, right? You switched from that into computer science at Dish. Was that right?
Suma: Yes. When I moved to Colorado, there was not many physics, nuclear physics jobs, but my bachelor’s was in computer science and electronics. I was like, “I need to find a job,” so switched immediately to programming. I’ve taken a lot of programming classes in India, so I was like, “Let me pursue a career in technology because it will be hard to find physics jobs right away.” I’m glad I did that because it gave me a very fulfilling career. I started at Dish Network. I was a consultant before then for other companies, but dish was my real programming experience, and very glad for that too.
Then had a very typical career, if you will, in technology. I started as a programmer, then moved up to be a technical lead, then a manager, then a director, then a vice president, and now the CIO, so just went through the whole gambit of technology leadership career, and along the way founded a company of my own along with my husband in the world of technology consulting. That was very fulfilling as well, and it thought me a lot about being your own boss and being responsible for all aspects of a business. That was extremely valuable for me in my career as a technology leader.
Ben: What led year-old down the leadership track? I mean, of all the research I did, I couldn’t find anything that specifically talked to that. I mean, what led you from having your hands on the keyboard to basically leading people and looking at it like that?
Suma: Yeah. People excite me. There’s a lot that the human capital, if you will, that’s extremely exciting, right? It’s not the computers, or it’s not just the technology. It’s all about how we could mobilize and motivate people to give their very best in solving challenges that was very exciting for me. With my role as technical lead, I was able to get a lot done with my team as opposed to just my own individual skills. I found that I love and get energized by people and all the challenges surrounding that. That’s how I stepped into leadership, and for me, it’s all about the team.
Ben: That’s cool. I mean, you as a CIO, tell me a little bit more about that. I mean, I think everybody has some idea what a Chief Information Officer does, but what does that actually look like when you’ve been doing that for the state of Colorado? What were your responsibilities?
Suma: It’s pretty vast. As I mentioned, I was appointed in 2014 as a Secretary of Technology and Chief Information Officer. My office overseas nearly a thousand employees spread across 70 locations at the state of Colorado. They support all 17 executive branch agencies. If you think about natural resources to transportation to ag to revenue, everything. They had around 1,200 innovation projects that my office is responsible for.
We have deployed Google G Suite products for more than 30,000 state employees. As the Secretary of State Technology, I work in close partnership with the Office of Economic Development and International Trade and Colorado Technology Association to attract businesses and technology jobs to Colorado.
Ben: That’s great. I mean, what was it like walking into that from the private sector?
Suma: The technology stack, again, was very comfortable for me. It’s the same whether it’s private or public, but for me, the biggest difference was going in front of the general assembly and asking for budget request or testifying in front of all of them on projects that they have been supporting or projects that didn’t go as well, and we have to get their approval.
That was very, very unique, going in front of a general assembly setting and talking technology to people who may not be technical enough, right? That was the most interesting and then having to deal with legislators, senators, and all of that was truly … It taught me a lot about interacting with public officials and elected officials, so very unique from that perspective.
Ben: I hope you know with the current climate in Washington that your legislators got more done. It sounds like they probably did.
Suma: Yup, and that’s what is so beautiful about Colorado in my mind is it’s all about collaboration. My boss, Governor Hickenlooper, he’s all about reaching across the aisle. We get more accomplished by talking to each other and listening to each other rather than just staying along party lines. For me, it was a very unique experience working in such an environment where people want to make a difference. People want to solve challenges rather than stick to hard lane, this is my stance versus yours. Technology was an enabler, but all the leadership was and the support came from Governor Hickenlooper and my leadership team.
Ben: That’s been now four years now, right?
Suma: Almost five in February, yes.
Ben: Okay. Wow. Wow. I mean, what were the things … We’ll talk a little bit more about this later, but I mean, you’re wrapping up your tenure as CIO. I mean, as you look over that, as I said before, I did a bunch of research about this, and will you focus your time in some of the amazing things you and your team have been able to do, but when you look back on that, what are a few things that really stand out to you ask your proudest accomplishments?
Suma: There’s so many amazing things that the team at the Office of Information Technology was able to achieve, and then the numerous awards, not just at the state level, but at the national level, that we’ve received. There’s a forum called National Association of State Chief Information Officers. We have received so many awards for the Secure Colorado, which is our statewide cybersecurity strategy.
It is this application that we’ve developed called Universal Application that serves the most vulnerable populations in Colorado. We were able to reduce processing times from 45 days to minutes, right? That has received various rewards and recognition. We have made a lot of progress on our discipline with how we want to execute IT strategy. Our strategy and success playbook and five-year roadmaps won numerous awards as well.
Personally, for me, receiving the CIO of the Year award this year, November 2018, by Colorado Technology Association was a true cherry on the top. Also, receiving the 2017 top 25 Most Powerful Women award has helped get that validation from the industry if you will. Then, for me, we were able to create the first digital transformation office in the nation. That was because I truly feel like we have to create that Amazon.com type experience for our citizens.
We recently moved our health department’s integrated eligibility and enrollment systems to the cloud, to Amazon Web Services backend, a Salesforce front-end, first in the nation. We are just going to … This is just part of the press, but we will be launching what’s called My Colorado. It’s a mobile app for Coloradans, business and visitors to access government services, resources, and information, all in a single interface that’s accessible anytime, anywhere in a mobile platform.
Apple was very excited. They approved it. Again, the press release will be coming out soon, but initial release enables users to renew their driver’s licenses and store a digital copy of their vehicle insurance. That’s the first feature, but future releases will include more and more services that we provide from the state agencies.
Ben: Yeah, I was looking at that. I was doing some of the research. I’m looking at this digital driver’s license. That’s pretty cool. It’s making me wonder if I need to consider moving to Colorado.
Suma: We were talking to another state recently, and they said that it takes about an hour to two hours just waiting at the DMV. I’m like, “That’s just …” If you look at the next generation of residents and people, they don’t do anything physical, right? Everything is online, so we have to be able to cater to all kinds of segments, and we truly hope My Colorado will be a very successful implementation for the citizens of Colorado.
Ben: It’s pretty amazing. You know what? One question I had about that, I mean, you went through a lot there. It’s pretty amazing to be able to … Even in the private sector, to be able to pull off that much in just under five years. How do you push that kind of innovation in the public sector? I mean, typically, coming into that, not having the background, what enabled you to get those kind of things going, that kind of innovation going?
Suma: Yup, and I think the most important thing for us was to create an established trust very, very upfront when I first took the role. We had some gaps in our service delivery as an organization, so we focused on what’s called back to basics, right? Nothing glamorous, nothing sexy about it, but we focused on that, and improved upon our basic service level agreements, SLAs with our agency partners.
When we would be able to do that, it helped us create a partnership where we felt that we were good partners, and they could collaborate with us on these huge modernization initiatives and that what we would be successful in that, right? We couldn’t have done that without having that basics delivered. Once they saw that, the agency partners came to us with more and more innovation projects. One example is Colorado Drives, a $93-plus million project in which we replaced two outdated legacy systems with an integrated modern solution that’s helping drivers skip the visit interview’s wait times. Right?
DeCORuM, a multiyear project that’s modernizing the management of Department of Corrections’ inmate services and processes. IPAWS, which is a project that will help digitally transform how we look at licensing and park class functions and services into one system for all recreation within Colorado. All these huge modernization efforts were made possible because they had those trusted relationships with our agency partners.
Ben: That’s really interesting when you say that. You established a baseline of performance, showing that you guys can deliver and that people can trust you with these innovation projects. You mentioned the Digital Transformational Office. I remember reading that. If I remember correctly, that was one of the first in the US. Is that right?
Suma: That’s right, and I’m very proud of that. Again, the reason why we call it out is, because our citizens and residents are demanding that digital experience, that user experience, that customer experience when they’re interacting with government. When I shop on Amazon.com, it prompts me, saying, “Users who bought this also bought that.”
It’s a very proactive, personalize, hyper-personalized experience, and that’s the same experience that they want from government as well. That’s why we created and established the Office of Digital Transformation is whenever we are interacting and creating a technology solution, we have to keep that user experience in mind and exceed their expectations.
Ben: Yes, that’s pretty amazing. One other thing that comes to mind is I’ve spent years and years, about a decade in DC, did my own stint with some of the IT consulting environment there. I remember people saying that 10 years ago that, “Oh, we need to deliver a better experience.” A lot of times, it didn’t come through because they don’t really seem to be able to get the right talent to the table to be able to retain that talent. A lot of the talent didn’t even work for the government. They were just coming in as part-time contractors. How did you manage to get … I’m assuming you had to have some really good talent onboard and are available for you. How did you do that?
Suma: Yeah, and that’s a challenge that even the private sectors is facing and grappling with, especially in IT. If you look at cybersecurity jobs, it’s negative unemployment rate right now. We cannot afford to give the private sector perks and bonuses and things like that. We got creative, right? Again, we have, at this state, extremely valuable workforce, but they are in the process of retiring or have plans about retirements. We need to make sure that we take care of that factors as well as attract new talent to the state.
For example, when we created our Secure Colorado, which is a holistic cybersecurity plan, what we’ve implemented is come up with some creative solutions. We implemented this plan called the Veterans Transition Program in December 2017. It’s a paid internship in which veterans get real-life experience using cybersecurity tools, and the state gets much-needed help from the veterans who’ve worked in cybersecurity while in the military. Right? It’s a win-win.
We’re able to create a talent workforce within that very valuable stream, and we’re able to take advantage of their training, but all they’re lacking is sometimes the tools and technologies that we use at the state or in the private sector. We just train them. That’s been a very valuable partnership for us, working with the veterans. Then the other thing that we worked very closely with this, the Blind Institute of Technology. Our technology solutions should be accessible to everywhere.
A partnership with Blind Institute of Technology where we hire their architects that are going to ensure that all the applications we built is visually accessible. All these kinds of partnerships and outside-the-box thinking, and I’m very passionate about STEM and women in technology. I’m a personal champion for women in technology. I go speak at various conferences, including a dream force, and how to attract them in, make them feel comfortable within this very male-dominated industry.
We were able to create all these partnerships that helped us get the best talent possible, and it’s meaningful work, Ben, if you think about it. Right? Money goes only so far in terms of that intrinsic motivation for people. It’s about creating that meaningful work and attracting that right talent that wants to make an impact, and this is the best kind of work for them.
Ben: You bring that up about women and technology. Let’s delve into that a little while because I do definitely see that that’s a passion of yourself, and you can definitely hear that. I mean, from your background, what was it like for you coming up and being a leader yourself?
Suma: Yup, thank you. Again, I’m very passionate about it because I had extremely good mentors and role models along the way throughout my journey, and I want to be able to create that same kind of experience for other women that may be not sure on what technology careers to take or how to navigate this very complex world of technology.
I work with all the companies here in Colorado and across the nation and talk about that it’s okay to take chances. It’s okay to take risks. If you don’t get invited to the table, bring your own folding chair. Right? Don’t wait for opportunities. Don’t wait for someone to create this opportunity for you. Be bold, again, in a very humble way, to create opportunities for yourselves and others, and be a role model for others because that will help empower you to be the best that you can be.
I’m extremely passionate about that, and we were able to achieve results. I have a lot of women come up to me and say, “Suma, thank you for your leadership.” Right? I’m very proud of that, to these women that want to have that first step into technology, I’m always, always available.
Ben: That’s great. What are some of the things that you say to young women when you’re mentoring them? One thing that you said sounded like basically making your own opportunities. Are there any other recurring themes that you know that you pass on?
Suma: Yup, and I tell them, break the stereotypes. Break the mold and just create your own career paths if you will. One of the things is like, my daughter, she is 17. She turned 18 this year. She sees me, right, and she gets inspired by what I do, and so she is not afraid to take those chances and not … Just because you’re in technology doesn’t mean that you can’t be in the creative field. Technology is an enabler for all of that.
She is able to create … I mean, she has a very good cybersecurity plan. She’s formed two companies. She goes and talks about it to her friends. She was featured on Forbes magazine once, and she was nominated for Forbes 30 Under 30. All these accomplishments are not a right of bragging, but it’s just to tell other girls and other women that it’s okay, that you can be very successful by looking at people that have achieved something. It’s been quite intense, just seeing my own daughter grow. I would hope that we could inspire other girls and women by being good role models ourselves and working harder than the hardest in the room. That always goes a long way.
Ben: No, that’s great. I have a seven-year-old daughter, so I can really appreciate that. You know one thing, I mean, do you feel like it’s a different environment that your daughter is now launching herself into than what you saw?
Suma: It’s definitely changing, Ben, right? It was very tough when I first started because the lines at the women’s bathrooms were two people, and then the men’s bathrooms would be so long at conferences. I’m like, “Ha.” That’s the only place, I think. Now, I think it’s changing. I see more women at the CEO level and the technology conference landscape is changing immensely. I think, again, it’s opening up, but not in a place that I am happy with, but I think it’s definitely getting there. Again, there’s very good organizations both in Colorado as well as at the national level. It’s very encouraging to see that kind of momentum.
Ben: Let’s take a step back and talk a little bit more about the things you did as a CIO in the government. One thing you did talk about was the cybersecurity office. In particular, one thing I’m interested in is something that you guys got awards for and that you got a lot of recognition for is building that holistic cybersecurity plan.
One thing that I think we’re seeing right now is that there’s a lot of discussion around privacy. When you’re talking about the Amazon.com experience, the flip side of that is what you do with customer data, with your citizens’ data. When you think about that from your position as you’re building this out because, in a real sense, the technology that you’re using is going to introduce a lot of these issues. You’re digitizing their personal information. How do you think that and work through that?
Suma: We take privacy extremely seriously. We have established an office called the office of … Chief Data Officer, right? It’s very important to citizens that are entrusting their very sacred information to us. We need to treat it as such. If you look at what’s going on with Facebook and all these privacy concerns, it’s really scary because your data is out there. For the longest time, people didn’t want regulation. It’s all about free data and all of that, but I think just with what happened with Facebook and the elections and all of that, people are recognizing that government does need to step in, again, in a very deliberate, thoughtful way.
Our Chief Data Officer, he recognizes the importance of privacy. We have extensive conversations both from the Chief Data Office as well as the Chief Information Security Office. They’re very closely aligned, and I’m very happy with that because that’s important, right? They both go hand in hand. I’ve recently read a book, Ben, called World Without Mind by an author called Franklin Foer. I heard him speak at Stanford at one of the conferences.
He talks about that we as citizens, we as individual users of data and individual contributors of data, we need to think about the private contemplation, the autonomous start, and the solitary introspection of data, and not just let these big companies run amok with how we think about ourselves. Right? Everything is about … I’m glad that we had that hyper-personalized stuff, but at the same time, it comes with a price, and we need to be aware of that.
I truly feel that we as government and as individual users, we need to be very, very cognizant of what we put out on the internet. Again, Facebook is a free app for the most part, right? We need to think about that. That doesn’t meant that they have the right to sell it or use it in what’s that we haven’t been informed of. Right? All those are informed choices and decisions that we need to make. It’s not just government’s role. It’s all of us coming together and making sure that we are thoughtful in the way we put our data across.
Ben: No, no, no, that’s interesting that you bring that up because a lot of the conversations I’ve had around this is, it’s just … It’s not like it’s everybody else’s problem. It’s your problem. From your position, because in a lot of ways, the awareness of data privacy seems to have changed pretty significantly under your tenure. Do you see a difference in the way that people are working with you? Do you see a sense out there that people are taking it seriously, or is it still pretty much people just don’t think about it?
Suma: Yeah, I think the awareness has definitely increased. We collaborate a lot, right, that Chief Data Officer. We collaborate with universities. We collaborate with private institutions just to have that conversation, right, like how our people looking at privacy, how are people looking at it from an academic perspective, from an agency data sharing perspective.
It’s very multi-pronged in my mind. It’s not singular. Right? The transparency is important, but at the same time, individual private data has to be treated as such. All those conversations, I’m very happy to see where it’s going. Again, it’s not there yet in terms of that balance, but I think it’s getting there.
Ben: Suma, it’s good to hear that. Maybe putting kind of a bow on this in your time as a CIO, as you’re stepping away from this, what do you feel like you’ve learned from the experience? What are the things that stand out in your mind?
Suma: Again, I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity to be in this role, and it’ll come … I’m, literally, this week, right, I’m going to transition to the next administration right at the time of inauguration. One thing, Ben, is, again, Colorado embraced me. I didn’t have many friends, like any friends actually when I first took this role. For the state of Colorado, to embrace me as their Chief Information Officer, that, to me, is a sacred thing. I’m so honored and humbled by the opportunity that without any contacts, without any network, without me knowing anybody in government, they trusted me with this role, and we were able to accomplish so much based on my talent, my hard work, my blood and sweat. For that, I’m truly grateful for.
Ben: That’s really great. We’ve been kind of alluding to this, but I mean, what’s next? What are you transitioning to?
Suma: As I mentioned, I started as a programmer at Dish. Now, I’ll be going back to my home, I think, at Dish as the Chief Digital Officer, looking at how Dish can get the maximum leverage out of digital transformation of their application service January and how they serve their customers. It’s a very innovative company. It’s a company that I’ve respected 20 years ago when I moved here, and I still have that same respect. It’s a very fast-moving, innovative company, Charlie Ergen and Candy Ergen have built, and very proud of being associated with that company, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do in terms of that digital experience for the customers of dish.
Ben: It sounds like there’s going to be another big transition. Do you think the transition out of government is going to be harder than the transition in the government? I mean, how do you think that’s going to go?
Suma: Yeah, because I come from an extensive private sector background, I think there should be just a little bit of learning curve going back to not having that much of a regulation in terms of general assembly and others. For me, technology is technology. I think I have a lot of support at Dish. I’m hoping that they would support me in the transition. I’m looking forward to it. For me, change is exciting, so I’m looking forward to going back.
Ben: I’m sure a lot of what’s on your mind right now is the transition, I mean, that you’re going to be doing for the next administration, but when you think forward to your new position, what are some of the trends or big challenges that you’re excited about? What are you thinking about, I mean, just at the top of your mind as you make that transition?
Suma: Yeah. Again, Dish is changing constantly. There’s a lot of innovation happening. I just need to see the roadmap of the baseline that we have at Dish right now versus what they want to achieve in the next five years. It’s an industry that’s constantly challenging itself and constantly changing. I’m just excited about the opportunity to be in the middle of so much innovation. For me, again, change is something that’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to it. I like fast-paced anything, so I think I’ll fit right in.
Ben: I mean, based on what you’ve done the last few years, I’m sure you’re going to do amazing things, and maybe we can bring you back in a little while to see how things are going over at Dish. I would love to hear it.
Suma: Thank you, Ben. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope to have immediate results there as well. We’ll see how it goes.
Ben: Well, thanks for coming on the show, Suma. I think this has been really great. It’s really great to hear all the amazing things that you and your team were able to do for the state of Colorado. I was really excited to have you on, so thank you very much for your time.
Suma: Thank you so much, Ben. I hope you have a great New Years, and we need a lot of great part leaders, so thank you so much for having me on the show.
Ben: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thanks, everyone, for listening. As always, check us out in your favorite podcast app. Rate us so that other people can find us and find the great content, and thank you for listening. As Suma said, have a great 2019.
Speaker 3: Masters of Data is brought to you by Sumo Logic. Sumo Logic is a cloud-native machine data analytics platform, delivering real-time continuous intelligence as a service to build, run, and secure modern applications. Sumo Logic empowers the people who power modern business. For more information, go to sumologic.com. For more on Masters of Data, go to mastersofdata.com and subscribe, and spread the word by rating us on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.