Until recently, Menchini was chief information officer for New York City. He originally took on the role a matter of months after Sept. 11, 2001.
The IT and disaster recovery implications of 9-11 were daunting enough, but it was only the first of many city-wide projects that would cross Menchini’s desk. During his tenure, he created a 311 citizen service call centre, upgraded the NYC.gov Web site, oversaw the construction of an emergency broadband wireless network, and directed the development of a computer-aided dispatch system for the fire and police departments. And that’s not counting the blackout of August 2003.
Menchini eventually left his CIO post to take on a management role at Computer Associates, but government services are still very much on his mind. He serves CA as vice-president of public sector for North America, and was in Toronto and Montreal this week to speak to local government officials about their own project management issues.
Between stops, Menchini took a few moments to speak with ITBusiness.ca about what it’s like to deal with data centres after 9-11, why 311 matters so much, and the key difference between former mayor Rudy Giuliani and current mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Edge: How do you pick up the pieces when you’re inheriting an IT department affected by 9/11?
Gino Menchini: I started as commissioner in the department of information technology and as CIO on Jan 1, 2002 – three-and-a-half months after Sept.11. The security landscape had changed probably forever as a result of what happened on Sept. 11 and what we needed to do to keep government operations running. The other fact of the change was that we needed to save money and do more with less. On Sept. 11, we lost with the World Trade Center over 200 acres of office space in New York. There’s also the national economic downturn that coincided with that. We had a fiscal crisis that Mayor Bloomberg inherited. There was about US$6 billion that we had to cut from the (city’s) budget. That put a strain on our IT department and yet we needed to move forward and get some IT initiatives moving. Last but not least, we tried to retain the quality of life in New York.
Edge: Sept. 11 caused a lot of people who work with technology to take stock of the importance of disaster recovery. That must have been felt more acutely in New York City itself.
GM: We had to do a lot of soul searching and review what had transpired on Sept. 11 and what we needed to do to make the city’s IT infrastructure more survivable during events. We had a number of data centres that had not been using as extensively by agencies. Our IBM mainframes were consolidated into those data centres, but a lot of mid-range systems and Wintel platforms proliferated outside. Those systems did not fare as well on Sept. 11.
Both of those data centres survived and operated through Sept. 11. Our network was highly resilient and continued to operate. Where we did experience problems in the IT arena was where departmental computer rooms had be used to house mission-critical applications. We went back and said, “Which of our applications need to be in our data centres?”
Edge: Given the size of New York, are rollouts like 311 necessarily more complicated than for a smaller municipality?
GM: The scope of New York made our 311 implementation a little more difficult. Besides being the largest city in North America, the way that we operate our government is a little different. New York encompasses five boroughs and the city administration that reports to the mayor provides a lot of services that are typically provided by counties. The mayor was also given responsibility for the school system . . . with one million students. That makes the scope of what we do broader than what most government entities do.
With that aside, I think the 311 efforts that are underway and planned in Canada are well-founded. If I had to look at the one major technology initiative that we undertook during my time as CIO, 311 had the greatest impact on the way government operated. I think the public perception of government improved as a result of having one number to call – getting someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week who’s going to be polite. I think that really changed the way New Yorkers view their government. It helped to meet one of our post-Sept. 11 objectives to ensure that this city was viewed favourably by the citizens who live there.
Edge: How do prioritize your IT budget when you have to supply equipment and services for so many people?
GM: That’s always a bit of a struggle. We operated in a number of different ways, one of which was by the mayor saying, for example, “We’re going to do 311” or “We’re going to modernize our 911 infrastructure.” Some of it was as a result of mayoral direction where he, as the chief executive for the city, viewed a technology initiative or a modernization program as critical to the city. Beyond that, we worked with each agency commissioner to have them identify what their priorities were.
The city’s about to go through another major phase of how they do this. There was an RFP that I worked on before I left that will be awarded shortly for business planning and strategic planning. Specialists in that area will come in to agencies and help them develop a strategic IT plan – and even to move forward with project management so plans don’t become shelfware.
Edge: How do emergencies and unforeseen events play into planning strategies?
GM: In the past four years we’ve dealt with the blackout, we had a major transit strike and we had the largest snowfall on record this past February. What we normally do after each those events is convene a committee of private and public sector people to review how the city performed and to make recommendations to have the city perform better through similar events. That reprioritizes certain projects.
Edge: Why did you decide to leave your position in the city?
GM: Well, I was there for over four years. It was the best job I ever had. (But) it was time for me to make a change. For one thing, I think people who work in the public sector make a financial sacrifice. That was just a sacrifice I couldn’t make any longer.
Edge: What words of advice did you pass along to your successor?
GM: Actually, there’s a new person there who’s terrific named Paul Cosgrave. Any words of advice? There were a lot of words of advice! It’s a terrific operation. There are a lot of good people there and the mayor provides a tremendous amount of support. He’s really created a new paradigm for the IT operations within city government. We used to say that Rudy Giuliani got it in terms of IT and Mike Bloomberg gave it. He was out there and would identify IT projects. The key was, the mayor knows what he’s doing, so listen to him.