Data Centers

10 questions on practical transformation: An interview with Cook County's CIO

As CIO of the second-largest county in the United States, Antonio Hylton is pursuing some major transformational goals. Find out about his job, his plan, and his vision of the future.

As CIO of the second-largest county in the United States, Antonio Hylton is pursuing some major transformational goals. Find out about his job, his plan, and his vision of the future.


Antonio Hylton's IT career spans three decades, but his love for technology goes back to the days when his father gave him electronic project kits on Christmas and birthdays. He studied electrical engineering at Northeastern University, and then his career took him down a winding path with technology titans like Wang Labs, Computer Sciences Corp, MCI, Pathnet, Ameritech, AT&T, and XO Communications. After he started a successful private consulting practice, Broadband Technology Associates, in Chicago in 2007, he was appointed to his current role as CIO of Cook County, IL, the second-largest county in the United States.

Cook County has a population of approximately 5.3 million people. The city of Chicago is just one of the county's 128 municipalities, and its annual budget is more than $3 billion. The Bureau of Technology operates the county's voice and data networks and provides mainframe, midrange, server, and applications support to all county agencies, departments, and elected official offices. The bureau's FY2009 operating budget is $15.6 million with a capital budget of $21.3 million. In addition, the bureau manages the countywide hardware and software contracts, valued at $41.5 million.

With a corporate structure that goes off the page, Antonio's job involves coordination among the office of the county president, 17 members of the Board of Commissioners and their staff, 11 elected officers, three Board of Review members, the assessor, county clerk, clerk of the circuit court, recorder of deeds, sheriff, state's attorney, and treasurer. There are six bureaus under the president. The county also manages the largest unified system of courts and criminal justice and the second-largest public health system in the nation.

In addition to the core technology operations for the county, Antonio's responsibilities include a comprehensive disaster-recovery plan and a countywide business continuity plan. The transformation plan he's now undertaken throughout the many layers of this organization is defined by the Cook County Program Management Initiative. I had the opportunity to talk with him about the way things are progressing in this critical new plan he has proposed for the county.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1. Jeff: What do you see as the major transformational goals you are trying to achieve for Cook County's technology resources? Antonio: When I got the opportunity to come into this position, I thought I was bringing a lot of vision to the table. But I came to see even more clearly the magnitude and reality of the transition that was needed. I remember my final interview with the president. His closing remark at the end of the interview was that he appreciated the private-sector focus I could bring to the job. Within a day or so, he called me directly and asked me if I was ready to begin. In the first 90 days, one of the initial things I asked for was two "rapid-assessment reports." My goal was to understand what was in place and how it had gotten to where it was.

What I found is probably common. Based on their immediate business requirements over the years, many departments and agencies had found it necessary to create solutions without including the ability to scale or apply across multiple departments and agencies. So we had a lot of home-grown applications. There was a large investment in an ERP solution about 10 years ago that allowed for greater customization, much of which was according to older business processes.

So we were stuck with too many moving pieces for a dramatic cutover to a new solution, and we also didn't have the luxury of being able to build a parallel environment to move things over independently. That was our quandary, in a nutshell. Our response was the "Vision 2010" plan, which addressed the fundamental problem of nonintegrated, redundant silos and allowed us to create a new environment while still being fully operational.

With this fundamental architectural goal in place, we had to make all our other initiatives subordinate to it, which is challenging because there are several elected offices all tied together by one consolidated budget. To get the approval of the president's office, it had to squeeze costs out of the business and create greater efficiency for all the offices and agencies across the county.

2. Jeff: What was your assessment of the timeline based on? Antonio: One of the things I needed to understand was my workforce and the knowledge base I inherited, as well as anticipating the effects of attrition and retirement. I found that within three to five years, about 45% of my MIS team would be eligible for full retirement, and most of them had been around for more than a decade. So I saw a lot of knowledge that would be going away in the short term, and they were the ones keeping the legacy systems running. Just to give you an idea, we have five or six million lines of COBOL code with a mainframe operation, a separate midrange operation, and an HR application entirely separate from the general ledger, accounts receivable, and accounts payable applications. So understanding my talent resources going forward was one of the most important assessments I made in my first 90 days. I had to look at the areas where we were losing the most money and determine whether a reengineering assessment would lead us to justify consolidation. 3. Jeff: So the tribal knowledge and custom applications you found turned out to be drivers for moving in a new direction? Antonio: Yes. In 2007, we were still solving things with a short-term mindset of patches and fixes to maintain functionality and not asking about the timeframe in which a major transformation needed to occur. Because of the constraints in my first two years, I was unable to make this kind of change either. There were taxes, revenue, and healthcare operations that were in the spotlight.

In this last year, I've been able to make the case that without a structured look at business processes, we limit our return on investment by putting out fires. I was able to get the support from President Stroger for our Program Management Initiative with the goal of managing our investments in technology to simultaneously squeeze costs out of the business and improve efficiency by scaling what we invest in. That was the presentation we made to all county stakeholders during two separate technology summits this year. Each agency, department, and elected official sent a technology representative to look at what was being done individually that might be done better with a shared infrastructure, capability, or environment.

4. Jeff: When you measure outcomes and benefits, how much emphasis do you put on success in terms of customer satisfaction and service levels? Antonio: We don't have service level agreements per se, but we have contracts with our vendors who do. So we end up executing those agreements on the part of our 20,000 employees. The Bureau of Technology covers four main areas: telecommunications, wide area networks, email, and Web portals. There are some elected officials who still operate independent technology environments, like Exchange servers or document management. Right now we're hoping to consolidate those as well to be able to gauge consistent success measurements across the board. 5. Jeff: What about the need for an underlying organizational and culture shift to accompany these changes in technology, like training, education, and thought leadership? Antonio: The overriding theme for us right now is "efficiency enabled by intelligent investment in technology." The executive sponsorship from the president is a primary driver for the tone and pace of our strategy. Where reality kicks in is that there are competing priorities, some of which are based on court-ordered mandates and other unfunded mandates from the elected silos. Our goal is to transition those operational silos over to a unified platform without disrupting their day-to-day business or causing delays that would conflict with their need to meet statutory timeframe obligations. That balance is absolutely the most challenging part of my job.

The vision is set and the challenge now is in the execution phase, which includes education of 11 elected offices and five bureaus. I don't know that you could ever completely align all of them, but what I can do is standardize the approach and enforce a standard implementation that will over time allow for a single view.

6. Jeff: How is the current economic climate affecting your plans? Antonio: It has an absolute impact; it will slow us down, but the need is accelerating at the same time. We're now two years into our five-year plan, and I'm faced with reducing costs in the overall business and cutting my own budget as well. What we need is a multi-phase, fully appropriated investment available during the entire process. In reality, we are subject to the same dynamic impact of the economy.

For me, that is a fundamental disconnect because of the nature of what we do. We provide services to everyone, but on the budget side we are treated the same as other agencies when it comes to absorbing costs. We should be able to look at the services we provide to other entities, which ones are technology related and mandatory, and where else a decrease in the budget might be absorbed. There are some problems that could be solved by technology but may not be a budget priority in the bigger picture. In a down economy, this high-level business perspective becomes even more important.

7. Jeff: How has the progress you've made so far culminated in the Vision 2010 plan? Antonio: Let's look at it in three stages. In the first year, the budget was the most important item, and I laid out how this technology can reduce government and its costs and balance the budget. But the budget for the plan was not available at that point. In the second year, as the economy continued to slide, the focus became understanding that the technology cannot create the efficiency without knowing where business processes are misaligned. Our board recognized the fundamental disconnect in the way the silos had developed independently to manage their discrete business processes. So now we've reached stage three: Next year is the right time to move forward. The case has been made to squeeze out costs by putting the entire technology spend into the same bucket. It's now a financial management strategy as opposed to a business unit strategy.

When the board reviewed all the capital projects in this last year's budget, they consolidated a single procurement contract for hardware, software, and services, and we've already seen the benefits of volume-discounted pricing. We're also doing countywide management studies to determine what areas benefit from consolidation. If the majority benefits, we will consolidate. If not, we will at least make a move to standardize.

8. Jeff: In terms of platforms, do you see things moving toward a greater balance between distributed and mainframe? Antonio: Our mainframe operations handle more than 30 million transactions a month, and while it has been suggested that we could do that in a distributed environment, I'm not looking to do that right away. We still need the horsepower at this point. If I had my way, I would have it decentralized, secure, Web-enabled, and mobile. The main reason for a single, unified ERP is to provide a single version of the truth. You don't need multiple versions. There needs to be a standard architecture for all business operations, and then they can fine-tune the reports they need.

There are organizations that are going through a different kind of transformation than we are, moving to a cloud or software as a service or working the same way from anywhere in the world. Ours is more from the old world to the new. There is going to be some pain involved, and it is a matter of an acceptable level and a set period of time. There are processes we have inherited and they actually have done the job well. Running a three billion dollar budget has been done very well over time because of the people who support it. The need for change is not a criticism of the folks who are in place but because of a need to create greater efficiency and squeeze costs out of our business. Technology is the critical driver for efficiency. It has been proven over and over again in the private sector as the basis for efficient growth. Those are our key goals.

9. Jeff: How has what you do changed in the last five years? Antonio: I have been in the business for over 25 years, and I'm a technologist turned technocrat. I have seen the kinds of change happen that we're looking for here; getting faster and better, being more mobile. The CIO and CTO are more involved in the business decisions than ever before, but here's the catch: I believe the more private sector business experience they bring to the table, the more seriously the technology experts will be taken. They have to be good translators of the effect of technology on the business. We're moving toward greater transparency and social commerce and combining security with higher availability of data. Going forward I expect to see more emphasis placed on things like every elected official operating in a standardized environment across the enterprise. 10. Jeff: To sum things up, what do you see as your top three priorities? Antonio: Not for this quarter but moving forward, I put a great priority on a unified enterprise resource planning capability, a unified enterprise content management capability, and a secure mobile access capability. Those will be based on the facts we are able to gather from the program management studies. They have to be inclusive and scalable.

While I have no dog in the race, there are some cases where we have to draw conclusions based on the extent of our current investment in specific strategic partnerships. I inherited some platforms that are so established within our business that it would be next to impossible to extricate ourselves from them. In the end, my job is to get the facts. It is ultimately up to the board to allow me to act on our recommendations. Cook County is not singular in its problems, but we don't have a lot of examples we can really compare ourselves to. When I look at what they have for their investment and translate that to our business, they don't scale or aren't compatible with our environment for one reason or another.

We can't reach a dead end and then spend additional money to transform again. This transition has to be a platform that is flexible and practical for decades to come. It has to be scalable, expandable, accessible, and upgradable. We are at a time in technology when that is exactly what we need to do. For every day we procrastinate, we delay the inevitable.


Contact info

Antonio A. Hylton

ahylton@cookcountygov.com

312-603-1400

Jeff Cerny

jeff@jeffcerny.com

twitter: @jeffcerny

About

Jeff Cerny has written interviews with top technology leaders for TechRepublic since 2008. He is also the author of Ten Breakable Habits to Creating a Remarkable Presentation.

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