Gutierrez on the Record: A Good Man in a Storm

Late last week, Louis Gutierrez gave his first interview since becoming Massachusetts State CIO.  The lengthy list of questions was posed by Computerworld's Carol Sliwa, and represents the first status report on the implementation of OpenDocument Format (ODF) since the resignation of Peter Quinn at the end of last year.  In the interview, Gutierrez expands on the themes that he introduced in his first public presentation, given on March 15 at a meeting of the Massachusetts Government Information Systems Association (MGISA) at which I moderated and also presented.  Those themes include patience, deliberation, a refusal to engage in turf battles, a focus on getting the job done, and a refreshing inclination for straight talk.

It may be no surprise that the new CIO would bring a careful and non-confrontational style to the current challenge.  He was, after all, the first CIO of the state's Information Technology Division (ITD), and returns to that post from another state appointment - as CIO of the executive office of Health and Human Services, where he implemented significant IT initiatives.  Unlike his predecessor, he therefore brings a preexisting and extensive knowledge of how things are done (and best not done) on Beacon Hill.  He's not looking to fight any battles other than those that must be fought, and has no intention of butting heads to no purpose.

I met with Louis before the MGISA presentation, and had an opportunity to listen to his presentation on March 15 as well as to hear him field questions from the crowd.  In person, as in the Computerworld interview, he consistently comes across as both pragmatic and determined to keep his eye on the task at hand, and not permit ego (his or anyone else’s) to take him off the track. 

This came through most clearly when he opened his remarks at the MGISA event by turning to State Supervisor of Public Records Alan Cote, who has been a vocal opponent in the past of Peter Quinn’s program (see the prior interviews with Alan I posted on February 5 and March 9), and stated that he had no desire to contest the authority of the Secretary of State’s office over the archives of the Commonwealth.  That, after all, has nothing to do with the task at hand.

The theme of reconciliation plays consistently through the interview as well.  Take, for example, the question and answer that closes the interview:

When you look back at this whole process — and granted some of these decisions were made before you were there — what would you change? I admire the perception that went into the policy objective. But I think in government it’s always really important, usually essential, to insure that you’ve got a full stakeholder buy-in. And I think what I’ve been hired to do is to really focus on some of the implementation issues that are really the result of the stated policy objective.

Another goal that Gutierrez is pursuing as he begins to speak to the public is to place the implementation of ODF on a more coherent, and less binary, rollout schedule.  Late last year, the administration announced that the original January 1, 2007 conversion date established by Peter Quinn would slip if accessibility needs could not be addressed by that date.  And while an official decision on that point will not be announced until mid-summer, Gutierrez is conditioning the market for what to expect, both from a timing perspective, as well to make it plain that there is no need for a single switch to be thrown on a magic date.  Instead, as with other IT upgrades, a series of steps and (often) phased in conversions may be the best road to take to ensure that the process is efficient, economical, and meets the needs of the disabled.

This theme runs through many of his answers to questions, as indicated by the following series of outtakes, each from a different response:

I’ve signed up to do the execution, and I have a lot of work to do on implementation planning and on figuring out the right kinds of phasing for this and of addressing concerns of accessibility advocates….[Secretary Trimarcho] has made it clear that we will not force compliance prior to accessibility concerns being addressed. That having been said, what we are focusing most on now is looking at options for compliance…. I do think a deadline is a good thing, even if there’s flexibility to address it for accessibility reasons. A deadline in the context of a lot of uncertainty really helps people to focus on what’s needed. What I would like to do starting now is really be thinking thoughtfully about how we arrange transitions and implementation.

Gutierrez also rightly points out that ripping out 50,000 copies of office software developed by one vendor and installing an equal number of suites sold by another, and training all users simultaneously, is not likely to be the most efficient use of tax payer dollars.  In contrast, replacing existing Windows-based PCs in the ordinary cycle with new ones that include not only ODF but also other regularly scheduled software upgrades for which training will be needed in any case makes perfect sense.  Or, as he phrased it:

It won’t be any kind of overnight thing, and it strikes me that it would be addressed as part of a prioritized implementation plan that would look at certain categories of uses, certain departments and certain opportunities to fold it in with new PC deployments. There is a lot of implementation planning that needs to be done, and it needs to be done with a real thoughtfulness for our taxpayer concerns.

By the time Sliwa asks the deadline question explicitly, the stage is well set for a response that positions a falling back from January 1 as not a defeat, but an exercise in prudent planning (which, after all, it would be):

Do you think you really have a chance to make the January 2007 implementation date? I do believe it’s a question of degree, and I think that a full-scale completed implementation by Jan. 1 is not something that I see, with what still needs to be resolved in terms of accessibility issues and implementation planning. But neither do I see a wait position that would have us waiting a long time before we get started on a policy of this sort. So I think there will be a middle ground.

There’s no reason for us to stall in the planning or the working towards a standard for any reason. On my forecast of hitting the date or not, my preference would be that instead of sending mixed signals, we really do allow a process to lead us up to a midsummer reassessment of where we stand. But I think to be fair, there is quite a distance to go on accessibility and quite a lot of work to go on the implementation and transition planning.

The interview contains other messages as well, and more than I have space or time to develop at length in this entry.  However, anyone who is a student of government would do well to read Gutierrez’s answers in this interview.  They are at once conciliatory and unbending  on principle, open to negotiation but uncompromising on requirements, and non-confrontational but unshakeable.

Having covered the tempestuous ODF story for nine months now, I couldn’t help thinking of the opening scene of Tracy Kidder’s classic chronicle of technology development: The Soul of a New Machine.  That book opens with the reminiscence of someone who sailed an overnight, heavy-weather off-shore leg with Tom West, the project manager of a new computer design team at Data General.  West not only stayed calm and manned the helm skillful, but obviously enjoyed the battle to beat upwind through a long and stormy night as well.  The balance of the crew, in contrast, was at best uncertain over what the rest of the night might hold in store for them. 

At the end of the chapter, the narrator bestows on West what I have always thought to be a complement of significance, describing the sort of person you want to have at your side when you have no choice but to navigate through rough times of any sort:  a good man in a storm.  Louis Gutierrez seems to have that quality, and it would be hard to think of a more useful trait for someone to possess in carrying out the job that he has been asked to perform.

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Comments (1)

  1. One very strange thing about the whole Quinn/ODF deal, given that Mass is home to both the Harvard Business School and MIT, is the anti-business stance taken by the Mass legislature. The bloom has gone off Boston’s High-Tech rose in the last few years and ODF represents a real way for the state to legitimately kick start a little business that can snag dollars otherwise bound for Redmond on the other coast.

    The essential purpose of ODF, beyond its obvious role as a data repository, is to liberate that data from dependence on any vendors wares. ODF data can be viewed, sliced, diced, and otherwise exploited by any product that understands the spec. No fealty to somebody across the continent. No restrictive licensing or punitive royalties. If a local company comes up with a great product and/or service…they can sell it.

    The beauty of the Mass ODF proposal is that it created an ODF market comprised of government organizations and the businesses who deal them. Goodbye chicken-and-egg, hello entrepeneurship. The intermediate outcome is especially disappointing in light of other states planning or contemplating similar requirements. Being first is not a bad place to be for new businesses.

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