Q and A with Bill Drost

Bill Drost is the former CIO of the Government of Prince Edward Island. Although his background wasn’t in IT, he took the job on to become the Province’s first CIO – an assignment he says he regarded as a two- to three-year challenge to lay the groundwork for someone else, who would take it to the next level. He spoke recently with Lisa Williams, senior writer with InterGovWorld.com, about how he got his start in the industry – and about the reorganization of the CIO office in Prince Edward Island. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Q: Let’s start with your educational background. Did you study in the IT field?

A: Actually no. I studied engineering, mechanical engineering more specifically, and never really thought that I’d end up in IT. But things evolve like that I suppose.

Q: How did you end up getting involved in the IT sector?

A: Well, engineering’s a closely related field and I had some experience in that area through my employment over the years dealing with technology, and my background was in manufacturing … and I was heavily involved in a lot of automation projects for the manufacturing world, so they were really close first cousins to one another … I remember a while back, in ‘97, the current premier approached me with a vision of doing something different and new in relation to IT, and asked me if I’d come on with the provincial government and take on the challenge of taking this to the next level, in relation to not only how we used IT in government, but also to IT being an integral part of our economy in Prince Edward Island.

Q: Could you talk about the reorganization effort and the new strategic direction that the CIO office is taking?

A: We have just about 200 IT workers in the province, and right now these workers are scattered among virtually every IT department in government … We have a lot of departments with small IT shops that don’t have a critical mass that you’d like to see in relation to building a core skill set, and also it’s not the most efficient way of delivering our IT services. At a high level we’re going to be moving the corporate IT services into a central organization to be headquartered in the provincial treasury … By centralizing a lot of the core corporate functions, we think we’re going to gain significant efficiency in relation to delivering better services.

So that’s our main vision, and stemming from that we have some core projects that we see as fundamental to achieving that vision. We really have five areas that we’re going to be focusing on in the next two years of getting those areas realigned, so we can deliver better services internally to government departments, and by extension better services to island businesses and citizens…

The five key priority areas that we have are pretty much common themes to what you’re hearing in the industry these days. We recognize that we have to deal with our infrastructure issues first. And we currently have four wide area networks within the provincial government context and will be reducing the number of networks, and we haven’t included what that network infrastructure is going to look like yet. We’ll be launching a major network review early next year, with the intent being to have less than four wide area networks. And it’ll be a better, more robust, faster network infrastructure that we’ll be using to build upon for some of the other projects that we have, that are also priorities.

Another area is our service desk consolidation. Currently we have a number of small service desks and we’re going to consolidate them into one, and along with that you end up with things like software related issues, and we’re using different platforms for software at this point. We’ll be moving to a common helpdesk software and all the typical things that you would see in relation to service desk consolidation.

In addition to that, we’re also dealing with the issue of our server consolidation, and we’ll be consolidating all our servers in government … and that’s a major undertaking of course. And we’re also going to be dealing with the human resource issue of how to move department staff that have been in eight or nine different departments, and put them all largely in one department.

And the last project of priority for us next year is looking very seriously at Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), in relation to our niche here in this province. We have about 6,600 phone lines that are using Centrex technology currently, and it’s very expensive, so it’s our intent to move to a lower cost technology platform. And we see VoIP as potentially a critical enabler for us in order to do that. There’s a lot of buzz in the industry about all the great things you can do with it, and that’s very interesting, but we don’t see that as being the strategic nature of VOIP – for us it’s cost reduction. And we aren’t even currently looking at application integration or anything like that; it’s strictly on the business case of cutting our phone costs.

Q: Regarding VoIP, when do you anticipate that you’ll be implementing that, or is that something you’re still examining in terms of cost effectiveness?

A: Well, we’ve done a business case analysis on VoIP, and of course there’s a multitude of different ways that VoIP could be implemented … So, in relation to the business case analysis, it really depends on how we’re going about implementing, not only from a technological point of view … but also from a business case model … We do know that where we have a high concentration of phone lines in our government buildings, mainly in our Charlottetown facilities, we could implement VoIP and actually have a payback in less than one year, on the implementation in our highly concentrated areas where we have a lot of phone lines. Once you start going out to smaller remote offices where you have to put infrastructure there and bring bandwidth to them, the payback is not as attractive.

We have a few decisions to make; one is how widely do we deploy VoIP. We have to decide what business model we’re going to be using, build it, manage it, run it, own it ourselves or farm it out to a third party who’ll act essentially like our phone company does today, or somewhere in between because there’s some hybrid models that could be looked at. And so we would anticipate those decisions are probably going to be made in the next six months, and in relation to that we have all the issues that everyone’s dealing with in VoIP, like the issues around security that we’re going to have to deal with, what are the issues around 9/11 and so on.

We’re currently running a small pilot – in fact I’m talking on a VOIP phone right now – and we are concluding that pilot in the next month or so, and then we’re going to be looking at the lessons learned from the pilot – what were the technological issues that we hadn’t thought of before, and how does it integrate with the existing phone network and Centrex, should we still have somewhat of a hybrid network when we’re done, and what did we like about the technology and what we didn’t, what worked and what didn’t work.

Q: So trial and error basically?

A: Yes … It’s amazing, you do all the research and you learn all the big picture stuff around VoIP, but it’s the little things like how do you forward phones that are on an IT network versus one that’s on a Centrex network that users are very used to. And they’ve been using Centrex technology essentially for years, but now it’s a totally new technology and it leads to new challenges and different ways to learn about technology. 062383

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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