- Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, only 120 of the city of LA’s 48,000 employees were working remote
- It fell on CIO Ted Ross and his team to support a quick transition to telework, as well as enable the government to use digital tools to help control the spread of the virus.
- Among other products, Ross tapped popular cloud security software Zscaler to enable workers to access their desktops remotely on whatever device they choose.
- “We’re looking at longterm telework solutions,” Ross told Business Insider.
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Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, only about 120 of 48,000 Los Angeles city government employees were working remote.
It was a struggle to even get to that point, according to chief information officer Ted Ross, and required, among other things, negotiations with labor unions and establishing entirely new policies.
So it was a definite shock to the system when LA, like other cities, announced that it would pivot entirely to telework to help prevent the spread of the virus. But now, after several months, Ross is working to make sure the opportunity for remote work continues well after the pandemic.
“We’re looking at longterm telework solutions: We’ve already started to build policies, and plans, and methods, and mechanisms for supervisors,” he told Business Insider. “We’re really looking for telework to be an institutionalized tool for our workers for a decade to come.”
One of the most critical tools that Ross tapped was Zscaler, a cloud security firm that has seen widespread usage during COVID-19, leading to a 46% increase in revenue year-over-year in the most recent quarter.
The technology has allowed LA workers to easily tap into the city’s secured network and their own desktops from whatever device they want, including laptops, tablets, and cell phones. And because the product can scale so easily, it was a noticeable improvement over the prior virtual private network — or VPN — that the government was using.
“Our previous VPN solution was really not even going to come close. It had something like 100-150 people on it and everyone unilaterally hated it,” said Ross. “We’re at the point now where we have over 18,173 users, all using this system, all very productive, all very active. And it’s allowed us to really be able to run a very large government.”
It’s all part of Ross’ long-time effort to digitize the government, which has taken on a whole new meaning during the pandemic.
Building an app in 72 hours
Once the virus hit, Ross’s team had to figure out how to translate the typically in-person city council meetings and other government gatherings to the virtual world, which became even more important after racial justice protests swept the US.
“We’ve been having to deploy all sorts of solutions to really kind of build that out way more than just a Zoom session,” he said. “We’ve had to come up with all the methods for meeting all our laws… and creating systems of engagement.”
For Ross, who set the record for LA’s longest-serving CIO at five years, the new duties are just one part of serving in such an ever-evolving role. Across government and corporate America, IT leaders are being asked to oversee sweeping digital overhauls — a mandate that is giving the role immensely more visibility, but also forcing CIOs to work with all areas of the organization.
“We can become very back-office very quickly: We’re constantly being asked to do unfunded mandates, constantly being asked to do more with less, constantly being asked to try to meet some very specific — and sometimes overly engineered — solutions,” said Ross.
And the mandate to move quickly has never been more strict. Ross, for example, got a text message from a deputy mayor requesting a COVID-related application with a 72-hour deadline. The goal was to have a program where citizens could triage themselves and get scheduled to go get tested at the nearest facility.
“I immediately had to rally a team and some vendors,” he said. “As much as they would have loved for everything to be perfect at first, they just needed it working.”