How Peace Corps Service Influenced Maryland CIO Katie Savage's Career in User-Centered Design

July 12, 2023 NASCIO Episode 99
How Peace Corps Service Influenced Maryland CIO Katie Savage's Career in User-Centered Design
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How Peace Corps Service Influenced Maryland CIO Katie Savage's Career in User-Centered Design
Jul 12, 2023 Episode 99

Amy and Alex talk with new Maryland CIO Katie Savage about her background, her priorities in Maryland and how her Peace Corps Service influenced her thinking around user-centered design.

Show Notes Transcript

Amy and Alex talk with new Maryland CIO Katie Savage about her background, her priorities in Maryland and how her Peace Corps Service influenced her thinking around user-centered design.


Katie Savage, Alex Whitaker, Amy Glasscock


Amy Glasscock  00:05

Hi and welcome to NASCIO voices where we talk all things state IT. I'm Amy Glasscock in Lexington, Kentucky.  


Alex Whitaker  00:11

I'm Alex Whitaker in Washington, DC. Today we're talking with Katie Savage who is the CIO for the State of Maryland. 


Amy Glasscock  00:17

Katie started in Maryland earlier this year. And today, we're going to get to know her a little bit. Katie, welcome to NASCIO Voices. And thanks so much for joining us today. 


Katie Savage  00:24

Thanks for having me. And happy to be here. 


Alex Whitaker  00:27

Yeah, Katie, so great to have you. So we would love for you to tell us and our listeners about your professional background, and what led you to the CIO role in Maryland. 


Katie Savage  00:35

So I have primarily at a DevOps background that I started life as an urban planner, and I'm a master of city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. And I got my start into technology by working for the Chicago chief data officer. And Chicago was the first city to establish a chief data officer position under under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And I joined as an urban planner, supporting the chief data officer, because I have the technical background on how cities use data. And we work together to build the city's first open data portal. And from there parlayed that experience into creating a public private partnership between the city of Chicago and a number of private companies, MasterCard, Microsoft, Nokia here and a couple of others Accenture, to use data, and to think about how we could develop software for cities, particularly city agencies to utilize. So I was able to turn my, you know, my planning background and my data background into really a DevOps kind of experience. And from there, I was asked to join the defense digital service as Chief of Staff. So I moved from Chicago to DC in early 2019, to continue the work on developing software, and also to help oversee cybersecurity team that was part of our remit at defense digital service. So I did that for four years, moving from Chief of Staff to Deputy Director and then eventually director of, of the team. And then in late 2022, I was asked by Governor Moore to serve his administration as CIO. And to bring the focus particularly on user centered design and product development. Coupled with my cybersecurity background to the work in Maryland, 


Alex Whitaker  02:30

I think it's so cool urban planning and city planning backgrounds and how you use datas. That's really interesting. So but you also mentioned that you did some significant work and defense digital services from Operation warp speed, and identifying Afghans who had helped the US and should be eligible for asylum. So I think anything that would love to know how you how and why you mentioned it, but But why you decided to move from the federal government to state government.


Katie Savage  02:56

I am thrilled to be back in state and local government, I really enjoyed my time at DOD, because I got to work on such human centered projects like helping process Afghan refugees, or helping think about how we were delivering a safe vaccine to the American people during during Operation warp speed. So when I had a chance to make a career move that would bring me back to an entirely citizen focused experience, I jumped at the opportunity. 


Amy Glasscock  03:25

That's awesome. So Katie, you've been with the state of Maryland for about six months now, I believe, what are you most excited about as you look toward the rest of this year, and then into the next couple of years, 


Katie Savage  03:37

we have the bones of some really great teams at DOiT, the Department of Information Technology that I oversee. So we have our IT operations shop. And we also have the Office of Security Management, which is where our cybersecurity practices and expertise lives. And then we have this are nascent stages of what I'm calling a product development shop. We have some pieces that we've been offering to the state in terms of product management, product development, and kind of user centered design or partnering around statewide platforms. But that's very early stage. And I'm excited to build that out. So to me, we have this really exciting diverse portfolio across DevOps, cybersecurity and product development. And I'm excited to really build out all three areas and bring in some leadership and expertise from the greater DC area to help lead those teams. 


Amy Glasscock  04:32

That's awesome. Well, I can't wait to learn more about that as it moves forward. So what are your sort of would you consider your major priorities or initiatives outside of that for this date?


Katie Savage  04:43

They're definitely related. So the first order of business for me is clarifying our products and services. I saw this that at the Department of Defense as well, you know, we we need to ensure that we have a good framework for what we build versus what we buy what needs to be custom versus, you know, what's a commercial off the shelf product that we can buy and do some light customization. And we need to think about owning products at the statewide level that scale to multiple agencies, as opposed to sort of owning these bespoke products that really good as you know, when it comes to legacy modernization, really Meyer is down because they're so custom and so bespoke to one agency. So the first goal for me is to clarify the product and service offerings that do it offers, such that they're repeatable, and scalable and transferable across agencies as much as possible. The second area of focus for me, is cybersecurity. You know, we do have an incredible team and the Office of Security Management. And I think there's a number of ways that we can mature that that team. So, you know, we first and foremost need to look at the security of our own products, making sure that security management and our debt and our IT ops team are working to ensure that the products that we push out, are completely secure. The second piece is how we work with our sister agencies and the other agencies in the state of Maryland to ensure that their attack surface their their environments are secure. And then you are increasingly thinking about how we partner with state and local agencies as well, you know, to the extent that they also represent, they represent it an attack surface that we need to be cognizant of and provide support around. So the second area set to mature and be more strategic with regard to our cybersecurity. And then the third is, is really this sort of what I'm calling a sort of startup phase of a product development. We, as I mentioned, we have pieces of that already that we offer, across the state in terms of portfolio management, product management, pm services, things like that. But I really want us to be an innovation partner to other state agencies. And this is really where my background and in DevOps comes in. And from the work I did in Chicago to the work I did at DOD, with the services, I really want to partner to understand what you know, what a specific business cases or business problem is, that is represented by the governor's office or another agency, partner together to come up with creative solutions that ultimately serve the residents of Maryland?


Alex Whitaker  07:26

Well, it sounds like the whole of state approach is really thriving in Maryland. So NASCIO always loves to hear that. So we found a quote from you that I want to read that I thought was really interesting. And you said, I think one of the most important lessons that I learned in undertaking crises in deploying teams in times of crisis is not to sacrifice user design. And sometimes that you have to go slow in order to go fast. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of user design in digital services? And really, what did you mean by going slow in order to go fast, 


Katie Savage  07:56

The problem that I have seen across my career, and now at all three levels of government, state, local and federal, is a agency or an executive will come to me in the in the development space and say, I believe this is my problem. And I would like you to build, you know, x is my problem, I think y is the solution. And nine times out of 10, the problem was not actually representative. So to give an example, one of the first projects I worked on in the city of Chicago was creating an underground mapping tool. And the issue that was represented was there's 30 different utilities and companies that needed access to the underground to the right of way below the streets of the city of Chicago. And the problem as it was initially represented was we need a digital map, you know, we need we need to move from paper to digital environment. But in spending time with the actual construction companies and utilities, what we realized it wasn't about digitizing all at once, it was the fact that every day, there's a construction incident in the city of Chicago. And it's about capturing that real time change to the map, whether it's paper or digital. And obviously we want to move towards digital. But the real problem was, you have a construction company that is making a change that doesn't get reflected in the rest of the system. And so that's where that totally totally reoriented how we thought about the problem, and therefore how we thought about the solution. So to me, it's really important that we slow down and really challenge we don't jump right into requirements gathering. But we really challenge what the business problem is with the business cases, before we jump to even requirements gathering or solution development. 


Amy Glasscock  09:43

That's great. Well, we are talking a lot about the user experience citizen experience, and things like that around NASCIO right now, so definitely wanted to ask you about that. So my next question is one that I haven't asked on the podcast before but I was really excited to see on your Twitter profile that you are a returned Peace Corps volunteer, which is something we share. And I would love to hear about your Peace Corps service and how that experience influenced you, or maybe what lessons you learned from your service that you still use today.  Sure, can I ask where you served? Yes. Indonesia, 2012 to 14.  Oh, wow. So I bet you had a totally different experience than I did. And I was in southern Africa in Malawi, from 2008 to 2010. And you probably noticed, then the I think Peace Corps was one of the original. So user centered design, they were they were using user centered design before it was called that, you might remember from your own experience, they had that that brown handbook, the participatory I think it's called participatory action and says handbook that they give out to Peace Corps volunteers. Exactly for the purpose of helping making sure that you understand a problem before you introduce a solution to a community. And the practices that are in there are things like a transect walk, so literally walking through your village, with, you know, accompanied by community members, where they're pointing out, you know, challenges that represent sort of what their what their day to day experience might be, that might lead to disease or lack of education. There's other activities in there around, you know, specific to women and girls and how we think about challenges to their education. So for me, Peace Corps, and and this is actually why I want to do it before I went into an urban planning career. So I think Peace Corps was, so the original proponents of of user centered design, and I did end up learning a ton about how we think about communities, how we think about users by actually living their experience, and living in a village for two years. So I think it's informed everything I've done in software, which sounds crazy, because you know, it didn't have electricity. You know, it didn't have running water or electricity even. But yet it's informed my entire software development and, you know, high tech career, but it really rooted me in in how we think about users and how we think about a lived experience.  Yeah, that's so interesting. And I think--I did have electricity and running water and even internet. But you know, we're part of a return Peace Corps group of folks here in Kentucky, and every, we have people that served in the early 60s through, you know, more recent years. And it is interesting how a lot of the our experiences are so universal at the same time. So some of the things that you're talking about, definitely applied to my experience, as well. And, you know, just giving you a different way of thinking about things and thinking about, what does the community really need instead of what is just our perception coming in thinking that they need? So that's really interesting. Thanks for sharing that. 


Katie Savage  12:58

And what resources are available? Yeah, I know, our director, for example, had served in the 60s. And he would, you know, give us a version of kids today, you know, I used to have to record my voice and mail it on a tape to, you know, for my family, and I didn't see them. And, you know, in my group, a number of people went home for the holidays, or, yeah, I was pre smartphone. But now I think most people communicate with their host country prior to coming, you know, via via phone. And so it also I think, is it helps you put in context, what resources are available to your community based on how the world is changing? And yeah, I think that's also important when it comes to technology. What are some of the technologies that can be introduced into a community such that you don't have to, you don't have to totally overhaul the entire infrastructure, but there are some, some applications or some use cases that that can be solved. And so I think it also gives you like a context for what we can introduce into those communities. 


Amy Glasscock  13:58

And I'll add that a lot of developing countries, you know, we kind of assumed that they're going to go in the same, do the same steps, though, that we've done technology wise, but they really can skip them. So like, even, you know, in Indonesia, when we were there in 2012, through 2014. And then we went back to visit and 2019, things had changed a lot. Everybody had smartphones, and there were apps for food delivery, even in the village and apps for a motorcycle or a car to come pick you up just like Uber, which would have made things a lot easier for us as volunteers, but also, you know, like the banking system is so easy and advanced. I mean, you it's so easy to transfer money to a bank where that's sort of clunky here in the US. People went straight to cell phones didn't really stop at landlines or didn't even maybe they have landlines in their homes. And so it is different and the technology works a little bit differently and skip some steps in a lot of cases. 


Katie Savage  14:59

Absolutely. way, and I think, I think it skipped some steps, like you said, and we have an opportunity for a mobile first generation to, to sort of test things out. And along those lines, because, you know, in, if you grew up, you know, maybe in the Western world, especially our generation, we sort of had technology, you know, we came of age alongside onsite technology. And it's also a good experience where, you know, if you're, if you're younger I was in the developing world. It's a good, it really forces you to thinking again, about what is the user's experience? Because it might be someone's first experience with the phone? And so you really have to, you're really forced to think about what is the kind of basic experience such that I can I can, you know, what is the community I'm working with? What are they going to be able to utilize? To the extent that technology is totally brand new. So it also I think, really forces the issue on you meeting people where they are. So the more we're talking about it, I just, I think it was so informative for for my career. 


Alex Whitaker  16:07

Now, that's all really fascinating to learn. And I, for one, have never even had a landline in my home since I've been an adult. So I can see how technology can just skip based on on needs. Exactly. Yeah. Me. I wonder if we know how many CIOs over the last couple of years have also served in the Peace Corps? And if you're, if you're a CIO, who has let us know, 


Katie Savage  16:27

I would love I would love to know that as well. 


Alex Whitaker  16:29

Yeah, maybe we can. Probably won't be an official NASCIO we can start working on so. Anyhow, we can't let you go that ask you a couple of fun questions about life outside of work and what we call the lightning round. Are you ready? 


Katie Savage  16:46

I am. I'm a little nervous. 


Alex Whitaker  16:47

But yeah, these are tough questions Amy.


Amy Glasscock  16:52

Okay, so which is better in the Summer Chicago, or Annapolis?


Katie Savage  16:57

I'm going to cheat a little bit, because I will say that Chicago is the best in early to late fall. And it's just beautiful that time of year, it's I used to always run the Chicago Marathon when I lived there. It's just this crisp fall weather. And Annapolis is is super cute downtown. And you know, brought my parents there recently, and we were out on the water. So I think I think each has a perfect season. I'll say that. 


Amy Glasscock  17:24

Yeah, pretty different.


Alex Whitaker  17:26

I've done the river, the river architecture tour in Chicago three times. Well, it's never not been raining in 30 degrees. So I'm just really desperate to do it on a beautiful day, maybe one day. 


Katie Savage  17:38

it is worth it.


Alex Whitaker  17:40

There's a reason I've done it three times even with bad weather. Okay, so what's a great piece of advice that you've received?


Katie Savage  17:47

I received recently and stepping into this job, the advice to make sure that people feel seen. And I think about that a lot, especially coming in to never worked in state government before my team is new to me. And to make sure that the team really feels seen and understood. Even even new to the role, make sure I take the time to understand why things were done a certain way doesn't mean that I can't change them or won't change them. But to really make sure that people feel seen and understood and that they're their practices and methodologies and reasons for doing things that I have the context around that. So I try and keep that top of mine. Because there are a lot of big changes that I want to make the state and I'm really excited and really appreciate the governor support and, and making changes. But I also want to make sure that my team and the other agencies feel seen and heard and understood for the reasons that they've created for the infrastructure that we currently have in place and the practices that are currently being promulgated across the state. 


Amy Glasscock  18:54

That's great. So what is your least favorite genre of music? We've asked people in the past what kind of music they like so I'm flipping it a little What is your least favorite genre of music? 


Katie Savage  19:04

So this one was an easy one for me and I hate jam bands like, really hate them. I know. I know. Like, I mean, I know I will irk a lot of people with this...


Amy Glasscock  19:18

I probably talked about Phish a lot on this podcast.


Katie Savage  19:23

Oh, no, no, 


Amy Glasscock  19:24

but it is a common I've dealt with it plenty. So no offense taken!


Katie Savage  19:29

You know, when my husband and I on our first date, we had this we had this conversation and I said that I just he's really into music and I thought like well I can't stand Wilco and and from Chicago like I should. I should but it's just it's just not my my dream. And so then we I was actually talking with him about this this morning and I said is would you say Wilco is  a jam band? So then we're going back and forth about whether or not it's a jam band but directionally I would say that's that's just not my my scene which probably says a lot about my psychology and Need for structure?


Amy Glasscock  20:03

Well, you're definitely not alone in that. So most people on staff are like, Oh, it's so nice of you to go to the shows with your husband. I'm like, Well, I mean, I like it, too. All right, Katie. Well, thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule, which I know must be busy to join us today on the podcast, I really appreciate it. 


Katie Savage  20:25

No, this is really fun. And I really appreciate being part of the NASCIO community I didn't know before stepping into the role that this this community existed. And everyone has been so wonderful and welcoming. So it's great to know that this community of people across the US that are supporting me, so thanks for having me on and everything that you guys do. 


Alex Whitaker  20:46

Thank you. 


Amy Glasscock  20:46

Yeah, absolutely. We're happy to have you in the community and in the family.  Thanks again for listening to macro voices. NASCIO voices is a production of the National Association of State chief information officers or NASCIO.


Alex Whitaker  20:59

And if you liked this episode, please rate review and subscribe. We look forward to seeing some of you at the upcoming Leadership Summit in California in a couple of weeks. 


Amy Glasscock  21:06

Can't wait! talk to you next time.