A lot of times, effective leadership entails stepping out of the limelight and away from all the glamor to be able to focus on building the best foundation for your organization to work efficiently. Kimberly Bailey, the Chief Information Officer for the City of Memphis, Tennessee, is such a great leader. She has been able to lead her team successfully, even in a situation where everybody is forced to make a radical shift in the way they work. 

Kimberly is a model for the modern CIO – communicative, educative, and customer service oriented. She joins Abhijit Verekar on the show to talk about the modern CIO’s role and what the future has in store for it. For her, it’s not always about the technology; everything goes back to being brilliant at the basics, building a strong foundation, and letting the pooled talents of the team do the rest.

AV: My guest is Kimberly Bailey. She is the Chief Information Officer at the City of Memphis, Tennessee. Kimberly, welcome to the show. I’m thrilled to have you. 

KB: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here with you.

AV: Looking at your profile, Kimberly, you’ve had an unusual rise to the CIO position and it’s fascinating. Can you tell us more about how you got to the CIO position? 

KB: Interestingly enough, my first internship with the City of Memphis in 1995 when I graduated from college was in the Information Systems Department with the city. I’ve had a lengthy career and I lived in another city. I came back and I was the supervisor for the information office for the HR Department. I was doing IT for HR. Ironically in 2019, for about seven to eight months, I was Interim Operations Manager. I took on a huge role. I was exposed to a lot of different projects. I helped with the budget and I got a lot more divisional exposure working with all of our division chiefs and directors. This opportunity came up in November of 2019. I was grateful to have the opportunity to get back primarily in IT at a much higher level. I’ve been over here in the IS Division since November and officially named the CIO in January, 2020. It has been a fast-paced few months, but it’s a great team and I’m excited to be here.

AV: That’s such a great story. Tell us a little bit more about HR to CIO. I’m assuming you were supporting a large HRIS. Is that how you fit into HR? 

KB: I’ve always done HRIS. My first jobs out of college were always in HRIS even though I had an IT background, I always landed on the HR teams. Coming back to Memphis and to the City of Memphis, this opportunity opened up and I thought it was a great way to do a familiar type of job but in a different setting. Governments don’t always have the most advanced technology. I saw a lot of opportunities there to take some of my corporate knowledge and help implement it here. Some things took a fast pace. My exposure was more than what I even thought would happen in a short period of time.

Those times as the Interim Operations Manager where I was still doing the IT portion but more of the business behind the HR function in the City of Memphis. It prepared me for this amazing opportunity that I have now. It’s a good thing to have that HR background because I recognized the human side. I try to make sure I implement that with the employees on a regular basis especially with what we’re dealing with now. They don’t always need you to check on the work. Sometimes you need to check on them. I’ve had that exposure from that HR background, it’s a great transition and things are going well.

AV: I see that in your LinkedIn posts. You’re doing some quite different things. Every day, you guys have a Coffee Club and you’re sharing pictures of your puppies and it’s really cute. It goes back to what you said, you need to check on them, not necessarily the work because you’re trusting professionals to do their job. 

KB: You want to make sure people are okay. It’s uncertain now. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, but we have a great team work-wise. You want to make sure that the well-being of the employees is being checked on. I know that we’re doing a great job and that everybody is appreciative of some of the things that we’re doing here outside of the box. We get a lot of work done. Sometimes people see the fun part, but it’s a lot of work going on to make sure the City of Memphis continues to run at a supreme level during this time.

AV: Kimberly, you’re at the forefront of technology in one of the largest American cities. Your job is new, but the CIO’s role has changed enough that it doesn’t necessarily focus so much on tech nowadays but you’ve been charged with being innovative and bringing new ideas to the city. What is your definition of innovation and how does that apply to your staff, the city staff, or the citizens of Memphis?

KB: Overall, it’s about efficiency for us. We have a lot of layers in some of our processes and sometimes we have to take a step back to see how we can do things better and what we can do to help us to move some of these processes along. Innovation is a huge part for us but we have a tiered approach to how we get there. Innovation is about us making sure our employees, as well as our citizens, understand that we are trying to do the best job at the highest level by looking at our software, our technologies, and all of the pieces that bring it together and we want to do it well. I always challenge my team with the question, “Do you want to get it done, or do you want to do it well?” The innovation piece helps us to do it well. We take a look at that from many different aspects and it is a key, but we have to focus on multilayers in that. One of my primaries is our infrastructure. In order to make our innovation great, we have to make sure our infrastructure is intact.

AV: What that brings to the table is a lot of noise. You look at technology in the market and there’s so much going on. How many emails do you get per day saying, “We can help you with this COVID thing?” How do you cut through the noise and identify things that are beneficial or truly innovative? 

KB: I get a lot of emails and saying “a lot” is probably an understatement. Everyone has a product that they feel will benefit us. I do read all of my emails but I’m not a big fan of having redundancy in a lot of what we purchase. I like to make sure I’m fully utilizing the software packages and things that we already have in place. I read all of the emails but the best way for me to filter through is I have seven great managers who are over different departments or divisions within the IS area. I trust their expertise. I’ll send a lot of those emails to them and say, “I got this. Let me know what you think and if this is something that will be beneficial so that I don’t have to weed through it all because it is so much.” If I get a lot of security things, I’ll forward it to our security manager if it’s something of interest. It’s the same with applications, web development, GIS or project management. I try to let them handle their areas because if I try to pitch something for everything that I get, that will be what I’ll be doing all day, every day because I get tons of emails every day. I try to trust their expertise and get their feedback. I want engaged and involved managers. If I see something interesting, I like to get their feedback on it.

AV: Do you think that having a good team and making sure that you can trust their judgment is one of the foundations of a viable long-term strategy for a government IT Department? 

KB: You have to have a good team there. We have more than 8,000 City of Memphis employees. We support the entire City of Memphis. There is no way you could do it without having trusted partners. I look at my managers as partners in this space. A lot of times they’re doing their own research as well as I am. I want their expertise. I want to make sure that we’re making smart purchases. I want to make sure that whatever the tools that they have, they feel like they can operate at the highest efficiency. If they feel like they have tools that aren’t doing the job, let’s sit down and talk about it and see how we can become better in that area. There’s no way that I could do this job by myself. I have a great team and they have great teams under them. That is the only way we will be able to do this especially in this unprecedented time where things took a huge unpredictable shift. We all stepped up to the occasion and no one has missed the beat. It’s important. That is one of the infrastructure things. You have to build your team.

AV: You’re in your CIO position, not only because of your technical skills, but also you’re seen as a person of vision and you’ve had other management positions. You have ideas and you interface with the executives and the Mayor’s Office. That vision needs to be packaged into language that our most technical people might understand. If somebody is so into their craft that they don’t understand the larger vision, what techniques do you use to translate that? 

KB: One is communicating and being transparent. When we have to take on a different roadmap than what we set out and there’s a different vision from our senior leadership, I communicate that. I try to get their feedback. We meet regularly now especially since a lot of the team is remote. We talk about any of those projects, any things that’s on the roadmap, any bright ideas. I wake up with bright ideas almost every day. I can’t execute anything if I keep it to myself. We sit down and we talk about it. The good part about the career that I’ve had is I’ve worked in each one of their areas. I’ve been in the data center. I’ve helped this person. I’ve been part of some security things. I’ve been a project manager. I’ve done all these things so I can have meaningful conversations with them. Can I do what they’re doing in every aspect? 

No and that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to make sure they can, but I can have that conversation because I’m familiar with every area that I’m over now, even down to the finance piece. That piece helps because it’s relatable and we can speak the same language. It doesn’t get too convoluted and they understand that I’m coming from the best space when we have to pivot and when we have to execute a higher vision than even my own.

AV: In a lot of cities that we work for, we see that there is a strong CIO, a strong central IT or IS organization. I bet in a city as large as Memphis with 8,000 employees, you’re dealing with some shadow IT in other departments. How do you have this organized? 

KB: In public safety, they have their own IS organization within their division. What I set out to do when I first became appointed over to this area is I had one-on-ones with every single division chief and/or director or deputy director. I called it a roadshow of my own. I had a meeting with every single one and I wanted to understand what their divisional vision was. What were their expectations from the IS Division? What is it that they needed from us that they felt like they weren’t getting? Just having those candid conversations. When it comes to working cross-functionally with those shadow IS areas, it has been easy and the partnerships have been great. Everyone has been receptive because they understood the place that I was coming from. I’m about moving us forward and I know that we can do it better together. Those divisional meetings set the stage for how I wanted us to work together.

AV: During this pandemic, while you are all working remotely, I assume for the most part – and some of our other clients have faced several challenges – purchasing IT stuff has been especially challenging because they didn’t expect to be working from home overnight. One fine Friday we get a phone call saying, “We need our courtroom set up for Monday morning to go virtual.” How did you deal with that?

KB: Ironically, we have a local partner who is a reseller for IT equipment. I did a site visit at their location a week before this whole pandemic changed the structure of how we work. I had known this organization and the people there for one week. When we got the notification that we were going to not have people come into the office, being a government entity, everybody is used to being here. Everybody is used to paper and has a desktop. I reached out to this company with the help of my operations manager because she and I did the tour and they were helpful. He said, “Whatever you need.” I told him what I needed and they delivered what we needed because we were having trouble getting hardware from overseas and we’ve been waiting on some equipment for months.

We were able to get equipment in a day or two and it was all because of that one meeting with this particular company the week before. I am grateful because partnerships and networking make the difference. Sometimes you have to take the time out. Trust me, I was busy the first time we were supposed to meet with this company and it was raining. I was like, “I don’t want to go.” We rescheduled the meeting and we went. We were blown away by the company itself and didn’t realize all of the other arms that they dealt in. It was amazing and they haven’t been a trusted partner and will always be going forward because they helped us to step up to the plate in a very short period of time. Networking and building good relationships is the thing that helps us all succeed.

AV: That’s what it comes down to eventually. Your partner probably wasn’t selling anything that any other partner couldn’t have sold, but your forethought and getting ready in anticipation of an event like this helps tremendously. Kimberly, there are a lot of keywords that get thrown around in our industry, not to mention the acronyms. It’s alphabet soup. One of the things that get talked about and written about a lot is the term smart city. What does that mean to you? 

KB: For me, it’s being data-driven and that’s our focus in being a smart city. We want our data to drive our decisions. We want it to be transparent data so that our employees and citizens can understand what’s going on in some of the decisions that are being made because we’re driving things based on the data. There are a lot of ways to get there. A lot of smart city efforts were already being done before I took on this role and we’re trying to be an extension of that. 

For me, it’s the data. The data helps us make decisions and see trends. It helps us speak to some of our needs. We want that same transparency for the citizens when decisions are made. We add new programs or we do different things as a whole or the Mayor has some initiatives. We want them to understand where it’s coming from and the foundation of it is the data.

AV: Is Memphis part of open data on the website? With a lot of data collection and use, we open ourselves up to attacks, cybersecurity, and ransomware. What are your thoughts on how it’s being handled not just in Memphis but in the industry? What do you see coming down that we’re going to have to face in the next two to five years? 

KB: That’s an unpredictable area and you have to be ready for what you don’t know. When I first got over here, we did a 90-day security assessment and audit with an outside company to sit with our security team, help them with some best practices, scan our network and give them some better ways of anticipating what you don’t know. That partnership also was valuable for us, so that 90-day assessment helps. We took that assessment, their reports, some of the ways that they did things, and we’ve implemented those going forward. We never know what’s going to pop up. Why we can only do a call on audio is because we got a lot of information about Zoom and some things that were happening in other cities. My security manager said we’re going to block it because we’re trying to be as proactive as possible.

Everything pops up differently every day. I feel like I have a great security team and they are always on top of it.

They’re always on the cutting edge and they are in contact with bigger cities like Chicago, Dallas, and D.C. When you can pick up some best practices from some of those bigger areas and implement them within your own city, it helps you stay ahead. Education, we’re working on some cybersecurity on compliance training with our employees so that they can understand being remote how the vulnerability opens up when you’re using your own Wi-Fi and things of that nature. We are trying to make sure education and information are how we lead and trying to make sure we’re on the cutting edge of what is happening. With this, there’s something new every day. Someone is somewhere creating something new every day. We try to be mindful of it and do what we can as best as we can from a proactive stance.

AV: You touched on something that’s critical, which is education. You can put the best equipment and software and someone opens an email they shouldn’t be opening. That’s it. Kudos to you for putting that on top of everything else.

KB: Everything doesn’t always need a hard technology solution. Sometimes it just needs a little bit of information. In our fields, if something comes outside of the organization, there’s a banner that says, “This email is from outside. Be mindful.” It’s little things like that, that we want to highlight. It’s not always about spending a lot of money to make sure that you can do certain things because if people are not aware, then it doesn’t matter what you spend, you’re going to still be at risk. We try to mitigate our risks with information, education and training.

AV: It goes back to our first conversation. It’s not always about technology, it’s about the holistic view of how technology is used to benefit your organization. In the case of municipalities in large cities, it’s citizens. Kimberly, what do you have going on that’s most impactful now? I’m sure that the pandemic is top of mind, but before everything changed, what are some of the large projects you had underway?

KB: We are embarking upon a new telephone system implementation. We’re going cloud-based. We have the old PBX system. I’m not ashamed to say it, but we have it. We’re looking at going cloud-based with it. We’re looking at some time and attendance solutions. Electronic signature was not something that was familiar for us because we’re used to touching and signing the paper. We’re putting in some electronic signature solution. A lot of it got a fast track with COVID-19. Making sure that our users understand being mobile, how to VPN and remote into their system. It has been a lot of education. We always had Microsoft Teams, but we weren’t using it because we meet in person.

We cut the switch on immediately. The majority of the people we cut it on for it didn’t know what to do. We were quickly putting job aids and videos together, things of that nature. It sounds hectic but it is fun to figure out what lane we are chasing each day but that’s a part of it. When you have the technology, I’m a firm believer in “cut the switch” and we’ll figure it out once we cut it on. That’s what we’ve done. Now everybody is on teams and it’s been amazing what this pandemic has done for us and what it will continue to do. I equate it to somewhat how things never went back to being the same after 9/11. I don’t think some things will go back to being the same after this. I think there will be a new normal and we will be able to get some things done that we were a little slower about that we had to fast track because of this state. It’s exciting and hectic all at the same time.

AV: It sure is. I still wonder, it’s been a while since the lockdowns have happened and I’m fascinated by how quickly something like video conferencing became the norm. It’s been around for many years and people didn’t want to use it. All of a sudden, you’re IM-ing and you’re meeting on video. I like it and I’m a fan. I do miss shaking hands. Someday, hopefully they’ll come back. 

KB: It will come back. We have the ability to adapt to more than we believe when things happen. I’ve always challenged every division director and chief as we work together to be flexible with us in some of the ways that we do things. This has pushed our flexibility.

AV: Some things may not go back to being how they used to, which is fine. There’s something you touched on which is your time and attendance project. We’ve been part of many and there have been some that have not gone well, primarily because the policies weren’t agreed upon. You can agree on a system and during implementation, departments can’t agree on how you want to account for smoke breaks or coffee breaks? There’s a fire department that says, “We do 25-hour days.” True story, I’ve come across that and then the system can’t handle it. What has been your approach to that particular project and setting up policies and procedures before you move on to implementation?

KB: We’ve been down this road before and we weren’t successful with it. What we are hoping to do this time is to have more of the right feedback at the table. A lot of times we make decisions and then we realize that the system couldn’t handle it or the division is not amenable to how we’re approaching it. There should be more discovery and scope meetings before you get to the actual implementation piece. I’m hoping to do that more so that we can iron out a lot of the questions where we’re going to have to make the changes. When I have spoken about this time and attendance system, I’ve told everyone that a system is only designed to do so much. When we have all of these different layers to our processes and policies, it may not be able to handle it. It’s time to do some policy re-engineering, looking at it from a different perspective, and making sure that we’re not trying to put something square in something round. Overall, the system is of value to us and we don’t want to make things so complex that we never get to the end. Policy re-engineering will be primary and having the right individuals at the table to speak on their division’s behalf will be key to us.

AV: Also the ability and willingness to change. These policies have been in place for many years and if the pandemic has taught us something, one of my takeaways is that change can be instant. It can be overnight and we can do it. That’s a great approach. It sounds like your role as a CIO, CTO, CDO or whatever you call it, changed from historically what I like to call the blinking lights in the data center to talking to people about policies and how they can change and benefit the organization. How do you see your role evolving over the next few years? 

KB: I have a three-tier approach. I’m looking at infrastructure, implementations then our innovation. What I found when I came into this division was that we needed to focus on some of the foundational things. In this role, I have to be able to step back from what may be the glamorous part of the job and put in a lot of smart technology and AI and see the basic needs of what the employees and the team needs. Once you can tackle that first, then you have a lot more cooperation with where you’re trying to go. We can then look at a lot of the bigger pieces. I’m trying to do what our mayor says a lot, “Be brilliant at the basics in its first.”

Our mayor is a smart man and he has a humanistic approach to how he leads and I admire that. Being brilliant at the basics is first for me. If I can tackle that, then we can start looking at what this role will evolve into. I’ll always be able to put projects and initiatives either in the infrastructure implementation or innovation bucket. It’ll change over time the percentage there. We have to be able to merge the human side and the tech side together to get more things done. That’s one of my goals and what I focus on every day. If I can make sure that the team has what they need to be successful, then as the vision changes with administrations, how the city changes, pandemics, and things come upon us, then I have the right foundation to tackle any task that we come across.

AV: That’s brilliantly said. When you put it that way, you can also attract a lot of new talent to the city or the government in general. We tend not to be good at marketing ourselves as the government sector. What you said, if you were to put it out there on a job board, there will be a lot of people wanting to work with you. One of your roles as the CIO is to be protective of the infrastructure in the city to be risk-averse, but at the same time, you need to innovate and take some risks. How do you find the balance?

KB: I think about everything before I jump into it. My biggest thing to myself is, let me think about it. We want to have an innovative space. We want to do all of the sleek and amazing things. We have some great things with Google and they’re doing some good things. You still have to compartmentalize it and see what is important. We have some basic needs within the City of Memphis that I’ve spoken to our senior leaders that if we can address this, then we can do this. We’re doing a lot with our fiber reach throughout the city and trying to bring connectivity to some of our underserved areas. All of that is a part of it and it is what we do. I’m a firm believer that the house that you live in has to be stable and you can’t start working on your neighbor’s house and have it. I’m keenly focused on making sure now and within these first several months that our house is in order and that we have what we need to do some of those things.

We dabble in it all. It changes the percentage of the time that we’re dabbling in it. I have the dynamic GIS team and they’re doing a lot more on the innovative side. When it came to COVID-19, they had to do some GIS work infrastructurally to make sure we understood where contact tracing needed to happen and things of that nature. I have the ability to let them fly but when it’s time to come back and do the basics then they’re more than willing because they have that space to evolve. Our web development team is amazing and they do some amazing things, but our COVID-19 team needed some immediate websites to get information out. They put in the same amount of excellence if they had done it for a Google-type initiative. It’s a balance and they understand it because I try to be clear.

AV: Does the city have an overarching technology plan that you’ve mapped out the investments you want to make over the next several years? How do you prioritize projects? 

KB: Over the next several years, it goes back to my three tiers: infrastructure, implementations, and innovation. 

After I did all of those roadshows, I know from my one-on-one standpoint what the divisions are asking for, what they’re craving, and what they need. I have those divided out into those various buckets. We have an understanding of what we can do and what we can’t do. Being in government, you’re always budget-driven. You can have great ideas, but if the budget isn’t there, then you’re going to have to make adjustments. Everybody wants something great or they hear about something and they want it. We try to look at it to see if we can create that internally or what that looks like overarching. I’m huge on enterprise solutions.

I’m not a proponent for every division having a different solution for the same problem. I prefer enterprise solutions. We can support those better. Sometimes, it’s a selling point. I have to sell it if someone’s not familiar with it in their area. The benefit of having more enterprise solutions helps us from our IT perspective to support it better. It helps us from having many different layers. If we can sell the benefits of it, then it makes it a lot better. Being more enterprise in our solutions and bucketing what everybody wants, knowing that we hear them because we want people to know that we hear you and your requests have not gone ignored. It falls in this particular bucket. If we’re focusing on infrastructure but what you need is a huge implementation, then we try to prioritize it. I’m an advocate of having a project manager on every project. I don’t even care how small it is because they help keep it centralized. They keep control of the scope, the costs and any changes.

That’s a different way of operating around here. We haven’t always done that for every project, but I’m trying to push that. That helps me when I have my project managers overseeing it and I know what buckets that we’re putting this particular ask in or this particular innovative thing. We have a better way of making things run smoothly. That’s my approach. It’s not hard, it’s really clear and everybody gets it across the organization. We want to do it all. Budgetary-wise we know we can’t but this is where you fall and this is what we’re going to do to help you get there. If there’s something we can do in the interim to help you with that solution, we can and don’t self-procure. In every meeting with every division, we don’t want you to go and self-procure a solution for yourself. We want to help you with that because enterprise solutions are the way that we’re trying to go. 

AV: It’s such a key point. If people have budgets and they can spend under $5,000 for anything they want, especially with Software as a Service, you could get into a lot of trouble with that because you sign up for something that’s $5 a month and IT doesn’t know about it until they need support.

KB: Until the contract renews and now it’s $125,000, we’re like, “We didn’t even know this was on the network.” We have some guidance in place and we work with our legal department. When legal and procurement get a contract from another division, we have a handshake. They send it to me and say, “Are you all okay with that?” We have a bidding process. The partnership is great across the division. You can’t do anything unless you’re all working together, especially with your legal and procurement side. You have to do that with the divisions otherwise things get totally out of hand. It’s good now.

AV: It’s such a critical point. Kudos to you. We work with a lot of clients that we recommend they do that. Procurement is the gatekeeper for any county or city dollars going out. If it’s IT dollars, then IT needs to be involved in making that decision or vetting it saying, “This is okay. Let them do it.”

KB: That’s what we do. We have a vetting like guidance and we will come back and say, “We’re good with this.” I can come back and say approved. If we’re not, then we need to sit down and talk about what we can get approved for you or what is a better option. You have to be in communication with everyone. You can’t do it alone.

AV: Those are the keywords: communication, clarity in thought, customer service and letting people know you’re hearing them. That’s the foundation of a great CIO. Kimberly, thank you for being on the show. Is there anything else you want to cover we haven’t talked about? 

KB: This was great. I appreciate it. You have a new fan. I definitely like what you’re doing. I like the opportunity to always brag about where I work and what I do. The great City of Memphis, Tennessee, we are more than barbecue.

AV: One of my favorite things about Memphis, outside of barbecue and Beale Street, is the Bass Pro Shop. What a great place.

KB: We have some great things going on in Memphis. We’re trying to make sure, in the words of our mayor, that we are brilliant at the basics and that everybody can see that Memphis has momentum.

AV: Kimberly, thank you for joining us. I hope to see you again in person and shake your hand someday. 

KB: You have a great one and be safe out here.

AV: You too. Thank you, Kimberly. 

About Kimberly Bailey

Kimberly M. Bailey lives in Memphis, Tennessee as the Chief Information Officer for the City of Memphis. She is an experienced leader with a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and services industry, skilled in Team Building, Public Speaking, Team Facilitation, and Project Management.

She is a strong communication professional with a Master’s degree focused in Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services from Bellevue University.

Request Information

Contact us to discuss your current workflow
and infrastructure needs.