Innovation is everywhere. However, it’s a word that’s often used in the wrong connotations. For Nicole Raimundo, the Chief Information Officer at the town of Cary, North Carolina, innovation is all about automating processes and delivering services better.

On today’s podcast, Nicole joins Abhijit Verekar to share how she found herself being the CIO of the town of Cary. She also shares how they’re implementing and leveraging IoT technologies in the public sector and keeping the town and their networks secure from anything malicious on the internet.

AV: My guest is Nicole Raimundo from the Town of Cary, North Carolina. She is the CIO for the town. We’re thrilled to have her on the show. Nicole, welcome.

NR: Thank you for having me.

AV: Tell me your personal journey. How do you find yourself being the CIO of the Town of Cary?

NR: I worked in the private sector for a long time. I relocated from Boston down to North Carolina and I decided to take a change and work for the public sector. I worked over at the City of Raleigh for several years. The opportunity came up to be CIO in Cary and I took that, and it will be five years next month.

AV: I follow you on LinkedIn. For the size of the city, you guys are doing so much in terms of “smart city” stuff and IOT or leveraging new technologies. Innovation is everywhere. It’s a word that’s often used or misused or used in wrong connotations. What does it mean to you and how does it translate into your services to the citizens of Cary?

NR: When I think about it, it’s not always these big changes that people think about when they think about innovation and startups with companies. 

For us, it’s about how we deliver services better. How can we automate processes? For the town, the big focus is on community, on our citizens and how we can meet or exceed their expectations. It’s thinking about what that looks like, but in the future and having collaboration internally, which is amazing. For us, we’ve got great collaboration and thinking about how we can keep Cary the place that everybody wants to come, live, work and certainly play.

AV: As a CIO, you’re probably looking at a lot of technology every day. You’ve been pitched a lot of stuff, especially being on the cutting edge in many ways. How do you manage to cut through the noise and big things that are most valuable to you and to the town?

NR: Cary is much like any other municipality: we have lots of siloed applications. I always say that folks that sell government technology are very good at marketing to each sector in government. Public works will have a work order system for public work as well or another department in our organization. It was for us to think about changing that model. When you talked about cutting through the noise, we started to look at platforms as opposed to all these individual siloed applications. How can we leverage a platform strategy that will drive us into the future, allowing us to eliminate all these siloed applications? Be able to share data, which ultimately is going to be able to make us deliver better services, but be able to look at things and we might want to stop and change.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the data. The other great thing for Cary is its location. We are right outside of Research Triangle Park, where there are lots of companies that are willing to help us sift through some of the noise as well as our educational institutions. When these folks at these companies live in Cary, they also have a vested interest in services. 

We’ve got a great relationship partnering with organizations that truly help us think through what today and the future looks like, so that we can cut through some of the noise and buzz words. We’re situated well and that’s a benefit to us, but it is about picking some strong partners that can help you do that.

AV: Pretty much, you’ve got everyone at your beck and call: the universities, the larger companies and technology, they have a lot of presence in the Triangle. You mentioned silos and how every department had their own systems, and that’s not unique to Cary. You worked with other cities or at least one other city where it’s very true and we see that all the time. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease and the best marketers get the projects. When you first got there, did you create some formal or informal strategy that was bought in by everybody and helped you tear those silos down?

NR: You walk into an organization and nobody ever tells you what it’s like in an interview. Cary is great and wonderful. You come in, you realize, you look at the application portfolio and that was one of the first things that we needed to get our arms around was in all of these applications. Cary is very fortunate that it’s a centralized IT. We can look at those, then you do some simple math. You look at the number of employees, the talent and the skillset and you keep saying, “If they keep purchasing all of these things every year, there’s no way we can manage it all.” There are some fundamentals of there’s no way human capacity can manage them all. Never mind the strategic approach of wanting to share data across all security.

The first thing that we’d looked at was that breadth of applications, then we started looking at, “Where do we have duplicates?” Things that are similar. I always say, “A work order is a work order.” Most applications are some form of workflow and so trying to chip away at those, and we’ve done a great job in moving to a platform, but the other piece to this is you can’t be successful without the culture that supports that. That often is much more of a challenge to change than the technical implementation of solutions, because you have to get buy-in from all of these departments too to imagine what something would look like as opposed to something that’s already off the shelf. Rebuilt out specific to their needs.

We’ve done a lot of work around that of inclusion, running, innovation, sessions. I hate to call them hackathons because they were more like brainstorming sessions, making sure that our departments understood that we needed them, that as much as their technology projects, the business needs to provide all the input and we want their ideas. We spend a lot of time on the culture shift of inclusion and have steering committees that are representations of every department to break down those walls. Once you’re able to do that, it makes the purchasing of platforms and strategies to implement much easier, but it is a challenge for sure.

AV: These aren’t tech projects; any technology will do what you ask it to do. You need to define “the it.” Hackathon isn’t a great word, it’s got a negative connotation. I’m picturing nerds sitting around looking at keyboards, but it is your department heads and line workers talking to you about, “How do I want to do business better?” The other point you made is they don’t always know what’s out there. If you’ve been doing something the same way for 30 years using the same systems, sometimes you don’t know what’s out there. It’s important for them to be educated.

NR: We say that all the time there is a lot of, “You don’t know what you don’t know,” until we can share that information with them. We’re very fortunate that the culture and the organization is adaptive. We’ve had a change in town manager who came in about a year after me who pushes that culture as well and pushes people to think about how to do services better and how to change. We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way. We’re way past that point and encouraging people to think differently which is important. I think about the time that we’re going through and our ability to think differently about how we do services or how we’ll provide services in the future, we’re doing well in that area. I don’t know what that would’ve looked like if we hadn’t gone through all of this culture and technology shifts.

AV: I don’t know if I’ve come across anyone else doing drive through IT services. Tell us a little more about that.

NR: That goes to our ability to think about how we are going to manage these services or how do we help our own people? We, like everybody else, literally every Friday afternoon, all company-wide email. You’re going to work Monday but take your laptop home with you. Everyone did, but municipalities don’t work remotely. We’re not a company that has a remote workforce. People that work from home two or three days a week, it’s not how we were. That alone is a shift and in that, I don’t think folks thought about everything that they would need to be successful.

If you think about our planners, they’re looking at huge plots of redevelopment and they need to look at the design of what that looks like for permits, inspections and plan reviews, they can’t do that on their laptop. Set up a scheduling system where we would go because no one else was allowed in town for obvious reasons. They retrieved their monitors and their setup. Give them a sheet that explains to them how to set it up. We’ll walk it through with them when they get home, but we scheduled for them to come and drive through, and literally we would drop stuff off inside of people’s cars, as well as any type of tech services that they need that we couldn’t do remotely.

People forget lots of folks who are working from home, just even headsets. All these little things that you don’t think about and we’ve been able to continue that service, which has been important. We think about that service from an external citizen facing. Meaning, it was great for us citizens, but there are things that we could do, whether it’s the police departments or people coming and asking for records. “You can’t come into the station today, but we certainly can meet you at the curbside.” How do we look at scheduling and curbside delivery options.

AV: It’s fascinating how, on the one hand, we’ve gone from, “I’m never going to do an electronic meeting because I want to look in the eyeball,” to overnight adopting 20-year-old technology. Video conferencing isn’t new, but overnight, it’s the thing. I’m not complaining. You’re right, government is not used to working from home. I was in a meeting where they were like, “Maybe we’ll keep doing this because it works.” In our own shop, in the private sector, we hired some people early or mid-2019, straight out of college and they were like, “Can we now work from home one or two days?” I was like, “No. We have an office. Come in.” Now, they’re all working from home, laughing at me.

NR: That’s been amazing to see that you bring up the whole video conferences, collaboration tools, whatever your flavor is that you use, but it has been amazing to watch the adoption of something that you’ve never had to push out. There’s no marketing plan, you didn’t have to roll this thing out. It was like, “We’re on it.” The adoption of it has been incredible to watch.

Case in point is the adoption of Zoom. When you talk about us being system agnostic, that anything can work for the thing that you’re trying to do, Zoom came out of nowhere. Microsoft Teams, Google has been around offering free services and why Zoom? It’s because the buzz was created. Here we are, everyone’s using Zoom. Your organization has a CIO and a CTO. 

AV: Can you tell us a little bit about the differences and responsibilities for those roles?

NR: My focus is on our strategy direction. Our CTO, Peter Kennedy, helps me to think through the technical components of it. He knows the ins and outs of the technical components of whether it’s the cloud or whatever architecture looks like. He also acts as our person that oversees the architecture design of our organizations and helps me facilitate the implementation of it.

AV: You guys at Cary are at the forefront in a lot of ways on smart city initiatives, using sensors and IOT in different fields. Can you tell us a little bit about how you define this key buzzword? You find it in every magazine you open. In my mind, when I look at things that you post, you’re doing it right. You’re not taking the buzzword and making it, “Find the sky,” you’re actually doing things. Tell me how you think about smart cities and how you made the transition from a cool buzzword reality.

NR: Everyone knows it’s my least favorite word to call it smart cities. There is an assumption that cities weren’t smart before. We use the word around Connected Community because we think about it as connecting our community, which means much more than technology. It means connecting our people, our services, our data applications. It took us a long time to figure out how to get it right and we did it right. I would say probably about four years ago, it was a buzzword. We knew that this was going to be the future. You could see the writing on the wall that this was going to take off. We spent a lot of time working with partners. We looked at using nonprofits and startups.

We partnered with a large technology company. We formed almost this group of advisors that could help us think through this because it was brand new to everyone. We ultimately decided to leverage our campus. Our town hall campus is representative of everything that we have in the town. From lights, police stations, data centers, trash, or whatever you think about is there on a smaller scale. It also gave us a playground area where we could figure these things out. We used that and leveraged with different organizations to not test out and learn from it was more important than whatever the application is. Meaning we put in parking sensors and I call them the hockey pucks because they’re the ones that go in the ground.

We partnered with Bayer Crop Science to put in IOT rat traps. Are we ever going to deploy those? No. Did we learn a lot from it? Yes. We have a company that moved from Silicon Valley to Cary, allowed them to use our laboratory as their showcase for some lighting controls. Now that we’ve got multiple types of applications, what does that look like? What does it look like from the tools that we use internally? How do we learn from that? We’ve learned we don’t want to put the hockey pucks in the ground because they’re not sustainable. At the end of the day, what we learned was that everything needs to be an open API.

We needed things to be on platforms because every one of these solutions has its own dashboard. They’re all self-contained and that’s not what we wanted. We learned to make sure that we were asking the right questions and figuring out, what are the right platforms that we can use to leverage that we can ingest this data and then send that data to wherever we wanted? Whether it was an open data portal or to another application and learned what we needed from that point of view. That learning was smart or we would have ended up managing a whole bunch of siloed applications, trying to figure out how to get data in and out. It gave us the ability to test some of these applications. Even the large companies we were working with, they’re still developing their IOT suite of tools as well.

It was a great partnership for them because they’re learning from us as much as we’re learning from them. For us, that has probably been the best thing that we ever did instead of go out and deploy. We spent a lot of time using this testing facility. Not only did it help, that’s figuring out what we needed to do, make sure we’re making smart decisions, but it got us buy-in with the organization as well. It was something they could see. We could share stuff from our campus with them. They could test it out with us. It also got us buying in with our council who’s ultimately going to sign off on any recommendations of purchases that we have because they saw that we were doing this the right way. We weren’t going to go out and say, “We’re going to do smart parking. We’re going to deploy.” Those are some things that I recommend folks, you get to start to show the value before you go out and deploy.

AV: I have to ask you about the IOT rat traps.

NR: We made them partner with our pest control system, which is great because then they could form a partnership, but what they’re used for is in agriculture. You want to keep them away from the crops. We do have a dashboard where we can track where those little suckers are. For us, it was about learning. We created a partnership of two companies together. They’re also an RTP so we gave that company a place where they’re trying to figure out this solution and whether it’s viable. We gave them a playground to do that as well in a real scenario.

It ends up being a win-win for everyone. If a company, whether it was a startup or a large organization that wanted to test an application on our campus, we either did a no-cost or a very low-cost contract. We weren’t going to pay for these solutions to test them. It was important to us that we would do these things on a trial and then some of them would be going on for years, but we wanted this to be a partnership. The companies needed to realize that they were getting as much benefit as we were, so I told everyone to negotiate.

AV: You made a great point of letting them test your systems and processes because a lot of times, it’s a cool idea in the private sector and it should work in the government, but our world is a little different from the private sector. It’s important for them to come play in our sandbox to make sure things work for the government. With all of this IOT, connected communities, smart cities and sensors going everywhere, your mind always goes to the threat of a ransomware attack or cybersecurity. How do you think about keeping your networks and the city secure from anything malicious on the internet?

NR: Security is always our number one thing that we look at. I was sharing with someone else, even when we looked at our budget this 2020, because we know everybody’s budgets were going to be tighter than they’ve been in the past, but that is one thing I will never cut. That was always our most important. We take that seriously and think about that in terms of the way we architect and making sure we’ve got separate networks for things, which is also important if you can do segmentation. No one can guarantee anything, but you can do everything possible and make sure you’ve checked it all off.

AV: It comes down to education. You can have the best equipment and software, but if your people are not educated on what not to open or how to think about a certain email attachment, it can go sideways.

NR: It’s good timing for us that we do our yearly educational campaign around security where we make everyone take training. It might happen to line up with us being remote, which was great because we knew there was going to be even more of a risk with our community, our workers going remote. We had the full support of all of the department heads and town management, tracking and making sure every single employee completed. 

We have a little bit of competitiveness in us, but we would post out every week where each department was and who was a leader. We had a leaderboard to make it a little bit more interesting. We do phishing campaigns all the time. Unfortunately, I’m one of those folks who had to go back through training because that’s brilliant. At this point, our biggest risk is usually that internal. It is the phishing stuff. They’re so good at it these days.

AV: You guys are doing training and sneak attacks to see who’s paying attention or not. It’s been debated whether or not that’s an effective way of keeping yourself secure, but I think it is.

NR: It’s the minimum of the things that you should do from an employee. It’s an easy employee thing to do.

AV: What do you think is the evolving role of the CIO/CTO? Where is it going and where is it going to be in the next few years?

NR: We play a much stronger role in helping drive the business. Even when I talk about IOT, I always say at the end of the day, “Years from now, every project will be an IOT project.” We’re going to stop calling smartwatches, “smartwatches.” They’re just going to be watches. 

It’s going to be helping that business connection, thinking through what that future looks like and preparing them. It’s a much stronger strategic partnership role than it is a pure technical role. You’ve moved away from the people that are behind the black curtain, keeping the lights on and keeping an email up. It’s a much more strategic role.

AV: One of the first city managers we had on the show said that we can expect a lot more CIOs to get into city management roles, the top roles. I don’t see that not happening because like you said, everything is going to be connected, if not IOT. At the highest levels, you have to make decisions based on what your systems are telling you.

NR: We were talking about that and all of the projects. We’re like, “How do we make sure that we’re at the table?” Now, it’s every project you need to be at the table. When we think about developments of commercial, residential, we need to be in there to make sure that we can get fiber in there and all of these things that we want to put in and partner with them around that smart technology. I would have never thought about that years ago that I wouldn’t be sitting around a table with developers.

AV: In your region, the Research Triangle, do you guys have any regional collaborations with the City of Raleigh or the county to share resources? How are you going about the whole expansion of fiber?

NR: We have fiber connections to multiple other communities around us. We worked together on that. This region is the most collaborative region in terms of wanting to work together. I think fundamentally, that everybody understands that Cary has municipal boundaries or Raleigh. We all travel through it. We always talk about your day in the life, like where you drive and how you work and how you play. We can make the region better for everyone because it’s great for Cary to be amazing, but we wanted everybody else to be amazing with us because it makes it stronger. We have projects where we look at.

We’re doing this for stormwater, where a bunch of our communities get some sensors in or we’re looking at how we share our data the way that the river basins flow. If there’s flooding and it starts in Cary, we know it’s going to head to Raleigh. How do we share the levels and where we’re at so that we can alert our friends downstream. That takes a lot of collaboration, work and buy-in to say we’re all okay sharing our data and coming up with the scheme of what that looks like. We’re very good at working together and understanding the strength and building up the whole region.

AV: You have to almost think of it as the roadway system. You can’t just have good roads in Cary. Collaboration between cities and counties is rare. Some of that going on here in our home county of Tennessee where there’s a fiber ring that’s established. Cary and Raleigh may have done it many years ago, but this is fairly new and a good thing for our region. You’re in a fairly rich environment for attracting new hires in technology and bringing new blood into the town management system. What would you say to other governments about your size that are not so fortunate, that are not in a research triangle? How do you go about attracting the next generation of IT talent to a city environment?

NR: My favorite program is our intern program. It’s been crushing because we haven’t been able to do that in summer in 2020 for obvious reasons, but we work with our local high schools. 

We have one gentleman who has been with us since high school. He’s since gone to two years of technical community college and is moving on to North Carolina State. We still have a couple of college interns, but these programs are important for us to give back to the community and to invite them. These kids are sharp and they’re getting real hands-on work. 

We want them to stay and understand that government work can be cool. You don’t have to go to Google or Facebook. There’s a lot of real cool, exciting technology that they can work on here and the work is very rewarding because you’re delivering it to your community. We do a lot of work in that area. Our physical space looks like a startup, which for the younger generation helps when they come in and they see, “This doesn’t look like what I pictured.”

AV: What is the most impactful project you have on your plate?

NR: We’ve been testing our wastewater. We started years ago as part of our Bloomberg Challenge. We started testing our wastewater for opioid consumption as an educational process because obviously we know there’s an opioid crisis. It sees no boundaries of anything. That has been rewarding, listening to parents that have lost their teenage children and how to make this education a wakeup call of things that are in a community by being able to test our wastewater. We’re doing the same thing with COVID so that we can understand where our levels are. It’s not perfect.

We know that there is probably some leeway there. It’s not going to tell us exactly how many cases, but it does help us share with our community. It will help us, as this goes on, to see things hopefully decline and if there were a second surge, we could see that right away and maybe share that out with some marketing. We can’t control it. We don’t do health and human services, but we can share the data with them. For me, when I think about community stuff, it’s like touching real people. That one is always near and dear to my heart.

AV: There are many applications for testing like that, especially if we could perfect that and have a successful case study. There are many applications for the citizens. Nicole, thank you so much for coming on and spending some time with me. I appreciate it.

NR: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.

AV: I’ll look forward to keeping track of all the wonderful things you guys are doing at Cary. Thanks, Nicole.

NR: Thank you.

About Nicole Raimundo

Nicole is an award-winning technology executive that promotes the value of partnerships and innovative thinkers in government while continuously pursuing new models of civic innovation for collaborative citizen-facing projects. A self-proclaimed GovRebel, pushing the boundaries of technology, marketing, and thinking differently in government, Nicole is building a connected community through piloting and implementing IoT technologies in the public sector by fostering partnerships both locally and nationally. Using my many years of private company experience and adapting it to the public sector to improve service delivery.

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