North Dakota’s CIO a kindred spirit to unconventional governor

Shawn Riley, chief information officer for the state of North Dakota, knows he has an unconventional boss in Gov. Doug Burgum. After all, the man was actually thrown out of the state senate for wearing jeans, and maintains that a photo of him on his job as a chimney sweep was instrumental in his acceptance at Stanford graduate school. It was at Stanford where Burgum met and worked a study project with Steve Ballmer, later Microsoft’s 30th employee and eventual CEO.

But Burgum and Riley are kindred spirits in a sense. After graduation the governor joined Great Plains Software in Fargo in 1983 and became its president a year later. The company flourished under Burgum’s leadership and became a multi-billion dollar organization when it was merged into Microsoft in 2001. Riley, meanwhile, also got his start as an entrepreneur, forming his own company at the age of 16 and selling it off at age 19. From there he went into the cybersecurity universe with IBM, then the nuclear power industry. Most recently he was a regional executive for the Mayo Clinic.

Shawn Riley, North Dakota
Shawn Riley, North Dakota state CIO

“At Mayo, I had 19 hospitals and 72 clinics that I was responsible for across multiple states and all sorts of fun things in the technology world. So it’s been a long, tech-driven ride for me,” he said.

Thinking about why Burgum chose him, Riley said, “I think he was looking for somebody with a bit of a crazy streak. And there was a point where you could actually google ‘crazy CIO’ and my name would come up.”

The governor apparently was looking for somebody who could be a real, over-the-top change agent. “And that’s been my job for a long time, taking on projects that are really, really difficult projects that nobody else wanted, and I was crazy enough to take on,” Riley said.

A self-starter from the beginning

Riley never pictured himself going to work in government. He admits to having always been a private sector guy and didn’t really expect to be moving.

“But my personal background is a little different. When I started that company at the age of 16, it wasn’t because I was super brilliant or innovative, or anything like that. It was because I wanted to eat,” he said. With four siblings, and both parents struggling with alcohol or other addiction issues, Riley said starting a business was a necessity. “And the amazing part is it went from being a survival tactic to something pretty successful. And when I walked away from that, I was at a point in my life where I said, ‘Hey, I want to do something more.'”

His appointment as CIO was itself interesting. He described how he walked into the interview with Burgum, who had a small round table in his office where he rolls a purple yoga ball up as chair.

“He sits down on it wearing jeans and a blue coat and just starts telling me about all the ways that we could really use technology to help people. And he truly, really believes in his heart that we can use technology to make the lives of people better,” Riley said. After about a two-hour conversation, “I said, ‘Cool, I’m in.’ And I’ve been here ever since.”

“Here,” in Riley’s case, is the Information Services Division which operates under a shared services model. He oversees all infrastructure for the entire executive branch, plus all application support for all such services across the cabinet. And all of these are centrally located within a unified shared structure.

“And that unified shared structure, reports up to me and then I report directly to the governor. And so that gives us an amazing capability to be able to create standards and to be able to ensure that we can provide an incredible economy of scale that most other organizations just don’t have,” he said.

North Dakota represents another demonstration of the effectiveness of a strong CIO governance model, with clear executive sponsorship and IT operational authority.

North Dakota’s fiscal situation spurs IT spending

Regarding IT investment in North Dakota, prospects are very favorable, given the state’s exceptionally positive fiscal situation. According to Riley, the state is the second largest energy producer in the nation, has a major share of the country’s agriculture and commodity base, and its unemployment rate is just over 2%. Such an economy has carried over to the state’s IT spending.

“I think there’s an evolution of thinking here. And this really comes from a combination of a new governor and new team around him. But people are starting to believe that investment in technology actually can save money,” Riley said. As a result the state is proceeding with significant increases in its overall IT budget. There have been several hundred million dollars in increased capital project spending over these last two years and this trend is expected to continue.

That’s spending has translated into an 80% increase in cybersecurity staffing and a 400% increase in our cybersecurity program overall.

“We’re getting very good support from the governor and the legislature,” Riley said. However, he believes that the real change in state governance and technology involves a significant evolution in perspective. “Previously, people have believed that technology was really a cost center. They didn’t see it as the tip of the spear that enables innovation and enables strategy across the state government. And that’s just a real difference in mindset. And that mindset is changing very, very quickly here.”

Riley concluded with some intriguing hints on the next significant focus for North Dakota government IT. With the booming private sector, a full employment economy, and like most states, an aging, retirement eligible workforce, replacing these state employees may be a bridge too far. This makes for an interesting scenario whereby the Peace Garden State may be forced to be all in with labor saving solutions running the full gamut from basic bots to robotic process automation. We’ll look forward to hearing more.

And when you see him at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) conference ask him about his historical re-enactment hobby. You’ll be in for a treat.



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Host John Thomas Flynn is former California and Massachusetts chief information officer and former president of the National Association of State CIOs. The show features conversations with state and local CIOs, CISOs, program leadership and elected officials, and the IT vendor community. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Podcast One.

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