During its 2021 Midyear Conference underway this week, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) took a break from more serious sessions to give attendees a chance to get to know state IT leadership.

A breakout session on Tuesday featured Jonathan Askins, CTO of Arkansas, John MacMilan, CIO of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer Ricker, acting CIO of Illinois, answering a range of questions covering personal hobbies and professional goals.

What is your professional pet project?

Askins: His team is in the process of modernizing its data center. “It’s a pet project and a passion of our governor, so it’s a pet project and passion of mine.”

Ricker: In the last six months Ricker said she’s been focused on increasing her team’s supplier diversity. “I don’t just mean numbers of vendors, but the diversity of the vendors we use,” she explained. Specifically, Ricker undertaking several steps to “increase opportunities” for female- and minority-owned firms.

When asked why this is her pet project, she explained “There’s much lower representation for women in minorities in the tech space generally and in [government] agencies. I think it is important to increase those opportunities.” She added that’s also a focus for Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and the state legislature.

What is a new habit – good or bad – that you’ve developed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ricker: “I’ve become an expert at mixing drinks,” she said. “I think I’ve become an expert at cosmos and margaritas.” For Christmas, Ricker said she got a new bar and a nice gift certificate to a local liquor store from her staff. “So I took the opportunity to stock [her bar] and learn how to make some fancy drinks,” she said.

Askins: Unlike Ricker, Askins has developed a new food habit. Askins started with the state of Arkansas in December of 2020 and quickly discovered a new perk of his job. “I found out we had a popcorn machine in the office,” he said. “So my new habit has been having a bag of popcorn every day.” He said the new habit “hasn’t been great for my weight, but it sure has been fun.” Looking to a post-pandemic future, he said that he’s “not sure if I’m going to keep [the habit], but I can’t seem to kick it.”

Pivoting to a work-related habit, Askins said a big priority when he started on the job was making sure he spent 30 minutes a day “walking the halls and stopping and talking to folks.” He added that he’s “not asking work questions – how’s your family? how are you doing? Those kinds of things. I feel like people … like to feel appreciated for the job they do. So, I want to make sure that happens.”

How involved are you with new funding provided by the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan?

Ricker: By the time funding was allocated in the CARES Act, and later the American Rescue Plan, Ricker says the state was “well underway with COVID-19 related projects,” and the state figured funding after projects had begun. She added that the most recent round of Federal spending is “still in discussion.” The state legislature is in session right now figuring out spending plans, so it’s “still pretty up in the air for us.”

Askins: Arkansas is planning to sue CARES Act funding to purchase hardware for his team’s ongoing modernization efforts. For the American Rescue Plan funding, Askins said Governor Asa Hutchinson just recently created a steering group to divvy up the funding. Askins added that the governor’s number two spending priority was cybersecurity. “I’m not sure how I’ll be involved, but you can’t make cybersecurity the number two priority and not involve my department,” he added.

MacMilan: After joining the session a little late due to technology troubles, MacMilan explained that his team has already done some consulting with the state legislature, but in general, the funding has to go through the typical legislative process to determine how it will be spent.

He did add that the pandemic “has further revealed digital divide,” and that one of the top ways to close the divide is by expanding network capacity. However, Pennsylvania’s geography makes that project easier said than done. One way to ensure his team gets the funding it needs is by “working to influence the public perception of government-funded networks.” Alluding to President Biden’s infrastructure plan – which is currently in negotiations – MacMilan said expanding network capacity is “not an easy problem to solve, but $7.2 billion, might help close that divide.”

If you could travel back in time, what is something you’d tell yourself on your first day on the job?

MacMilan: He said he’d take the advice he received from former Mississippi CIO Craig Orgeron more seriously. Orgeron told MacMilan that “the job is really about two things – people and money.” MacMilan said, “I would have taken that much more to heart, much earlier.” Specifically, he’d focus on developing stronger relationships with the governor’s office and state budgeting leaders. He said Orgeron’s “fundamental premise provides a lot of guidance.”

Askins: Tying to MacMilan’s focus on money, Askins said he “would have begun to absorb the appropriations and budgeting process a little bit more than I did. That’s everything we do, it is so critical to everything we do.”

Ricker: Having had a “hands-on-the-keyboard” career before stepping into her current role, Ricker said she would have advised her past self to pull herself out of the day-to-day as much as possible.  She added, “I have the tendency to get sucked into a lot of meetings, that eats into your time to think and focus on the big picture.”

Once in-person events return, what would be your stage walk-up music?

MacMilan: Without hesitating, MacMilan said “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots.

Askins: As a former drummer, Askins said he would pick anything by ACDC.

Ricker: Pulling from the silver screen, Ricker selected Darth Vader’s theme song, “Imperial March,” from Star Wars.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs