The Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jun 24 2020

Q&A: Georgia Embraces Opportunities in Pivot to Mass Telework

CIO Calvin Rhodes details how the state's IT was ready to support remote working and what it means going forward.

Calvin Rhodes joined state government in January 2011 after a successful career in the private sector. Today, he serves as the CIO of Georgia. As head of the Georgia Technology Authority, Rhodes has responsibility for supporting statewide IT initiatives.

Like other state CIOs, Rhodes rushed to support widespread telework across the state and outfit emergency management operations with technology to help them mount an unprecedented public health response. GTA’s strong interagency relationships and advance planning helped him meet both goals, which he discussed as a virtual panelist during the Midyear Conference of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

StateTech spoke with Rhodes after NASCIO Midyear for this exclusive look at some of the challenges and opportunities he uncovered in supporting the state’s pandemic response.

STATETECH: Could you tell us a bit about how Georgia and the Georgia Technology Authority pivoted to telework during the current crisis? What were the challenges and opportunities you faced?

RHODES: We already had an agency CIO meeting scheduled. We brought in that group and tried to give them some insight into some of the things we need to be thinking about and planning for. Some of the questions to me were like, "Okay, well, over the next month, we need to be doing X to get ready for this." I said, "But I think we really need to be thinking in terms of days to a week."

Then, some information hit the governor's desk the following day. They sent the message out that we needed to prepare to go remote, and then within probably three or four days, each agency head was given the discretion to figure out who can work remotely.

So, the first challenge: We’ve had groups of people, I think, in some of the health agencies who have 3,000 workers that they have never allowed to work remotely. Simply from a hardware standpoint, I'm trying to get them ready to have something other than a desktop computer to take home. And like most states, we had to deal with VPN limitations and capacity issues. It was pretty amazing to see how quickly you can solve some of those challenges when you can get the right people to focus on a problem.

I think that was on a Thursday, and we knew we needed to increase not only the infrastructure but also the licensing. There were some opportunities to do that from emergency licensing versus actually having to buy perpetual licenses. For some of our service partners, we were able to put a request in on Thursday, fly in additional components on Friday, and get them installed in the data center over the weekend. By Monday, we quadrupled our capacity. Those things just typically don’t happen that quickly.

And then every day, there was a laptop issue, where another agency needed a couple 100 here, another 100 or so there. One of the good things is that, with our OPEX model, there are hundreds of these that get refreshed every month. So, there's a stream of new devices coming in. We pretty quickly made a decision to stop a refresh and rob those items to push them out to the field for employees.

STATETECH: And then you had to support a new emergency response effort on top of that. What were the challenges there?

RHODES: We stood up mobile testing sites across the state. Those have eJump technology components that need access to a network there, and it needs to be secured. How best to get that bandwidth to the location that they selected? We got laptops with images on them out to Augusta University, which was standing up those testing sites. 

We have some great partners. The relationship with our emergency management group has always been strong, but we’re really getting to know another layer of individuals within those groups as they now have a need and are figuring out how to accomplish it.

As we’ve now moved deeper into this, there are fewer of those projects that have come up with a requirement to be addressed fairly quickly. Now, we see more operational items, from making sure that we modified our training for cybersecurity risk to actually pushing out modules. We warn about what to be on the lookout for — not only phishing emails but also invoices coming in for stuff that you really didn’t buy.

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