Unlocking San Francisco

San Francisco’s chief information officer sees a future of limitless connectivity for the city by the bay

Miguel Gamiño Jr., Chief Information Officer and Executive Director of the Department of Technology, City and County of San Francisco (Photo: Sheila Barabad)

All public-sector chief information officers withstand scrutiny, but Miguel Gamiño Jr. faces a different level of pressure. That’s because the former entrepreneur and visionary leader is in the tech driver’s seat for San Francisco—home of Uber, Twitter, Airbnb, Pinterest, Cisco, Yahoo, Dropbox, Square, LinkedIn, Adobe, Yelp, Google, Salesforce, and almost every other tech-first start-up. In the vibrant and dynamic technology-innovation capital of the world, the city’s CIO is doing all he can to harness its unique tech power and bring access and services to more people. In doing so, his office is changing the way people interact with city services while sparking economic growth and development to chart a new course for San Francisco. Recently, he sat down with Hispanic Executive to share thoughts on his tenure, his passion for technology, and his all-connected vision for the future.

HISPANIC EXECUTIVE: You had a successful career in business before making the jump to the public sector. What changed?

MIGUEL GAMIÑO JR.: It was by happy accident, actually. The city manager of El Paso, Texas, at the time talked me into taking a public-sector job there by exciting me about the opportunity to transform the IT department. I took on the role of CIO for El Paso and our team led a total rebirth and implemented major upgrades. I saw first-hand what kind of impact those of us that work in the public sector can have on the lives of citizens around us.

HE: Were there any specific experiences that really convinced you to stay in the public sphere?

MG: Even back when I worked in the private sector, I was trying to get city leaders to install free public Wi-Fi—as early as 2003—but very few would listen. Everyone saw the Internet as another revenue stream. But when I became CIO, I had the influence to get it done in a month. We put blazing-fast, free Wi-Fi in the El Paso airport. Ironically, after I had moved to San Francisco, I was chatting with a stranger who was traveling, and I told her I was from El Paso. She told me she thought the El Paso airport was amazing, but specifically because of the free Wi-Fi. She had no idea who I was, but I let her know she had me to thank!

HE: How is your role in San Francisco different?

MG: Everything is elevated. There are higher expectations and everyone, from our citizens to my counterparts in other cities, watches what we do. It’s exciting to know that people are paying attention and that whatever we do has a ripple effect.

HE: Does that level of scrutiny affect your approach?

MG: Not really, because everyone I work with already takes this job, and our mission, extremely seriously. I get inspired by looking out my window on Market Street seeing  our users and customers walking by. We’re doing things that impact their daily lives.

HE: What’s the most unique aspect about the CIO role in a city like San Francisco?

MG: I essentially have three jobs. Like most municipal CIOs, I both direct our IT department and provide counsel to city leadership and Mayor Lee on tech strategy. The third job is a side effect of the industry being located here—San Francisco’s brand is the innovation capital of the world, so in many ways, I end up serving as an ambassador for the Bay Area.

HE: What opportunities or challenges do you face because of the city’s reputation?

MG: It puts us in the spotlight, no question. I see more pros than cons in that, though, because we get the opportunity to show people why tech matters beyond the basic plumbing. The biggest challenge is customer expectation. People here have become accustomed to the “app for that” lifestyle with the likes of Twitter and Airbnb and the others, so they want to know why government can’t do things exactly like their favorite digital brands. It’s a healthy pressure, though, because it forces us to bring our A-game each and every day.

HE: What’s the talent search like for you?

MG: That’s challenging, too. We have a great pool to draw upon, but we also have lots of competition. Unemployment in San Francisco is just around 3 percent and there are more jobs than candidates in the tech world.

HE: How can you compete with Facebook and Uber? Doesn’t everyone want to work for the big guys?

MG: Well, sure. We don’t have stock options but we have purpose. We offer the opportunity to make real, meaningful, and lasting impact early in your career and are working hard to establish ourselves as an employer of choice for the best and brightest in the industry.

HE: What are the specifics of the impact that you are making?

MG: When we built the San Francisco Business Portal, it was wildly successful because we actually asked our customers what they needed and wanted . . . and that’s what we built. Together, we challenge the status quo, but in an authentic way.

We’re emphasizing technology as a contributor to addressing civic and social concerns around homelessness, transportation, public health, public safety, and other civic facets that are important to the community.

HE: Is addressing those concerns something that usually comes with the CIO job description?

MG: Maybe not, but they’re initiatives from the mayor’s office, and we invited ourselves to the table early to show how tech can contribute. We don’t want to be the tech team that just maintains your e-mail service. We want to be part of civic solutions. Pervasive broadband is the biggest bright spot in that people here believe it’s a utility and a right. We want every single person around this city connected to the Internet at a really high capacity.

Public housing is also on our list when we talk about connectivity. The digital service conversation is a lot about equity and accessibility. The people who need city services the most have the least flexibility to consume them. We’re taking digital tools that we can create and apply to civic issues that aren’t traditionally perceived as tech problems.

HE: What is San Francisco doing in this area that other cities aren’t? 

MG: We’re able to engage our tech start-up community, and we have residency and fellowship programs to bring those people inside our organization to help solve problems. People might say that’s only because we’re lucky to be in the backyard of these successful companies, but I think CIOs anywhere can do this more and more.

HE: What is the potential for tech in the city? What would you really like to see done?

MG: We want to be hyper-connected, importantly, to encourage and enable the next wave of start-ups. When developers know that everyone has the speed and connection to use what they build, barriers are lowered and we’ll see a fresh new wave of private sector innovation.

HE: What can other municipalities  around the country learn from your approach?

MG: I would encourage others to engage the private sector more. We’re also preparing to share what we’re doing on the operational side in an open-source way, so other cities can replicate what we’ve done. The bottom line is to increase our leverage of collaboration between and among governments, and with our industry leaders.

HE: What are you most excited about right now?

MG: I’m excited about the power connectivity brings to the innovation curve, from autonomous everything to the Internet of Things. Really, though, I’m most excited about the unknown. I get enthused about the fact that there’s probably going to be something totally unexpected or seemingly mundane. Something that we can’t predict will change the world—and I can’t wait to see what these really smart people do next.

Miguel Gamiño Jr.’s Toolbox for San Francisco

1) Connectivity. From significant expansion of our free public Wi-Fi service, #SFWiFi, to our leadership on the conversation about bringing broadband to all San Franciscans, we are helping craft the future of a “connected gigabit city.”

2) Competition. We upgraded our systems and infrastructure to deliver them to customer departments as good or better than the marketplace alternatives. We have new cloud services and data center approaches so our partners can get the best services from us instead of going elsewhere.

3) Service. We’ve focused on customer service and transformed the way we talk about problems with customers. Our top project in this area is ServiceLab, which compares to Apple’s Genius Bar. We’re building a retail experience to support technology, so city employees can book appointments, come in, and engage in person to get issues fixed.

4) Talent. On the software side, we borrowed a development-process term called SkunkWorks from Lockheed Martin. This term refers to an internal autonomous group that works on unique projects. Our SkunkWorks team had to work in overdrive after the city passed a ballot measure known as the Airbnb law to govern short-term rentals, The team had to deliver a fully functional and high-performing online, digital tool in just a few months for hosts to report stays for registered units. The tool allows users to register and comply with the new rules without relying on paper forms. We went from idea to product launch in thirty days.