Season 2, Episode 4 - "How do I foster a culture of innovation?" with Brian Benn, CIO @ Atlanta Housing Authority
Season 2, Episode 4 - "How do I foster a culture of innovation?" with Brian Benn, CIO @ Atlanta Housing Authority
Today I’m joined by Brian Benn, a former NASA software engineer and current Chief Information Officer at the Atlanta Housing Authority - a leader in transforming public housing to provide affordable communities for those in need. In this episode, we’re going to focus on how technology leaders - particularly in government, can stoke innovation, create a culture that resists complacency, welcomes vulnerability, and actually empowers agile development.
Brian is a truly innovative strategist, technologist, and overall thought leader, with an adamant belief in digital literacy driving the betterment of Atlanta. He has some really awesome stories from his time on the final frontier. Enjoy!
Let me know what you thought of today’s discussion! Tweet me at @netwkdisrupted + @awertkin, leave a review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or email me at email@example.com.
Read more about Brian on our blog.
Andrew: Hey, it's Andrew and you're listening to season two of Network Disrupted where I help technology leaders trade notes on navigating disruption in our space. Today I'm speaking with Brian Benn, who you might know as the CIO of the Atlanta housing authority. For this episode we're going to focus on how technology leaders stoke innovation, create a culture that resist complacency, welcome vulnerability and actually empowers agile development. Speaking of vulnerability, I want to call it a technology community that I've been so impressed by recently in case there are any IT practitioners listening. I'm part of the network VIP community which is an open vendor agnostic group that helps people, especially those who touch network infrastructure, learn from one another, exchange best practices and just generally connect. You can join @ bitly/ networkvip. I'll be happy to see there, message me and let me know that you're a listener. Also, let me know what you thought to this discussion, you can tweet me at network disrupted, leave a review on Spotify or Apple podcasts and again, please do that. I really appreciate the feedback or email me @ andrewatnetworkdisrupted. com. So thanks for joining us Brian, why don't you give me a sense of the IT mission of the Atlanta housing authority?
Brian Benn: Well, the IT mission I guess is anchored by the overarching mission of our organization. And the mission of the organization itself is to provide not just affordable housing, but to provide quality affordable housing. So we want to make sure that we're anchored by that mission. And we think that we have an opportunity to ensure that technology is part of providing that a quality affordable housing. So we're doing two things internally. We want to support, and we want to provide systems and processes and technologies that allow the organization to be as efficient as possible, as productive as possible. But from the external side, we want to make sure that 70,000 participants or residents are also getting privy to that technology experience as part of that quality affordable housing, especially now when the pandemic has highlighted the need where we're digital in so many platforms, whether educational, whether we're talking about healthcare or anything. So we just want to make sure we're harnessing technology as part of providing that quality affordable housing experience.
Andrew: That's fantastic. So your scope of responsibilities goes across both the communities that are being developed as well as the internal IT requirement.
Brian Benn: Right? And traditionally it's probably been more internal but we want to make sure, from our leadership team now, we want to make sure there's a focus both internally and externally.
Andrew: Yeah. But obviously for a variety of reasons, it's more important now than ever with the pandemic but I just would imagine in general, in this day and age having access to technology is the critical part of living. It's difficult to understand how you'd be able to participate appropriately without access to technology.
Brian Benn: That's true. I agree.
Andrew: And so is that mission... It sounds like it's two completely different hats you need to put on almost in terms of managing what goes on day to day internally versus planning for and helping to deliver what goes on in that development.
Brian Benn: That's correct. We definitely have to have two different hats and I like to think of it... I cut my teeth at NASA so I'll be quick with this. So I like to think of it in terms of satellites. When I was working at NASA, all those satellites were facing external and they had set a much broader reach when we were working on those satellite missions as opposed to some of the weather satellites that the weather channel uses that are facing inward. And they're both necessary, we need them, we need those weather satellites to tell us what that weather is going to be but we also want to make sure that we're utilizing the flexibility and the range of those external facing satellites. So we want to make sure that we're handling the things internall but we have to make sure that there's a paradigm that allows us to support our 70, 000 residents. And we're doing that through a three- prompt approach if you will where we want to make sure that first we have the hardware in place. So we want to partner with groups, organizations, would have you to provide that hardware whether we're talking about devices or laptops, we want to make sure that hardware's in hand of our residents. Then we have to make sure that we have Wi- Fi. That hardware is useless if there's no connectivity, so that's the second prompt. And then thirdly, we want to make sure that we have some type of visual literacy. Here's where we get really robust. We're talking about digital literacy for all ages. We're talking about seniors. Some of those programs are existing now, and we just want to make sure we are part of that and for instance, if you're saying use one to talk to their grandchildren or their family members or play bingo or soduku, we think they should be able to do it on the tablet, or they should just have access to that. Especially now even if we're talking about health and wellness, we want to make sure that they're able to get their medications, do the tele- health and talk to their doctors and so we want to make sure that's in place. The children who are in school from their educational standpoint, we want to make sure that they're able to get the tutorage if necessary, participate in classes. That they're not having to wait to share laptops, tablets with their siblings. That they're able to work effectively as much as necessary and again, make sure that beyond just the classwork, if they want that tutorage outside of the regular classwork, we want to make sure they have access to that especially now digitally in this current pandemic. And then here when I'm talking about where we getting more robust is we're looking at providing a cohort program where certain demographic or certain residents are working or coming out of high school and want to get into the industry. So we want to provide specialized IT training with a cybersecurity training, whether it's scrum mastery or something along those lines but we want to make sure there's a cohort program that allows them to get certifications and get into the workplace and start working or even shift their careers if necessary. And so we want to harness some of our leverage, some of our contacts, our connections in the industry and the ecosystem and make sure that we have this cohort program stood up so we can offer these job opportunities. And we also understand as part of that there should be some soft skills training and so forth so they can continue to be successful once they get these opportunities.
Andrew: Right. That's fantastic. Are these initiatives relatively new? I know you've been in the CIO role there for a year or two at this point.
Brian Benn: That's correct.
Andrew: But if I remember correctly you worked there for quite some time, took a little leave of absence and then came back in this leadership role. Were these initiatives long- going or these things that you've pushed through recently.
Brian Benn: I think a lot of them we're pushing recently. So we've always had the mind of our residents. We have a great leadership team, great staff and they've always been focused on our residents and their wellness but I think the new approach that we're taking from an IT leadership standpoint is making sure that we're tied and we're connected to that vision. And understanding how, especially as things progressed and how dynamic technology is and again how dependent we are with so many private and public sectors organizations making their offerings of services often as digital by default, we think it's incumbent upon us as IT leadership team to make sure that this is part of our mission. This is part and parcel of our mission to provide these digital opportunities. So this is fairly new. So the approach to making sure our residents are doing wellness checks and make sure they have access to all the products and services is not new at all. We definitely have a heart and it's been a mission, our new CEO Jean Jones, has a mission for our residents. We're just making sure the technology is a part of that mission as well and we're excited to do so.
Andrew: Fantastic. Do you have specific, whether they're your weather satellites or you're looking for the next inhabitable planet satellites there's usually some pretty specific measurements on what success looks like. And I've seen throughout the years some great programs that put technology in the hands of many that don't necessarily drive, it's almost like their goal was to get the technology there. Not necessarily do any follow- ups to ensure that they were driving any meaningful change or additional access. So I'm curious if you thought of that and what sort of measurements might you put in place to understand the efficacy of the mission?
Brian Benn: Well, you raise a good point because what we like to say is what gets measured gets improved and so now we can talk about some of the other initiatives we have and that's specifically around data and using data to make those data driven decisions. And we're definitely going to have to partner with other business units, maybe housing choice and also human development services to kind of instruct us on what we're measuring, what we're looking at, how do we determine the efficacy of these programs by saying," Hey, since we initiated this access or this Academy of digital leadership, we've had this reduction or this amount of people graduating from our program." And we really want to look at those numbers. Those things have not crystallized in terms of what those numbers are going to be. It was definitely a focus of ours to make sure that this measurement and that's where IT practice can also help by using data not just from a standpoint of measuring on the backend, but even from a predictive analytic type standpoint where we can say, Hey, if we implement these programs, these practices, we know we're going to get this type of return on investments.
Andrew: So the Atlanta housing authority is obviously nonprofit. I'm assuming it's... Is it a government agency or sort of a funded by government agency? Or how does it actually work?
Brian Benn: I would say quasi federal government, quasi local government and definitely non- profit like a real estate company with nonprofit mission. And I say that because we get a significant amount of funding from HUD yet we also have the footprint of the city of Atlanta. We probably own most of the vacant land or undeveloped property for affordable housing in the city of Atlanta so from that standpoint there's a local footprint there and we're definitely a nonprofit organization as well. So it's kind of a hybrid model if you will.
Andrew: So do you find that you need to justify the investments on the technology side to stakeholders that may or may not want to spend in these ways?
Brian Benn: Sometimes that's true. To your point, one thing we want to make sure we guard against is complacency and that's something that can set in when you're working for any government agency. And the reason for that is just because you don't have the competition if you will, you don't have the different things going on in the industry that may drive you. We're not losing any of our vouchers to the cab County housing or Cobb County housing and so forth. So it's just human nature sometimes to not just keep pushing. We don't have those stakeholders even though we have a board that's very qualified and very responsible, still don't have those stakeholders that say, hey, our profits are down this quarter, this is going to have to happen so that we can stay competitive in this market and with this segment or these products. So we don't have that but we want to make sure so we don't sit there. Traditionally you would look at an organization and say, Hey, as IT department, we want to increase the productivity and profitability and although we don't use that ladder term, we still should have that mindset because that allows us to stay on that cutting edge, to harness technology and to keep pushing the envelope and coming up with creative solutions that we would if we were in a private industry. So I think we've shifted that mindset here at the housing authority and allowed and set up by creating an environment where we can be creative and be at our creative best in order to provide these solutions for the very qualified people that work here.
Andrew: Right. Yeah, I was interviewing somebody from the federal government recently who was very focused on the interaction of the customer, sort of the end customer with the agency. And you mentioned IVR before from what you had to do in terms of moving the call center off premises, maybe this is a loaded question, but is the housing authority historically looked at like the DMV, like I need to go deal with a housing authority, this is going to be an all day thing. I need to take off work and wait in a line somewhere take a ticket. What's the view of the customer of the housing authority?
Brian Benn: Well, I don't want to discourage the DMV but we're pretty seamless. It's not a bad view here. Now, people do think that, hey, every time somebody is not housed, it's our fault or the housing authority is not doing their job not understanding all the ramifications, their programs and certain qualifications and the eligibility requirements. So they may not understand that dynamic, but I definitely think we're pretty seamless and pretty effective in how we get our residents in and out. And we're trying to be even better by using technology and also trying to make sure that during this pandemic we're still as effective as we were prior to the pandemic. That means going virtual with our inspections, going virtual with our intake process, even having our board meetings virtually and being able to incorporate the public and taking those questions in the same things as we would do were we able to be in person or present in person to have these meetings. So we think we're effective, I think the organization is effective anyway and pretty seamless but I think we are also helping that within this endemic, this paradigm.
Andrew: Yeah, it sounds that way and that's why I sort of asked that question half in jest. It sounds like there's a core focused on customer service, almost everything you're talking about is a mechanism to improve the experience of the end user. I'm trying to think of a better word than that, or the resident I guess. Right. But at the same time it's quasi government, all of us have experienced working with government entities and there's always some level of frustration that I guess we have the same frustration, we're working with for profit companies. We just feel like they're going to lose my business. Meanwhile, when you're working with a government agency as you said before, you're a captive customer. Now you can't go down the block to somebody else. You can't switch to a different internet service provider, that's who you need to deal with. So maybe it's that sense that we feel like we have no choice but to work with this company.
Brian Benn: Right.
Andrew: Do you have ideation processes in your teams? Like if somebody on your team comes up with an idea whether it's on the internal side or on the community side, is there a formal process for bringing that idea to you? How do you approach that?
Brian Benn: Well, let's be clear. We're open about this in terms of if you have ideas processes, what we're trying to establish is we're trying to establish with our different groups within the IT department at least a day a month where there's just an open session where you can just be creative. We may not have that formal R and D department, that formal research and development department but we are of the mindset and the philosophy that however small your shop is, there should be some type of R and D going on. And we need to be creative and towards that end we've tried to create an environment where we feel all our leaders within the IT department, I think the agency as a whole, has tried to create an environment where it's okay to fail. We feel like it's okay to fail. As the agile methodology would say, we like to fail forward. Now, of course we can't create those, we have those debilitating failures that bring the operations to a screeching halt and cripple the functions over the organization, we understand that. But we also want to make sure that we create an environment where people feel that it's okay to fail as long as we're learning from those failures, we're failing forward and we're not continuing to make those same mistakes. And without that environment in place, it's not going to afford us the best opportunity to be our creative best and that's what a lot of these things come. Sometimes these ideas come from the water cooler, sometimes they just come from a ink tank, sometimes they come from an outside session, sometimes they come from some of that research that you're doing over the weekend on your spare time. And so we just bring that back together once a month, we try to talk about it and we try to be open to it and then in some small way, some unofficial way, we have our own R and D department, own R and D shop going on and we might get a little more robust with that and a little more formal later, but we have created an environment where we're receptive to that.
Andrew: Do you have maybe an example of a creative solution somebody brought to the table that you were able to push through, bring into production and create business value with.
Brian Benn: Absolutely. We have a couple of proprietary tools. We have what we call a five eight DVS system, it's proprietary software. I'd like to say it's actually some award- winning software which tracks all the five eights of the agency. It's a pretty robust program and I don't think in most of the PHAs, the Public Housing Authorities have this actual program and we also have another piece of software called Atlas. It's an affordable database for all the affordable housing properties in the city of Atlanta. It's a cloud- based product and those are two proprietary products, the latter one won an award also. So five eight DVs, Atlas are two proprietary products that our technologists have created over the last couple of years. So we're very excited about it and we think being receptive to that creativity and affording our technologists an opportunity to fail is definitely what helps spawn these types of products.
Andrew: Good example of a failure that you learned from?
Brian Benn: Absolutely. A good example, lets see... I think just me on a personal level, I think I've just tried to grow in terms of just looking inward and just how I relate to people and deal with people and understanding that we all have flaws. And so I've tried to be a little more lenient or understanding of mistakes that people may make, or that my team members of my peers may even make because I'm looking introspectively at some of my failures. So I don't know when that necessarily jumps out but I've tried to be more communicative, just try to be more patient as I grow and hoping that those around me grow from that same walk that I'm taking.
Andrew: Right and I may think part of that is the-
Brian Benn: I fail with my kids all the time if you want and you want some of those examples, [ I'm proud of the workplace but 00:18:34] my kids can tell you about my many failures as a parent.
Andrew: I'll join that club. Yeah. No, when I look at failures personally and professionally that I've learned from, there's always two pieces to it, right? There's the is the environment such that failure is not just, okay, we're going to fail, we're going to fail fast, we're going to fail forward, call it whatever you want but is the environment allow for that level of vulnerability so that it's okay to fail as long as you're doing it fast or whatever the case might be. If you're going to go spend two years and a ton of money for a failure then, okay, what checks are along the way? But I think that a lot of organizations struggle with that because there's not necessarily the vulnerability to allow for that failure. It's not a failure. It's a we tried this, it didn't work. We're trying something else. We still believe in the overall mission or hypothesis, or we no longer believe in it so we're going to ditch this, we're going to put it aside and I think communication is a big part of that. On the professional side, is there an example of something that the team tried, failed, learn from, moved on or perfected?
Brian Benn: Most of the products that I talked about that, the Atlas product and the five eight DVS, there was several failures along the way. Even the five eight DVS that we have in the market now, we had some issues with this product not too long ago. Two things that we do when we failed that we think are very helpful. One, we don't play the blame game. We win as a team and we fail as a team but the other thing is we make sure that the RCA is useful and it's done quickly and I'm talking about that root cause analysis. So that root cause analysis is integral to us not repeating those same failures, learning from those failures and also some of the failures that we may have in one product or one area, we can prevent ourselves from having that same failure with another product because we learn from the other products. So again, we don't play the blame game and we make sure that the RCA is useful and it's done swiftly while these things are fresh in our mind. So both of those products we failed along the way even recently once it was deployed.
Andrew: You can almost tell from... I've read so many RCAs in my career, I can tell pretty quickly if this is a CYA RCA, where it's an RCA but really not good. We did it because it's part of the process and we specifically skirted around specific issues or things are worded in a, maybe it blames the wrong word but like at some point somebody screwed up. Or we didn't have that specific test case, or that requirement didn't occur to us or something was wrong and you don't need to say it was Brian's fault, or it was Andrew's fault, or it was somebody else's fault but it didn't just mysteriously happen. There was a failure of a process. What process failed and why? And sometimes if they're watered down or they exist to demonstrate that nobody should be blamed then you can't really learn from them. I think it's a very hard thing to do as my point is isn't a proper root cause analysis that you can learn from?
Brian Benn: Absolutely.
Andrew: I think a lot of these things exist because they're part of a process so it needs to happen and therefore we fail to learn from them, I guess that's my point.
Brian Benn: Right. I agree.
Andrew: Yeah. So it sounds like you take a lot of software development methodology, agile leadership into the broader IT perspective which we're seeing. I mean, in some customers and others I speak to they're hiring scrum masters into teams that traditionally didn't have any sort of process. It wasn't necessarily waterfall versus scrum. There were infrastructure guys processing requests and now it's Kanban and there's a scrum master and they're trying to get better and better and trying a different approaches to see if they can increase their velocity and you start hearing all these terms, it's just pervasive across everything. It sounds like you have software developers in your team, you've released these products but I would imagine you also have administrators and infrastructure people and cloud experts. Do you tend to use scrum methodology or at least apply agile concepts across everything?
Brian Benn: I wouldn't say we use scrum or even Kanban or everything but I will say that the agile methodologies and some of those things inherent to agile itself are very applicable. Each practice we have, whether it's a software engineering, whether it's infrastructure, whether it's dev ops, there's a paradigm that if we extrapolate it and take it up a level I think it's useful in so many ways. And so part of that journey was me actually, I think a few years ago I did what was called a Cal certification as a certified agile leader level one. So it takes some of those same principles that inherent to scrum mastery, it takes it up a level where you can be more comprehensive and apply to things and again, some of those things that we talked about, the relationship management, understanding the needs of the customer, creating your strategies. So it's malleable and you can reassess the applicability and achievability of it. I think some of those things are definitely helpful when we take some of these paradigms that each of these practices have, take it up a level and just try to be more comprehensive in our approach to everything.
Andrew: Yeah. I think that's critical. I have a, this might sound strange from somebody who's been in the software industry for 25 or 30 years, sort of a love- hate relationship with some of the specific methodologies because in some cases they become almost like a religion and there's one way to do things. And that one way to do things is applicable no matter what the context is, this will work, just follow this. And there's always different contexts. You walk into situations where the software is or has been around for 15 years and has all sorts of hair on it and there's no automated testing or there's no ability to do this or that and you approached something very differently in that context versus the it's brand new. If you're building something that has enormous safety requirements or security requirements or scalability requirements, you're going to have practices that surround the actual construction of features or functions through a software perspective. And so sometimes if it has an acronym and has a book then I've traditionally found that it's too prescribed. The methodology itself needs to apply to a context and we need to shift things around based on that context and yet, then I speak to some of those in the industry, especially those that are writing the books and others who greatly disagree with me in a very passionate way. Maybe I'm just not doing it right but I've found throughout the years that all of that is super good to learn and understand and drive from an experience standpoint. But at some point you find your own ways of doing things and so I like this idea of that agile leadership concept that's just sort of bringing this mindset to a higher and more abstract level because there is so much about those approaches that just make sense and they make sense more and more every year than decade or two ago when these were started because everything is changing faster. This idea that any approach could be more of like a waterfall approach these days regardless of what you're applying it to is sort of irrational because too much changes too quickly. And if you are hell bent on what you thought was the right result a year and a half ago, well then you're going to drive something that's not going to meet your customer's requirements anymore. So it just makes sense and I think any of us that have been through all of that training and workshopping and we bring it to every aspect of our lives where you're constantly thinking in that mode of, where should we get started, where should we assess, what's going well with this, what's not going well with this, is there something we should change at this point? You're just constantly having those thoughts going through your head so that you never find yourself in a where you're not second guessing yourself anymore. I think that used to be a lack of confidence, right? Oh God, he's second guessing, he's not quite sure, doesn't he know what the requirements are versus a that is confidence. You need to have the confidence, that's what I was talking about before in terms of having an organization that allows for some level of vulnerability. You need to have the confidence to not be certain what the end result should be.
Brian Benn: I like that.
Andrew: Yeah. I think that's the tough sell to people that haven't lived a life where they've been working through agile processes.
Brian Benn: Absolutely
Andrew: And it sounds like you have been, I mean, I really love your mission and I mean, anything that's driving technical literacy to those where it's harder to, not just training, it's harder to just grow up with this stuff. You don't have access to and the more that organizations like yours reducing that hurdle to access is critical and companies like my company BlueCat should. We've often thought more about what we can do to help training on the network and network literacy side as well. It's conversations like this that makes me reflect. I don't think we've done enough to drive that as well. So great, is anything, I just want to make sure that there's something else that you want to talk about that I didn't bring up? Or another question you think I should ask?
Brian Benn: No, I'm just excited. I mean, this was definitely excellent. I'm just excited. I'd be remiss if I didn't speak to our team, the great team we have. As leaders, I think we just need to always affirm the team and the great work they do and their dedication and their commitment and how they've adjusted to this I hate using this term new norm, but in essence that's what really is and how they've adjusted and been on the responsive and then kept the mission in front of them because this has been challenging for so many people on so many levels. And I just think as leaders it's important that we don't forget the simple things. Check in on your team, make sure you have people that have become teachers. And, oh my gosh, God bless those that are teaching the toddlers or the four and five and six year olds. I mean mine are abit oldest, got one in school, one in college and one in high school so of course if they have food, wireless and money I may not even see them. But the other ones with younger kids.
Andrew: I saw a video recently of a teacher doing virtual classes and I think it was roughly that age group. It was for sure elementary school and she was trying to tell them to, I think she had signs like this meant you should stay on mute, this means go off of mute. And she had kids not on mute and kids off of mute and the patience that I saw in that teacher so far exceeded any level of patience that I've had as a parent. It was amazing to me to watch the dedication even for that 20 second clip.
Brian Benn: So I applaud them and I applaud all of the selfless frontline workers and that's just all I went down with. I just want to make sure I applaud all of those people that made the adjustment and all those frontline workers that are putting their lives on the line daily.
Andrew: Super. Well, thank you very much.
Brian Benn: Thank you.