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How the Cloud Helps San Mateo County CARE for its Employees and Citizens


Sean Thakkar is the Deputy CIO for the County of San Mateo, California. His post originally appeared on LinkedIn and you can view a short video about the County's work-from-anywhere journey here.

When I travel across San Mateo County’s 100 miles of shoreline, with its secluded beaches, jagged cliffs, and mountains rising between valleys—ultimately leading to the San Francisco Bay—I can’t help but forget that I am in the heart of Silicon Valley. 

Being home to the world’s most well-known start-up scene, the Valley continues to be at the forefront of technological advancement. Located in the midst of it, the Information Services Division (ISD) of San Mateo County invests heavily in the latest technologies to provide world-class services for our employees, citizens, and constituents. 

Much like all of Silicon Valley, the citizens of San Mateo County expect their government to use technology as a means to meet the needs of its tech-savvy inhabitants. This includes deploying a modern infrastructure so businesses and individuals can interact with the county via a variety of web and online services. To support our constituents’ expectations, we have been on a digital transformation journey, investing heavily in cloud technologies such as Okta, Workday, Office 365, and Zscaler.

As part of Creating A Remarkable Experience (CARE), which is our internal dogma, and being in Silicon Valley, we have been ahead of the curve and embraced the culture of remote work. Moving to cloud-based security has allowed us to provide all those employees on flexible schedules and those, whose work happens outside a traditional office environment with the same experience accessing the applications they need for their daily work in the field or at home as if they were in an office. On a daily basis, they interact with our citizenry; they travel between the homes of our constituents to provide human services, they are outside building roads or fixing street lights. 

As COVID-19 emerged, we had to pivot to focus our attention on the safety and well-being of 10,000 County employees and contractors, while conducting County business and providing services to our citizens in a timely and effective manner. 

Having been on this journey of heavily investing in SaaS and cloud security, we had a lot of the infrastructure in place that would ultimately assist us in our transition from having 35 percent of our workforce on a flexible schedule to 90 percent of our employees working from home within a matter of days. This allowed us to provide critical services with minimal disruption.

Additionally, we ramped up our County website to provide critical COVID-19-related information and urgently needed services in an easy-to-use fashion. We prepared hospitals and rented entire hotels to allow people suspected of having the virus, or those who were homeless or didn’t have family members who could take care of them, to safely shelter in place. We purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect our first responders, such as our Sheriff, Fire, and Emergency services, and hospitals. And we equipped our first responders with technologies that were always up and available so that they could focus their attention on providing services to the people who needed it the most.

Many of our staff have worked around the clock to get ahead of this pandemic and provide security and safety to our citizens. For the technology and services that enable their dedication, I credit our County Manager Mike Callagy, Deputy Manager Iliana Rodriguez, my boss Jon Walton, and my colleague Michael Wentworth for having the foresight to show the people of San Mateo County that we CARE in every sense of the word. I also want to specifically thank our Board of Supervisors, which has been supporting our vision from its inception.

This pandemic has once more demonstrated that we need to have a “nonstop” environment with an uptime of 99.9999%. Any infrastructure that requires maintenance, such as routers, switches, and firewalls, should be replaced with the cloud-delivered infrastructure needed to reduce latencies and improve employee and citizen experiences.

To me, this crisis has proved that we were doing the right things leading up to the coronavirus pandemic. I believe there are a few technologies that will stand the test of time—those that can be explained in a sentence or two that are going to be successful as we transform from our current reality to a new way of conducting business. To me, Zscaler and Nutanix belong in that category.

The last few months have shown that the hard work we put into our jobs always pays off, specifically when we are faced with crisis situations that require us to accomplish things under difficult and stressful circumstances. Working as a team, practicing positive thinking, and believing that we can overcome the challenges at hand will help us overcome any difficulties we may face. I keep reminding my team to focus on the tasks at hand and not dwell on the problems of tomorrow. As human beings, we can accomplish things we would never have believed were possible and, as leaders, we need to guide the people around us through a time like this to empower them and make them stronger—both personally and professionally.

From my experience, going through a digital transformation at a local government agency, I have learned the following:

  • Work with trusted partners both on the applications side as well as on the services side
  • Execution is the key, so set the speed that meets your strategic needs
  • Act with a sense of urgency
  • Do not become a professional firefighter
  • You can eat the elephant, but only one bite at a time
  • Anxiety and stress are par for the course
  • Having technologies that assist with remote work is table stakes 

I will also apply these learnings to our next big mission, which is to bridge the digital divide in our County. For example, even though many kids in our school systems get Google Chromebooks from school, if they don’t have access to the internet at home, the technology doesn’t help them with their homework.

Thus, we are planning on making Wi-Fi ubiquitous for the whole County, to all those kids whether they live alongside our beautiful beaches, in the valleys, or the mountains. At this time, we have free Wi-Fi available at 100 sites, covering 25 percent of our total geography. Now our goal is to identify the pockets and regions where the digital divide is most prevalent and provide free internet access to help bridge that gap.


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