by Stephanie Overby

Profile: James Albert, San Francisco Municipal Railway Department CIO

Mar 01, 20022 mins

One of the things James Albert likes most about being a public sector CIO is the feeling of working with a blank canvas. That’s an appropriate metaphor for a man who has made as much of a name for himself as a digital artist as for his 12 years as CIO in San Francisco municipal agencies. Last year, Albert’s digital artwork earned him the title of academic associate from the Academia del Verbano, an art institute in Vinzaglio, Italy.

Ask him about his duties as CIO of the San Francisco Municipal Railway Department (MUNI), and his answer is less poetic. “The job is one of being politically able to negotiate your way through potholes on a day-to-day basis,” he says. As MUNI’s CIO for the past five years, Albert has struggled to get the department managers to run the transportation agency as a business. “In government, that’s still an alien concept,” Albert says. “It’s been a rough road, but they have become more IT conscious.”

Albert started working for Bay Area government in 1989. Confined to a wheelchair following a motorcycle accident in 1967, he wanted to be a building inspector and focus on disability access, but the director of the Department of Building Inspections said he had a higher need for Albert. With Albert’s background in systems integration, his new boss insisted on bringing him on as IT director (that title later changed to CIO).

After the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked San Francisco in October 1989, Albert installed a new network at the department. “All of a sudden, I looked real good,” he remembers. The city’s chief administrative officer then gave him carte blanche for further IT investments. Albert still considers creating that IT department from scratch as his biggest accomplishment.

In 1997, the city IT committee asked Albert to apply his IT art to MUNI. The 56-year-old believes that being a government CIO isn’t all that different from working in the corporate world. “It’s a relationship business. Of all the CIOs I’ve spoken to, we all have the same problem and that’s managing expectations?what you want to do, when, why and how,” he says.