Sarah Palin’s CIO on Hunting for Bear and IT Staff
What's it like to be Sarah Palin's CIO? In this latest Hiring Manager interview, Alaska CIO Annette Kreitzer talks about IT culture change, working for a high-profile boss and making time for the bear necessities.
By Amanda K. Brady
Annette Kreitzer inherited a rudderless IT department when Alaska Governor Sarah Palin appointed her CIO and commissioner of the state’s Department of Administration in January 2007.
Enterprise Technology Services (ETS), the approximately 130-person IT arm of the Department of Administration that provides technology infrastructure and support throughout state government, had lacked steady leadership before Kreitzer arrived. As a result, members of ETS focused on putting out fires, repeatedly missed implementation deadlines, and the heads of other departments that had to work with ETS found ways around them. Kreitzer’s job as CIO is to build ETS’s credibility by establishing a technology vision for state government, setting IT priorities and getting other state commissioners on board with her agenda.
“That’s when a strong personality comes in handy,” says Kreitzer, alluding to the tenacious, no-nonsense style she shares with her boss, Governor Palin. “I probably don’t have a lot of fans within some departments that do IT.”
Improving ETS is just one of Kreitzer’s many responsibilities. As commissioner of administration, she oversees a department with 1,029 employees across 11 divisions that together provide all administrative services for state government, including finance, retirement and benefits, facilities services, and of course IT. Kreitzer also negotiates the state’s 11 union contracts on behalf of Governor Palin. As a top aide to Palin, Kreitzer was required to testify in Troopergate—the investigation into whether Governor Palin had abused her power in trying to get her former brother-in-law fired. (The Alaska Legislature concluded she did abuse her powers while a separate investigation conducted by the Alaska Personnel Board found that she did not, according to The New York Times.)
Kreitzer doesn’t have an IT background, but she knows Alaska state government intimately, having worked for the state for 26 years. She began her career in 1983 when she got a job in the state legislature as a secretary. In the 1990s, she worked for then-State Senator Loren Leman. When Leman was elected lieutenant governor in 2002, he named Kreitzer his chief of staff. She held that position until Governor Palin named her CIO and put her in charge of the Department of Administration.
Amanda Brady caught up with Kreitzer just before the CIO went on vacation to go on her annual spring bear hunt. (“They’re good eating in the spring, but they’re not good eating in the fall,” says Kreitzer.) She discussed the challenges she faces trying to re-build ETS’s credibility, her approach to hiring, and her relationship with the boss, Governor Palin.
Amanda Brady: What was your biggest challenge when you first stepped into the CIO role?
Annette Kreitzer: One of the difficulties that I recognized right away was that this department had had four commissioners in four years and four ETS directors in that same time span. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that that sets up a situation where you have no core political leadership to say ‘This is the direction we are going in and lets all move there together.’ Because of that, other department heads had felt like ETS was not meeting their needs, so they were going off and doing their own thing regardless of what the chief information officer, the former commissioner and Department of Administration might have to say about it. I completely understand why other departments said, ‘We got other stuff to do and we don’t have time to listen to what ETS wants to do. We see them as a barrier to what we want to achieve.’
That was the biggest thing, the toughest thing I faced as a chief information officer—recognizing that a lot had happened because of an absence of leadership. ETS had become an entity that set such unrealistic deadlines that nobody was listening to them anymore. I wasn’t listening to them. I was sitting in the lieutenant governor’s office seeing these emails from ETS saying, ‘As of this date we are going to roll something out.’ That day would come and go and there would be a new deadline and that deadline would come and go.
So when I came in, I tried to change that. I tasked one of my deputy commissioners, Rachael Petro*, to put a laser focus on ETS because I had been appointed on January 16, right in the middle of a legislative session, and on that Friday I was in front of the legislature talking about our budget as best as I could after three days on the job.
How did you pick Rachael for that job?
I have to back up a bit: I spent a lot of time mentoring people when I worked for Senator [Loren] Leman in the state senate and later in the Lieutenant Governor’s office. We had university interns who came into our office, and I spent a lot of time mentoring folks and creating this whole list of talent. As I moved into the lieutenant governor’s office, I started calling these folks who had worked for us over the years. When I have a job opening, I go back to that list of people I mentored over the years, and I say I think this is a good fit for you. Sometimes there’s nobody on the list who would be a good fit, but that’s my first resource.
*In an earlier version of this story, CIO.com incorrectly spelled Rachael Petro’s first and last name. We regret the error. On the previous page, we updated the number of employees in ETS based on new information we received from Kreitzer’s executive assistant.
When I was put in charge of ETS, Rachael was on that list and she was working in the department of natural resources. Of all the people I could think of who could do what I knew needed to be done with ETS, Rachel was the person I wanted because she’s tenacious and would stay focused on a problem and would not give up and go away until we got it resolved. In government, people say, ‘There’s an election every four years. I been here a long time. I can wait you out.’ When I was appointed, I was very determined that that was not going to happen to me. Surely there would be people out there who were going say, ‘I’ll wait you out,’ but I wasn’t going to let them wait me out.
Did Rachael have an IT background?
No. What Rachael had was the ability to get in there and understand the problem. And the problem was that ETS had a reputation for saying yes to everything and trying to do everything with no vision of what’s really a priority. People couldn’t account for their time. I don’t mean to say that people in ETS were slacking off, but they were just whirling around without any priorities. I know what that feels like, and my greatest desire was to bring stability to them. They knew when they came in for the day what their priorities where for that day. We always have emergencies; that’s the nature of computers. But outside of emergencies, you shouldn’t always be in a reactive mode, and that’s what ETS had been in for a couple of years.
What challenges are you facing now?
The challenges that we face now get to the, “I can wait you out” problem. I take the role of chief information officer very seriously. I understand my statutory responsibilities. As the chief information officer and commissioner of the Department of Administration, part of my charge from the governor is to keep costs down. I am very familiar with her philosophy of smaller government. I don’t have to be told something twice. So I have to work with other commissioners to help them understand why they should support what I want when their team doesn’t want what I want, but their way would cost the state more money. I think it would be very easy to marginalize a chief information officer in government, even at a cabinet level, because there are so many other issues the commissioners are dealing with. But I believe the governor has my back. It comes down to prioritizing and focusing on what’s the most important thing we need to accomplish. If you don’t have that, you can’t move forward in good times and efficiently use all your resources.
You’ve worked in a number of different organizations within state government. Does your approach to hiring change depending on the organization you’re serving?
When I hired nurse practitioners for the clinics out on the Aleutian Islands, I tried to be very truthful about the work environment: You can only get to the Alaska peninsula by boat or by plane and the wind blows all the time and it rains a lot. I almost tried to talk them out of the job. My approach then was to have them tell me they wanted the job.
When I came to the legislature, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, and here in the Department of Administration, hiring became more about, “Do you have a sense of humor? Can you sit with the team we already have? Is your skill set what we need?” Both the skill set and personality have to fit. If you have a skill set and you can’t get along with anybody, you’re no good to me; how are you going to get anything done? No one is an island, and you have to be able to get along with other people. I’ll take the person who fits in and train them over the person who has oodles and oodles of experience but shows me that they can’t get along.
Is there a certain skill that you require for your IT team?
Certainly, they have to understand and speak the language of IT. They also need to show me their vision. That’s very important. Don’t just talk to me as though I was reading something out of an IT magazine. If you’re just spouting that back to me, that’s not vision.
Tell me about your interview process? Do you include non-IT workers in it?
Yes. For example, when we hired the ETS director, both of my deputy commissioners were involved. Neither one has a huge background in IT. We solicited feedback from within the ETS division, asking, “What do you perceive the issues to be in your division?” We synthesized and summarized all those comments. Then we went back to the ETS folks and said, “Okay, this is what we heard from you. Now we are going out to hire somebody who’s going to deal with these issues, as well as the issues that the commissioner thinks are important.”
My deputy commissioners and I wait until the very last person has been interviewed to compare notes on every applicant. It’s amazing how close we are most of the time on the top one or two people.
I include other department managers to the extent that we ask for their input on what they think the issues are and what they would like to see in a director or manager. I do not include them in the interview process because I’m a strong personality and I know what I want. Frankly, I run this department, and if something goes wrong, it comes back to me. I absolutely take responsibility for the people I hire.
Do most of your hires come from outside government or from within?
Most of them actually have been in government. But we had some very strong candidates for the ETS director position who were not in government.
Since you’re managing functions outside of IT and interviewing people for different functions, do you approach those discussions differently than with candidates for your ETS group?
No. Really, the key things for me in every director position is skill sets, interpersonal skills and vision. If the technical and interpersonal skills are there, but the candidate lacks vision for how to get the job done, I see dark clouds on the horizon. I don’t expect them to have every answer—they can’t possibly because they don’t know the organization—but give me some kind of overview of how you’ll deal with the problems we’ve lain out.
Also, I don’t just hire people and go away. My directors have complete access to me. If they have some big problems they want to talk about, they know they can pick up the phone and call me.
Do you remember the first person you ever hired?
I think it was a mid-level nurse practitioner for the clinic. I was on a health board and we collectively hired an executive director for the health board. I was probably 27 or so.
What did you base your hiring decisions on then and how does that compare with today?
Back then I based my decision on ensuring that the person knew what they were getting into. I think I’ve kept the same approach because you have to have the right person for the right situation. That’s really the bottom line.
Did you receive training on how to hire and manage people?
No. When I was younger, I read all these management books, but I read them for the sole purpose of being able to throw a wrench in it. I worked three jobs and went to school at night. I had very little patience, unfortunately, (I’m just being honest) for managers who would go from one [management] philosophy to another. They would flip from “one minute manager” to “management by objective.” It was as though the people they managed where their little ponds and whatever new idea they had from going to conferences on management, they were going to try that out on their little group. But they never really adopted those philosophies. It was their costume for a time. So that’s how I trained myself. I learned how to deal with difficult people because I was one.
Is hiring instinctive or can you teach people to make good hires?
I think it’s both because you have instinct, but you can learn better ways to act on your instinct. You learn to be more fair to the person who’s applying for the job. It goes back to not expecting them to have all the answers when they come in. A lot of people tend to put all of the responsibility on the person interviewing for the position. But you as the interviewer have the responsibility to articulate what you’re looking for; you can’t expect a candidate to articulate that for you.
What do you consider a successful hire?
When the person performs as I envision they would. When you hire someone, you think they have the right skill sets and they are going to be a fit. When that actually happens and they surpass your expectations, that’s a successful hire.
What was your biggest hiring mistake?
I hired somebody out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to fill the position. I felt like I was already asking everybody in the office to do too much, and I was worried about the impact of work not getting done on everyone else. I felt I needed to fill the position quickly and I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find another person to fill it. I didn’t do my normal due diligence.
Do you have any bad interview stories?
I can’t think of any interviews that were bad. I have had some tough evaluations where I’ve had to tell people that they were not getting their merit increase. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary. As a manager, if you don’t help somebody overcome their flaws, if you don’t hold the mirror out to show them what their performance has been, they aren’t going to get any better. It’s incumbent on you as a manager to help them get better and help them know what the steps are to get better. Talking about it is the difficult part.
Have you ever had a situation where you really liked a candidate, but other people on your team didn’t? What happened? Did you ever hire the candidate?
We came close to that one time, but in the end I decided not to hire the person. It was absolutely for the best. I had to take a step back and force myself to listen to the team. You don’t always want to hear something different from what you’re thinking.
Do you think dissention is good?
I don’t necessarily think of it as dissention. I think of it as everyone having an opportunity to talk about what they observed. It’s a sorting-through process. There are times every week that one of the deputies will say to me, “Do you really want to do that?” And I appreciate that because they are not serving me well and they are not serving the state if they aren’t willing to tell me when they think I’m wrong.
What’s your advice for climbing the ladder in state government?
My advice to somebody climbing the ladder internally is to be open to being mentored and to mentor others, and to remember it’s not all about you. [It’s about serving the state].
What advice would you give to someone interviewing with a chief information officer?
You need to have a vision. It could be about technology or about your management style. It’s something that’s uniquely you. You can’t just be quoting from an article in PC Magazine about the latest trends. If you’re applying for a manager position, what makes you different from the person in a line position? What unique skills do you bring? I think people are a little afraid to do this sometimes. I think they want to talk about the things they know or the so-called right answer, the safe answers. Remember, I read all those management books, too.
When someone walks into your office to interview with you, what should they expect?
They should expect a conversation. I’ll ask questions, but these questions are designed to create a conversation about how you view management and what your experience has been and what goofs you have made in the past and what you’ve learned from them. I don’t want to hear yes, no, since 1987. It’s not a test.
Part of my job is to pull out of the candidate the things that are important to me. We have a structured interview process when we are interviewing for director-level positions, but I go off script, and it makes everybody very nervous. If I ask one candidate something, I will ask every candidate, from a skill set standpoint and a management standpoint.
We also go through an ethics scenario. That’s important to me. I put people on the hot seat when it comes to ethics and give them scenarios where they might have to confront me about something, to see how they react. I want them to understand how seriously we take it. ETS is one of the divisions that gets hit by vendors. I want them to understand what my standards are and what the governor’s standards are. We can’t afford to have anyone who doesn’t understand that.
None of us is perfect. When you have a candidate who you have probed and probed and they still appear to be without fault, that makes me nervous. It doesn’t mean you have to manufacture some fault; I have to figure out a way to see if there’s something there that I’m not seeing.
What’s appropriate to wear to an interview?
I set a pretty professional standard in my office so I would expect someone to come to an interview dressed professionally. I don’t care about their skill sets if they can’t come to an interview presenting themselves in the best possible way.
What are your interview pet peeves?
Answering a cell phone. People always do this really quickly. “Oh, I’m sorry, let me shut it off.” You’re coming to an interview. At what point were you going to think about turning off your cell phone? When I was interviewing somebody for the lieutenant governor’s office, I remember somebody answering their cell phone. There were other things that they had done that had already raised red flags and that was the last straw.
Would you ever interview someone who called you directly or who sent on a letter or résumé to you?
If they are applying here within this department and their résumé is interesting, I will probably agree to meet with them. I might not have a position open for them, but I will meet with them.
What advice do you have for job seekers about constructing their résumés or cover letters?
There’s this debate over whether a résumé should be one page or two pages. What candidates fail to think about is all the other stuff hiring managers have to read. Make your résumé easy to read. Make it easy to follow, and if it takes two pages to give your pertinent experience, then take two pages.
We have a portal called Workplace Alaska where people input their experience. I’ll sometimes get Workplace Alaska information from candidates that says they are applying for a different job in some other part of state government. They don’t tailor their application or cover letter to one of my specific openings. If I have enough applicants, I’ll set that one aside because obviously they are just looking for a job. They are not really looking to work here. I want somebody to really want to work here.
A cover letter to me says, “I’m really interested in this job. I care enough to try to summarize my experience for you in a cover letter rather than just giving you a mass produced résumé that I may have given to 1,500 other people.”
What three interview questions do you always ask candidates?
I start off by asking, “Tell me about your experience.” That’s your opportunity to sell your experience. I’m not constricting you in any way.
Second, “How do you keep yourself sharp as a manager?” You have to be sharp as a manager, so what is it that you do for yourself that keeps you sharp.
And the last thing I always ask is, “Why should I hire you?” My goal is that you’ll understand what my needs are and you’ll tell me you can and want to meet those needs.
What impact did the presidential race have on your organization.
The impact on us was the large number of public records requests that hit the state. Because we maintain those servers, we are the ones who had to do the research and we are still searching for e-mails that people have requested. Governor Palin is very visible, and there are lots of people who support her and like her, and there are lots of people who are concerned about her rising in any way, shape or form, so we continue to get a lot of public records requests that we have to respond to.
Is Governor Palin going bear hunting with you?
No. She’s a big hunter and a big fisherman. I have never asked her if she’d rather be fishing than hunting. I suspect that perhaps she likes to fish maybe just a tad more, but I think if she has a chance to get away she’d love to go.
Amanda K. Brady is associate director of The Alexander Group. She works out of the executive search firm’s Houston office.