With a population of more than one million, and comprising 90 percent of the city of Atlanta, Fulton is Georgia’s largest county and economic hub. Sallie Wright was hired in 2015 as the county’s chief information officer, serving in the position for three years.
Wright transformed the county’s IT department, determining the department’s direction on technology, and establishing technology best practices, standardization and guidance for the county manager as well as all elected and constitutional official senior advisors. She oversaw everything from internal systems for a complex Courts and Justice System to the water treatment infrastructure, customer facing systems, and voter registration and elections. Her specialty areas are in enterprise infrastructure, IT strategic planning, and information technology security and privacy.
The effective technological transformation within Fulton Government was recognized when Wright was inducted into the Pink Tech Hall of Fame in 2015. She was nominated and was a finalist for Georgia CIO of the Year for the past three years. She also was nominated for a leadership impact award through the Atlanta Technical Professionals (ATP) organization.
“These are such great honors. My goal when I was with the county was to be known as the top local government IT shop in the nation,” Wright said. “While I was building our brand, I would go to two or three events a week, allowing me to meet a large number of people. These interactions enabled us to make changes and build relationships.”
30+ Years of Technology Leadership
Wright has been a senior technology executive for more than 30 years. Her tech career has spanned seven different industries including government and higher education. Besides serving as Fulton County’s CIO until August 2018, she previously functioned as Deputy Chief Information Officer for Georgia State University and held executive roles at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of North Carolina and within the private sector.
“Each role has its own set of opportunities. Some industries move quickly to embrace change and to be more profitable. Other industries are so mired in bureaucracy that they can’t move quickly or don’t always embrace change,” Wright said. “But each experience provides opportunities for growth.”
Wright spent 15 years working in higher education and continues to serve as a mentor for Georgia State University’s graduate program. She also will be teaching classes at Georgia State this next semester.
“I absolutely love higher education, and I love the opportunity to work with students and to have students on my staff, even if the timeframe is just one semester of their time at college. The experience makes such a huge difference for these students and facilitates their getting actual jobs,” she said. “I think higher education is like a breath of fresh air because the kids come with their expectations for technology so high that their enthusiasm helps drive what you do for the University.”
While working in higher education, Wright had the opportunity to focus on building security programs for three Tier 1 universities: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Oklahoma State University and the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
These universities are big research institutions where security is a focus and a necessity, especially the security of data, research, and intellectual property. During this process and through the years, Wright has become familiar to and now is on a first-name basis with a number of FBI, CIA, and naval security officials.
“My contributions to higher education started long ago when programs in that sector weren’t really available. I wrote some of the first programs for student information systems, student financial aid, housing, and so forth,” she said.
Wright enjoys working with students and tries to teach at least one night class a year. Time spent in the classroom provides her the opportunity to understand the needs of students and faculty from a technology perspective.
Another way Wright contributes her expertise is by serving on boards that impact public and private sectors. Some of these boards are Power My Learning, the Technology Association of Georgia’s Diversity and Inclusion Board, the Executive Board for Atlanta Technical Professionals, the Georgia State University CIS Advisory Board and the Georgia Piedmont Technical School’s Advisory Board.
She also enjoys being able to give back by mentoring students.
“I’ve even mentored people who have come up to me at a conference and asked, ‘will you mentor me?’” Wright said. “I especially try to encourage women who are considering IT and IT management. Many times women in the industry feel like they don’t have the opportunity for advancement.”
Advancing Technology in Fulton County
In 2015, Wright was hired as Fulton County’s CIO to transform the Department of Information Technology. The role was a hefty task: not only was she charged with overseeing all things IT for the county, she had to do so under less-than-ideal conditions. It was discovered in 2014 that a major technical error had resulted in the IT Division wasting millions of dollars on contracts; so when Wright came on board, the overall attitude toward the department was extremely negative.
She also discovered that the division needed extensive professional skills training and equipment updates, even as the division oversaw such critical functions as the judicial courts and various infrastructures.
“I don’t know if anybody’s ever prepared for local government, but I think the key skill I brought to the table besides the technologies skills was my relationship-building skill,” she said.
One of the first ways Wright brought about change was getting people to work together across various functions. For instance, before she was hired, elected officials implemented their modules in silos, so there was no cross-pollination. As a consequence, data didn’t always flow across the entire system. So, for the judicial system, for example, the siloed approach could negatively impact court dates, inmate accountability and other law enforcement activities.
Wright encouraged people to collaborate so people were heard and needs were being met.
This trust-building quickly transformed the judicial department in Fulton. When Wright first arrived, she found the meetings to be tense and a struggle. Wright encouraged collaboration and improved how their systems functioned, and the department began to trust IT.
“IT interactions went from very tense to very collaborative very quickly, and we made major strides,” she said. “I would say our implementation of technology was probably the worst in the nation, as far as that particular vendor went. By the time l left, we were the best in the nation. So, major strides, but all based on relationships.”
In 2016, Wright launched a $22 million, five-year process to update the county’s IT infrastructure – including upgrades aimed at cybersecurity and disaster recovery – and to make the systems easier for residents to digitally access county services. The goal was to reduce the number of in-person visits to county agencies residents had to make to get their questions answered.
“A lot of systems were stuck in the ’90s and the ERP system was about 30-years-old,” she said. “We upgraded the infrastructure and had the opportunity to replace the electronic medical record system for the jail three times in three years. We were able to change and improve vital processes for the people in our county.”
Having worked in numerous industries, Wright discovered implementing technology solutions in the government sector wasn’t as easy as compared to the private sector or in higher education. Some of the reasons Wright said implementations can be a struggle are time constraints, paperwork and budgets.
The process for change also isn’t an easy path, partly because of the number of people an item must pass through before a particular service or system can be altered.
“I know the government sectors want to change, but the processes are very difficult. To spend money, you have to put out a request for a proposal (RFP), and you may get 15 or more responses. Then, a committee must review and evaluate all RFPs and vote on which ones are going to be in the top three to five,” she said.
Once RFPs were evaluated, Wright said the evaluation process then took place all over again. She discovered the timeline from the initial proposal for the RFP through granting a contract could take a year or more.
Another aspect Wright discovered about the government sector was the lack of peer groups for collaboration. This lack of peer collaboration became one of the first things she corrected after taking the job. The Atlanta Regional CIO organization was formed and now meets quarterly, including CIOs from 10 local organizations.
Future Trends in Technology
Data plays an important role when incorporating change in society and the availability of data is why scientists are becoming even more in demand. The need for useable data is why some institutions in higher education are moving forward on including a data analytical curriculum in their coursework.
When Wright worked at Georgia State, data analytics were producing compelling results for the University. The data sets allowed them to broaden the University’s performance measurement schema to include multiple facets of the enrollment management and retention life cycle as well as graduation rates.
The analytics helped determine which students were dropping out because their tuition bills weren’t paid on time. If someone had a Hope Scholarship, which paid 85 percent of college, the monies would be lost if the payment deadline wasn’t met. The student could never get the scholarship back.
At the time, 60 percent of students attending Georgia State were first-time college attendees and came from homes where income levels were $25,000 or less. These students weren’t able to get money from their parents if they needed funds. They also didn’t have the tuition via other means.
“After seeing the analytics, we established a scholarship where if a student needed $200 or they were going to have to drop out, they would receive $200 or the specified amount,” Wright said. “What was significant with the program was how African American males went from a 4 percent graduation rate to a 17 percent graduation rate.”
President Obama then invited Georgia State to come and present how these data analytics impacted the University.
Another area where Wright sees technology transforming the world around it is in technological tools called wearables. She has seen everything become wearable, including headbands with technology, wearable jackets, and even wearable firefighter tools.
“The last grant I worked on at UNC Chapel Hill was a wearable for firefighters,” she said. “The wearable could tell a firefighter how to get out of a building and how much air was left.”
When Wright was at Georgia State she visited Disney World, where she wore a wearable Disney World band. This particular wearable was a joint effort of the hotel and Disney, and kept track of every move made.
“The Disney park complex knew what rides you rode, where you ate, and even what you ate,” she said. “They knew every move you made and later analyzed the data.”
This technology intrigued her and came up in discussion with the University’s president. He found the concept exciting as he believed wearables would allow the University to know when a student was at the library and how long they stayed or if they made it to class.
Wright’s concern with the exciting technology is how privacy is then removed for the individual.
“These exciting new technologies do beg the question of how personal privacy and institutional effectiveness must strike a delicate balance. How much do you really want recorded about your life?” Wright said. “These larger concepts involve creating technology around the structure before we’ve gotten to the point where everybody gives up everything. But is it already too late?”
Wright said blockchain is another big trend – a technology tool that improves the security of transactions and isn’t hackable, something always of huge concern in the age of cybersecurity-related issues.
These are ideas Wright enjoys pondering as she watches technology transform the world around her. Her knowledge and leadership in technology the past 30+ years is why Wright has been successful in numerous industries and roles.
Don’t miss her session at EdgeCon 2019, January 9-11, 2019. For more information on EdgeCon 2019, visit njedge.net/EdgeCon2019/.