City CIO O'Brien among those making a difference

September 19, 2005


My cell phone rang the other night. It was Chris O'Brien, chief information officer for the City of Chicago. I had been wondering if O'Brien was ducking my calls. I wanted details on a speech he delivers Wednesday at Spiaggia before the Society for Information Management.

O'Brien is set to describe the success of Chicago's five-year technology plan created in 2000. He's proud of the systems the city has created to support customer service, administration, budgeting, revenue collection, public safety and human services. He believes Chicago's enterprise systems are ahead of other municipalities. The talk is mostly for tech types. It's a shirtsleeves discussion for gear heads.

So why no response from O'Brien?

That's when O'Brien told me about Fosco Park near Racine and Roosevelt, where he's been helping set up an intake center for nearly 2,000 Hurricane Katrina victims. O'Brien and his tech team put in the computer network and desktops so FEMA, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross could assist the victims moved here.

"It was a really good experience," said a weary but obviously pleased O'Brien. "It really mattered."

Paraphrasing the late Rodney Dangerfield, most CIOs get little respect. When something breaks, they get the call. Public sector CIOs like O'Brien, John Flynn at the CTA, Bob Runcie at the Chicago Public Schools, Tom Lynch at the Chicago Park District, Barbara Banks at the Chicago Housing Authority and Jay Carlson at the state get even less regard.

These public sector tech execs are typically paid less than their commercial sector counterparts. They often have to deliver more services with less resources.

So why do it? I asked one of my headhunter friends at the blue chip executive search firm Spencer Stuart. He reminded me that public sector executives are typically "mission focused." That's another way of saying these tech execs care. They work for less because they want to make a difference.

A lot gets written about our first responders. My hat's off to the police and firefighters who run into a crisis when the rest of us are running away. After hearing about the communications challenges they had in New Orleans, I'm glad there are techies like O'Brien and his cohorts who work each day to keep the city's tech infrastructure running.

I think I'll even go hear O'Brien speak about that five-year plan.

CDW delivers $500K

Thirty-five years ago, Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman penned a famous New York Times article. It was titled, "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits." Friedman argued against corporate giving.

"That article always made me a little mad," says CDW CEO John Edwardson, who read it as a young MBA candidate at the University of Chicago. Edwardson is one of Chicago's most civic-minded CEOs.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Edwardson and CDW agreed to match co-worker donations 4-to-1. They've raised $500,000 so far for the relief effort. Edwardson says, "It's the right thing to do."

Cool batwings

For years, Motorola was a bastion of engineering excel-lence but no sizzle. Now Motorola is becoming a cool brand as well. The man making the Motorola brand sharp as a RAZR is chief marketing officer Geoffrey Frost.

Thursday, Frost explains "How Moto Is Making the 'Batwing' Cool Again" when he speaks at the Business Marketing Association luncheon at the University Club.

Roger Crockett, Business Week tech maven and Chicago deputy bureau chief, introduces Frost. For details see:

Bits & Bytes

Three up and coming local entrepreneurs: Chris Gladwin, Cleversafe, a data storage security solutions company; Rik Chomko, co-founder, InRule, a software tools provider, and Joe Perry, Red Sky Financial, a provider of direct access to financial markets, got positive reviews at the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center Venture Forum.

McCormick Place hosts 1,000 IT professionals this week for the IT Service Management Forum. ... October's MIT Technology Review honors top innovators under 35. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chemistry professor Paul Hergenrother, 33, makes the list. ... The National Science Foundation awards $2 million to the U of I/C for CLEANER, a network knowledge base to aid environmental research.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.



 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners