Kirk Talbott: Public Sector CIO

Kirk Talbott, Rice University CS alumnus and CIO for Atlanta's MARTA.“For someone who loves solving problems, the public sector provides fascinating challenges,” said Kirk Talbott, CIO for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).

The Rice University Computer Science alumnus (B.A. ’93) has spent the last 15 years of his career as a CIO for local government agencies in California, Texas, Illinois, and Georgia.

He said, “When you look at the variables an organization is trying to maximize you notice the private sector is all about making money and profit. Public government, in contrast, maximizes two other variables; perception and compliance, with less emphasis on profit. It’s a much more complex and fascinating problem space.”

“Granted, the private sector pays well, but it’s a crowded fishing hole. I worked there for almost a decade before changing to the public sector. I’ve found a modicum of success here and I don’t have to work 90-hour weeks to achieve it.”

Government employment was not a goal when he arrived at Rice. Talbott planned to study physics but discovered he was less interested in mathematical equations than applications and switched to Computer Science in his second semester.

“I added linguistics because Rice had an awesome program that waived the 60 non-credit hour requirement if we earned a second degree in a different major. So, I came in at a sophomore level, based on my AP scores in Spanish, and graduated a semester early as a double major. Backing out of physics and falling into CS and Spanish linguistics was fortuitous because I was always looking at the taxonomy of the business problems for each application  based on my linguistics training.”

In his role as a local government CIO, he has discovered a fascination with holistic challenges. He finds these types of problems to be more engaging than the type of issues he tackled while working in the private sector.

“That playbook (private sector profit plan) is already well-thought out. There are not as many papers or playbooks showing how to solve deep problems that impact overlapping constituencies in the government space.”

“If I were a pure Computer Scientist, I would present the logical solution and say ‘deal with it.’ That might work if the primary goal is profit, but if I tried it in the public sector, I’d be out the door in no time. My Rice training in linguistics has helped me find palatable ways to present solutions to stakeholders in the way that is most likely to result in the decision we need.”

Talbott’s diplomacy may have contributed to his rapid rise into leadership roles. His first job after graduating from Rice was working as a computer consultant. His fourth role was CIO for the Public Transit Authority in northern San Diego County.

“I simply chose jobs that sounded interesting at the time, and each time led to another opportunity,” he said. “But being a CIO is a lot like being in a cul-de-sac. There is no logical leap to another role in the public sector. Instead of looking for my next role, I look for the next problem.

“What CS ultimately teaches is systemic and logical thinking. Processes become repeatable and logical. Applied at the most meta level, you want government processes that are repeatable and logical.”

Talbott said he adapted his CS learning and training for government applications. Like technology challenges in the private sector, the first step is to figure out the problem, then the developers can begin crafting or revising a process to solve the issue.

“Most government solutions are political in nature. ‘What will keep people happy, get the bond approved, get me re-elected?’ Only about 40% of my job is architecting a process; 60% of my time is spent figuring out how to sell the solution and get people to adopt it. The higher you get on the CIO chain, the more you become a diplomat.”

One of the problems CIOs deal with is preparing for future technology needs in an evolving landscape. Talbott said in a perfect world, he would look as far as he could forecast and apply that technology early, to have it in place when needed.

“The reality is that you never start from a green field; you begin with the technology you already have in place and what the vendor space offers. You can’t implement technology that the vendors are not yet selling. In the public sector, we organize our existing technology to fit future needs rather than inventing technology.”

His initial research is guided by fundamental universal needs prioritized by any given group of people. He said humans will always want more bandwidth, not less. They want more security, not less. Humans want more flexibility in arranging processes, not less.

“I look at basic problems and what or whom is underserved in the market, and I realign tech to meet those needs as much as possible. The hardest part is figuring out what the community needs, particularly if they are trying to articulate a need for which a solution hasn’t yet been invented.”

Talbott advised current and prospective CS students to explore jobs and internships in both private and public sectors.

“The private sector may offer alluring technologies and advances, but don’t discount the fascinating opportunities and innovations taking place in the public sector. If you dig a little under the covers you’ll find cities, counties, public utilities, and other aspects of government sorely in need of people who understand technology and can apply it to the business problems in the public sector,” said Talbott.

“We’re finally starting to change the way we look at mobility in the United States, and MARTA will be in the forefront of that revolution in the next few years. My team is responsible for managing the technology that runs every aspect of the agency, from ticket machines, to GPS location indicating where the bus is, to the mobile app – the whole stack.”

His group sets the direction for Atlanta’s transportation technology strategy, accommodating shifting consumer habits like changes in payment methods. For example, if most customers expect to purchase their rides using mobile devices in five years, MARTA will find a way to incorporate those transactions without dropping traditional payment methods used by less advanced riders.

“My team has been able to use technology to help people do their jobs better, easier, and more cost effectively,” said Talbott. “If the operations group says they are having a problem with a late running bus and wants to know why, we can deploy a variety of technologies to help them determine the root cause and then offer options to resolve the underlying issue.

“We’re in the business of providing tools to other people to get their jobs done. Any time we see people benefiting from the technologies we’ve provided, that makes my day.”