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Gary Brantley talks COVID-19, Remote Workforces and Cities of the Future

June 01, 2020

In Episode 6 of BOOM! The Southeastern Commerce Podcast, Gary Brantley, Chief Information Officer for the City of Atlanta, joins Roy Hadley and Chris Kane of Adams and Reese talk about the role that technology has in helping cities and governments respond to the COVID-19 crisis as well as the role technology will have in shaping cities of the future. Both Gary and Roy helped the City of Atlanta in its response and recovery efforts from the City’s 2018 ransomware attack and are helping to lead the City into the future. 

We also put Gary on the “BOOM” Rapid Fire hot seat as we learn more about his book, The Art of Organizational Transformation, his passion for public service, and why he chose the path of technology instead of aeronautics. 

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Transcript and Show Notes

Christopher Kane: Hello everyone. I’m Chris Kane with Adams and Reese. Welcome to this episode of Boom! The Southeastern Commerce Podcast. I’m excited about today’s topic. We’ve got two really extraordinary gentlemen who have experience dealing with technology, and particularly technology in times of crisis. And we’re going to be talking about how to use technology, particularly with the COVID-19 crisis, as well as other technology related leadership roles that these two gentlemen played. And those gentlemen are Gary Brantley, he’s the Chief Information Officer for the City of Atlanta and Roy Hadley, he’s a member of the firm’s Privacy, Cybersecurity and Data Management team. Gentlemen welcome, and I’m glad to have both of you here.

Gary Brantley: Great to be here.

Roy Hadley: Thank you.

Christopher Kane: Yeah Gary, first I had an opportunity, and this has always been a neat part of the podcast experience for me is, getting to read up and learn about our guests before they join us, and you’ve got a very incredible history and also are an author of The Art of Organizational Transformation. And it’s an incredible read, and really the viewpoint that you have in terms of not just the information technology background. But your leadership organization seems to have at the right time for the folks in the city of Atlanta and for when you jumped in to what was the city’s very serious and significant issue in dealing with the 2018 ransom attack.

So we’re going to talk about that off the top, and then I’d like to then visit on really how you’re using technology in relating it to the COVID-19 response. So first let me just ask you, as I mentioned, you joined the City of Atlanta in 2018 in the midst of the ransom attack. What made you want to take the job at that point in time and tackle that challenge?

Gary Brantley: Well, you know at first I was not interested at all. I received several calls from reporters for a comment on it. At that particular point I just had no interest in it. But as I started to really assess the situation, really started to get some input on things I needed to know from the outside, I felt like number one, it’s my city and I wanted to make sure that I was a part of the solution and not the problem.

And so in looking at that, I felt like – and through a lot of conversation, I felt like the city was at a place where it was ready for change. And when something like that happens, it’s just not a technological change that has to take place, but a cultural change, because so many things have to go wrong to get you to that point. And really what interests me about it is, I’m big on transformation. Of course you can tell by the title of the book. And so because of that, I felt like what a great way to make an impact for the city and the citizens of Atlanta by coming in and really helping to solve this problem. 

Christopher Kane: Well and Roy, you participated in the 2018 ransom attack as well. Tell us about your role and how it was working with Gary. 

Roy Hadley: It was fantastic working with Gary. I got a call one day from a colleague in the legal department down at the City about the ransomware attack. And she said, “Hey look, I bet you’ve heard we’ve been attacked.” I said, “Yes.” She went in, talked to the City attorney at that time and I got a call from him and he said, “I hear you do that sort of thing.” I said, “Yes I do.” And he said, “How soon can you be here?” And I said, “I’m on my way now.” Packed up my bags, headed down and little did I know that over the course of months I would spend 14 to 18 hour days down at the City helping to kind of shepherd the City through it. And as Gary said, it was a time of transformational need at the City.

And so one thing that I always like to say is, never waste a good crisis. And I think when we look back on it, the City did not waste the crisis. It took the opportunity to make itself better. And one of the things that Gary did with his team that he put in place was to take the City to the next level. That’s not just respond and recover and be back where we are. But let’s take it to the next level, and it was just so much fun to be a part of that process and continue to be a part of that process because it hasn’t stopped. 

Christopher Kane: Well, and to glean I guess the experience that you guys had Gary in dealing with the ransomware attack and now pivoting towards the COVID-19 response, we’ve been talking about this issue the last couple of podcasts in terms of workplace safety and workplace decisions and working from home in particular. In your role I’ve got to imagine, perhaps one of the largest cities in the country dealing with having everyone work remotely from home and turning that switch on overnight was not a small feat. Tell us how you approached it and how it’s gone.

Gary Brantley: Yeah, so one of the things that I was extremely proud of as it relates to our effort around that was the ability for my team to pivot quickly. And so when you talk about being flexible and you talk about being ready for change and having the mindset along with the technology in place to be able to do that, it was really interesting to see that we were actually working on the right things. And I say that a lot, but that really matters. No one can expect a pandemic to happen of this sort. I mean, I think the last one this big was over 100 years ago.

And so you don’t really plan for this. You plan for natural disasters but not something like this. And so in doing that, we really focused on making sure from the beginning of me walking in, that our core for our city infrastructure was strong. And we had this one initiative called Strengthening the Core. And part of our slogan was getting back to operational basics.

And so we really wanted a flexible, stable infrastructure that was secure. And we also wanted to make sure that we had clear accountability tied to it. And that is where you get into making strong culture changes. And so when this happened, it was very surprising. We had a City Council member – we did a budget presentation last week, and one of the biggest compliments they could have gave to the team was that they felt like they didn’t miss a beat. Now we’re talking about political City Council members.

As you know, you never know which way something goes in politics. And for them to compliment the organization that way, really allowed me to be extremely excited and happy. And so I wouldn’t say the challenges that we had were new. They were just different. Everything was spread out. Our environment isn’t confined anymore. And so in that presents new challenges on how you attack this new normal, especially for government, this new normal around having resources all over the place and really being able to protect those resources and really allow the City to continue to operate at a high level. 

Christopher Kane: And it’s interesting from my perspective, it really has created an opportunity, a forced opportunity if you will, for everyone to look at the way that they are conducting their business operations. All the way down to the individual, to a team, to a department, all the way up to the top, right. And I think we all, having now done this for a couple of months and looking back at where we were, can reach a pretty quick conclusion that we’re not going back to where we were. There’s going to be some innovative changes, some efficiencies that have now crept into our operations and our economy. What do you think? What are you seeing coming out of this from your perspective as a Chief Information Officer in Atlanta that’s going to be the game changer or how the new operational norm is going to look? 

Gary Brantley: I think the game changer is really around our thinking. I think we saw a lot in the last few weeks that we felt would take months and years to get accomplished. And I think that what we’ll start to see is innovation as its best. I think that as we continue to move on, the conversation around government, IT in particular, and even in the private sector, it was always around security, security, security. And of course if your organization was an IT organization, you were – you concentrated on that.

But with government, we’re not an IT organization, and we don’t necessarily create revenue in a lot of different areas. And so with that, I think what you’re going to see is IT continue to push itself to the forefront of the critical success of being able to operate in a City. I think you’re going to see innovation at its best as we start to tackle these new ideas and these things that are being put before us.

So it’s an exciting time for any person in IT at this particular moment, because the world is pretty much relying on it. Can you imagine years ago when there was no Internet or anything like this going on and this happened? How they dealt with that without the ability to do some of the things that we do today, it was just amazing. But I think as we move forward, you’re going to see big changes in how we even imagine technology for how we operate going forward.

Christopher Kane: Yeah, it’s interesting. The Gulf Coast and across our whole footprint after Hurricane Katrina and Rita had come through, at that point in time I had one of those – still one of those, I call them the “fat BlackBerrys,” one of the big ones that really didn’t fit in any pocket and it’d always fall off your hip, one of those. And we had to teach Mom and Dad how to text on a flip phone. And you just think, that wasn’t that long ago, right. Now we’ve got computers in our hands that can do just incredible things. And I’ve seen overnight, just the way my own parents and my colleagues have adapted to technology and have been – again, I used the word “forced,” but it’s a forced learning experience. And once somebody understands that they can do it and they’re not afraid of that technology, to me that’s where we’re seeing that accelerated process, right.

Where I don’t think any – I certainly couldn’t have imagined that, as you mentioned, we could kind of turn our economy into this heavily based IT economy in a two month period. Nothing else would have caused us to do this other than a global need. And from your perspective, the City of Atlanta, prior to COVID and aside from the ransomware attack, has been really focusing on investing significantly on its smart city initiatives. And I’d like you to talk a little bit about that, and is this an opportunity to expand upon those efforts? Or is this going to be a hindrance to your future plans as a smart city?

Gary Brantley: No, no, I think if anything it’s going to continue to push us where we need to go. I think as we move forward, especially with this administration, we have a mayor who is extremely interested in bettering the community, right. And so our vision as it relates to smart cities has changed some, from more of the glitch and the glamour to just a city where our residents are informed, they’re served and they’re connected through technology and data.

And so we’re looking to improve the quality of life for people who call Atlanta home. And as we start to go through, we have these five core smart areas are our values, which is a safe and welcoming city. That’s a place that we want. We want a world class employee infrastructure and services. I think everybody wants an ethical and transparent and fiscal and responsible government.

Number two, with all of this gentrification going on, we want thriving neighborhoods and communities and businesses to ensure all of the residents have equality. So we’re looking more so from a smart city perspective to see how can we equalize the playing field for those who don’t have? And so some of our initiatives which are really big are around residents who we want to make sure are equipped for success.

And a couple of those areas being making sure that we can really affect the homeless population. That’s something that the mayor and this administration is extremely passionate about. How can we infuse technology that way? And Roy is actually a part of a CIO Advisory Board that we put together with some pretty big C-suite leaders across the City of Atlanta that are really focusing on those outcomes. More so than internally on, you know, is the fiber there, where do we have that? That’s important and we’re working on that to get all of that stuff done. But really our initiative with organizations like Microsoft are really around providing skills for those residents who can come out of these programs and be cloud engineers and architects.

And so one last thing I’ll say, which isn’t like an initiative that would be popular, but we’re making sure as the mayor goes around and she’s strategically buying land for these affordable housing units, that they’re sitting on proper infrastructure that allows those homes to be smart homes and they’re connected. So that strategy even right now is something that we’re looking at. So we still have the things going on with our relationships with the ShotSpotter type technology from a public safety perspective, the AI around our cameras. All of those things are going on, the sensors in the lights, et cetera. But the focus really has been around those areas that I just discussed, and we’ve made a lot of headway that way.

Christopher Kane: That’s some good stuff. Before we turn to what we’re calling our rapid fire question and answer section here, I do have one more kind of big thought question. And it’s one that we – last several episodes we’ve been talking about and trying to get just a perspective from different points in our footprint. And the question is, it’s simple, but I admit it’s a little bit of a loaded question. And it’s, what is keeping you up at night right now in your role as the Chief Information Director?

Gary Brantley: You know, that is a very good question. Security is always going to keep me up. And the reason why is because – and I said this before. It’s, like, you’re in a situation where you’re getting attacked but you can’t attack back. In a lot of situations your ability to absorb, attack across this humungous, complicated landscape, can keep you up, especially when you think about everything that you’re responsible for. And a lot of times it’s not necessarily the technology. You want to make sure that you have the right people in place. Because at the end of the day, you really can’t stop the attacks. But you can accomplish defending what you need to defend in your organization if you have the right people in place, if you have the right structure, the right governance programs.

And so I think security will always be in the back of my head as I sleep, especially with the expansion of just the digital footprint. And it’s only going to get bigger. And so that’s what I would say keeps me up at night. 

Christopher Kane: All right, well Gary, this is the point in our podcast where I’m going to turn it over to Roy to ask a couple of rapid fire questions. Now look, I’m going to admit from the front end, the purposes of this part is to get to know you a little bit better on a one-on-one level. I had nothing to do with drafting any of these questions. So whatever Roy put in here, it’s on him, right? 

Gary Brantley: All right Roy, be careful.

Roy Hadley: I know, I know. There’s a lot riding on this {laughs}.  All right, so Gary, why technology? Why IT? How did you get started in technology?

Gary Brantley: Yeah, it’s funny. I actually wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. So I love airplanes, right. And so one day I decided that that probably wasn’t going to be the pathway for me. And so the next closest thing was technology. I will say, I can remember taking – walking into a program in class, not understanding it at all and having to drop that class. And I went and read a book on logic. And that whole semester I studied logic and programming because at that – as you know, if you’re a computer science major, that’s a huge part of your curriculum.

But then the selling point was somebody took a chance on me and put me in an IBM program, a Big Blue program, and I probably had the least amount of skills of them all. And just to end this real quick, because I know it’s rapid fire, but Roy, at the end of that engagement, I actually out of probably 80 kids the only one they asked to stay, and they hired me while I was still in college. 

Roy Hadley: And I can relate to that. I’m supposed to be a doctor, but Biology 101 and 102 convinced me otherwise undergrad. So I hear you on that. All right, so before coming to the City of Atlanta, you were the CIO for the DeKalb County school system, which is one of the largest in Georgia. Education has taken a huge pivot, classes online, Zoom. What do you think are going to be the challenges for education going forward, and do you think it will ever get back to where it was?

Gary Brantley: Wow, I was just telling someone, thank goodness I’m not in that role anymore. Because first off, there’s nothing more important to a parent than their kid, right, their child. So at the end of the day, there are so many different challenges that are going to be presented to anyone in an IT role in a school district. When you look at the amount of what has to be done and all of it really moving to mobile devices, the access challenges, you face huge inequality challenges as it relates to technology and school. This is much bigger than what people think.

And it’s the access. It’s the device. It’s the parent’s understanding what’s on the device. They have a huge challenge ahead. And the other piece is, how do you secure all of that in all these different environments with a ton of, what I would call inquiring minds who really don’t have much of consequence for exploring, which is what you’re supposed to do. You can’t just fire them.

And so at the end of the day, I mean man, it’s going to change everything. I think it’s going to force our legislators to really come up with a plan. Because it won’t be worked out by a chief information officer. It’s going to take everybody coming together to be able to provide that for education coming up.

Roy Hadley: Very well said. So the DeKalb County School CIO, City of Atlanta CIO. Before that you were with the state of Ohio, Director of IT. Clearly public service means a lot to you. You could be in the private sector. Why public service? What really makes that important to you? 

Gary Brantley: You know, that’s funny because I always said, like, this is not something that I would do, especially school districts. But then you get in and you find – I think during my days within the school districts especially in the state, you start – I started to find a purpose. And I think that really matters. I started to really put aside money and all of those types of things and never, thank god, really had to worry about it to that particular point.

But I really saw the work that I was doing as impactful work, and I started to see some differences being made. And so when you see that kind of thing and you have the ability to help in that area, it allows you to jump onto challenges such as the one that the City of Atlanta has and also keep you close to still being able to make impact inside of the community.

Roy Hadley: Fantastic. So I’m going to pivot here on you real quick, my last rapid fire question. Going back to your book, The Art of Organizational Transformation, you outlined seven steps, all very important. Which is the most important to you and why? 

Gary Brantley: Oh man. If I had to pick one Roy it would be probably chapter one, which is where I started, which was around culture. And the reason why I say that is because it doesn’t matter what type of technologies you put in or what type – even what type of policies that you put in. Let’s just move away from the tech piece. If you can’t create a culture that breathes accountability out of it and then also resonates throughout your entire organization, you really will find yourself in some of the same problems that the City has.

And so you want to create a culture where people care. And it’s not created – I talk about it in the book, it’s not created by one person. And one of the things that really made me figure that out is, I was in an organization or talking to a CEO in a pretty big organization, almost two, three billion dollars they were doing a year and still are. And one of the things he said is – I mean, I did all his digital transformation and we’re still in the same boat. And I said, “Because you didn’t bring the other part to that.” They didn’t adopt it at all. You did all – because we hear digital, digital, digital, digital transformation, but there’s another side to it, and there was no adoption. And because there was no adoption, everything that he put in place was a waste. So then they had to go back and talk about the areas of the book, kind of the things that I talk about. And so that’s why I say it’s really important.  

Roy Hadley:  I would wholeheartedly agree. And one of the things in my work with you at the City is, I have seen that transformation of culture, that cultural shift, to accountability, to culture of security, all of those things. So I agree with you, that’s very well said. So that’s it for my rapid fire questions. Chris, do you have any? 

Christopher Kane: Yeah, well, I just – to piggyback on it Gary, I don’t know if you are familiar with Dr. Norman C. Francis. He was the president of Xavier University Louisiana here in New Orleans, my home town. And I had the opportunity to take his leadership institute after he had retired. He had served as the university president since 1968. So it was good for him to retire and teach us how he made it through that – I think it was five decades of leadership. But your interplay between impact and influence is – his lingo might be a little different, but it’s kind of putting fire into the system of an organization in the right way that does exactly what you’re talking about.

You got to figure out the correct manner in order to create that fire, to create the long-term cultural change, cultural impact of the organization to really have that transformation. And it reminded me – a lot of similarities in terms of approach. So that’s good company to be within. I think very highly of him and as well yourself. 

Roy Hadley: Gary, I am going to hop in here one second. So in the trenches with you I’ve heard a lot of quotes from you, to your organization. What’s your favorite quote that you use? Your quote, not somebody else’s, your quote. And we’ll see if it’s the one I think of.

Gary Brantley: {Laughs} Man Roy, you’re making this hard. Oh god, you did so good with your rapid fire questions. I think one of the things that I really focused on was really – a quote I like from me is, building strong relationships prior to your business strategy. And the reason why I say that is because in lot of organizations people are building the wrong relationships. And it’s not to say that you shouldn’t build those, but they really should be tied to what you’re trying to accomplish within your organization.

And so that’s one of the quotes that I like. And then let me add one more. I think what most people always say, I’m not in politics, I don’t – I’m not political. They say this in organizations that aren’t political as well. And one of the things I say is, you need to be an organizational politician. And that means you possess integrity, honesty, compassion and confidence. That’s another quote I like because most people feel like because they’re in a role that’s not traditional politics, that they don’t have to play it. And you typically do. You’re just doing it from an organizational side of you.

Roy Hadley: You hit it. So there you go. Good job. 

Christopher Kane: Well Gary, I have just one or two more follow ups. As I mentioned, I’m over here in the Big Easy in New Orleans. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed this or not, but there’s a little bit of a friendly rivalry that has brewed between your great city and mine. And you guys have peaches; we have pelicans. You have Chick-fil-A; we’ve got Popeyes. You guys have that team, I think it’s called the Falcons, I think that’s what they are. We’ve got the Saints. But both of our cities are fun. They’re great cities and certainly their people are very passionate, which is why we enjoy visiting so often. What do you do for fun? What does fun in Atlanta look like to Gary?

Gary Brantley: Man well, you know number one, Atlanta has great restaurants, and I like to eat. So that’s one area that I like to have fun in. But I also – in my spare time I play drums, right. So that is probably where I can instantly disconnect from everything that’s going on, outside of when I’m working out because I want it to stop. But I mean, outside of that, I love traveling and reading books. It’s always great to see new places, new culture, those types of things. And so that’s what I would say. I love music and love being engaged in that whenever it’s taking place.

Christopher Kane: Well man, I love music too. I know Roy does. And so next time I can get over to Atlanta when things get a little safer for non-essential travel, you’re going to have to hit me up at a good music spot. We can listen to some tunes. 

Gary Brantley: Absolutely, bring your mask with you. 

Christopher Kane: I will do so. Absolutely will do so. Well look guys, Gary and Roy, thank you so much for your time. Thanks for being our guests today. That concludes our episode, and we look forward to seeing everyone next time. Thank you.