Star Tekkie: Piloting an IT Enterprise to the Cutting Edge
Charles F. Gerhards
Chief Information Officer, Pennsylvania
More than 30 years ago, when Charles F. Gerhards was an accountant for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, his department comptroller asked for volunteers willing to try using computers to do some of their work. In those days, that meant punch-card technology. Since no one else stepped forward, Gerhards wound up as the lone guinea pig. “It was an enormously beneficial experience,” he says. “I was starting at the beginning, learning how to build systems and code software. It was exciting. It was new.”
That move launched a career in technology that has benefited the Keystone State ever since. The avuncular Gerhards has gone from learning the basics, to managing all major technology projects under Pennsylvania’s first chief information officer, Larry Olson, to becoming CIO himself in January 1999.
Pennsylvania’s technology prowess also has gone from zero to 60 just in the past seven years or so. When other states began setting up a Web presence, Pennsylvania was doing little on that front. That changed quickly after Tom Ridge became governor in 1995 and set out a technology vision for the commonwealth. Gerhards’ role morphed into one of project manager and motivator for cutting-edge technologies, jobs that he performed with remarkable skill. “He knows government intimately,” says Martin Horn, former Pennsylvania secretary of administration. “He is one of those rare human beings genuinely committed to public service.”
Pennsylvania’s Internet portal, launched in October 1995, is viewed as one of the best in the nation. Called PA PowerPort, it is a gateway to all state agencies’ Web pages and electronic services and gets a half-billion hits a month from people looking to renew vehicle registrations, file taxes and conduct other business online. Under a program called Commonwealth Connect, all desktop software has been standardized and a single e-mail system deployed so employees no longer have to work disjointedly with eight different systems. The benefits go beyond just saving money, Gerhards notes. “There are metrics on cost savings but what it really has done is unify the enterprise.”
Pennsylvania has integrated criminal justice databases under a program called JNET that has been admired and imitated by many other states, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the FBI was looking for a particular suspect and state officials were able to show the FBI exactly where he was — in one of the state’s prisons. The FBI was impressed; Gerhards was taken aback. He presumed that the feds already had this capability.
Over the years, Gerhards’ job has evolved. Initially, technology was all about making the machines work. These days, it’s more about making the people work with the technology. That became apparent in 1997, when the governor proposed that 17 data centers operated by 14 different state agencies be consolidated into one and turned over to the private sector. Gerhards’ understanding of budgeting and contracting, as well as labor issues, helped him when he negotiated with unions on the data center outsourcing.
”One of his strengths is communications and people skills, which in government and politics is very important,” says Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s CIO, who is now working with Gerhards on strengthening the city-state relationship and on backing each other up in case of an IT disaster.
Horn, who was Gerhards’ boss at the time of the privatization proposal, initially scoffed at the idea. All he could see was that he was going to lose staff and money. And he couldn’t believe anyone was going to be able to pull it off in the short amount of time promised. He likened it to the Spruce Goose, the wooden airplane Howard Hughes built that hardly got off the ground. But Gerhards won him over.
Horn says Gerhards brings that same golden touch to many facets of his work: “This is a guy who could make the Spruce Goose fly.”
— Ellen Perlman
Photos by Bob Skalkowski