The Art of the Possible: How an Agile Mindset Transforms Your Team's Approach to Leadership

Stacy Mill
CTO at the State of Kansas
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In today’s episode we’ll cover:

  • Why a big theme in IT is the move to a modern digital infrastructure that is both secure and scalable
  • Why Stacy thinks IT leadership misses out on how important it is to invest in their teams and people
  • Stacy's vision of delivering a world-class digital government for the state of Kansas
  • Stacy's big on cybersecurity - if she could focus on just two cybersecurity initiatives right now, what would they be and why
  • Stacy's E4 Strategy
  • We talk about The Art of the Possible
  • Where the State of Kansas is in its cloud transformation in late-2020


Joe Toste (00:00):

Let's talk about how you bring an agile mindset to your team when it comes to deploying technology.

Stacy Mill (00:06):

That is big. So many people get set with, "Here's where we are, here's what's working for us and this is what we're going to do right here." And they don't see that bigger picture of the art of the possible.

Joe Toste (00:19):

Welcome to TechTables. Conversations with top technology leaders, taking a closer look at the world of IT and digital through the lens of agility and innovation. I'm your host, Joe Toste.

Today we shift your focus to all things technology, with the State of Kansas, and Stacy Mill. Stacy is the chief technology officer at the State of Kansas. Huge thank you to Stacy for taking time to come on the show and meet with me. In today's episode, we're going to cover why big theme in IT is the move to a modern digital infrastructure that is both secure and scalable, why Stacy thinks IT leadership misses out on how important it is to invest in their teams and people, Stacy's vision of delivering a world-class digital government for the State of Kansas, Stacy's E4 strategy. We'll talk about the Art of the Possible, and Stacy's how-would-you-do-it and where the State of Kansas is in its cloud transformation in late 2020. But that's quite enough for me. Without further ado, I'm thrilled to welcome Stacy Mill, CTO at the State of Kansas.

Let's kick off today with a little bit about you, Stacy, and your background in the technology space, across the private sector. From Spirit AeroSystems, to Yum!, to Humana, and why the move to the public sector with the State of Kansas?

Stacy Mill (01:20):

My career has been so storied. I'm just so blessed to have been recruited to Humana out of college. I spent 17 years there, really cutting my teeth on all things technology. The full stack, as well as security. I worked on their Humana Military DOD side for security as their first CISO. Through that, I was recruited into Yum! It's also in Louisville, Kentucky, headquartered there. And so, that's really where my international experience started. I spent seven years there and the people that recruited me to Yum! recruited me to KAR. So again, I've been recruited along the way, I was recruited to Spirit. Spirit was an amazing place.

But I got an opportunity to meet DeAngela Burns-Wallace, who's the secretary of administration when we were both in leadership, Kansas, which is a leadership group. Both private public sector, a lot of different faces. It was just such a great awakening to... What my state needed as far as technology infrastructure, the ability to recruit and retain good talent here in our state. And it was just a calling that I've been so blessed to have because we've done a lot of great things this past year.

Joe Toste (02:33):

That's great. Okay, so you said calling. I'm curious, did you get into any boot camps when you were a kid, when you were younger? I'm just a little curious how you got into the tech space or what piques your interest in them.

Stacy Mill (02:44):

I'm a kid from the 80s, graduated in '85 and our viewpoint into the world of computers was through our Trash-80s in our high school. And the cool thing about it was, for some reason, they gave it to the football coaches and just said, "Hey, why don't you set up a computer class?" The guys barely knew how to turn it on. And that was really my first thing, was trying to figure out how to Excel, which is that little Trash-80. And it really built from there.

And you'll see that a lot. Because for instance, my kids who have grown up in the Internet, it all started with their video games or their personal online stuff with the little penguin games. And now you see the growth will stay in for me. I started with a small little home-based computer, started writing code and I just fell in love with what I could make it do. And when I got into college, I looked at lots of different areas, everything. From medicine and architecture. And I just kept coming back to math and science. And most importantly, that computer science background. For me, the ones and zeros just spoke to me and I loved it.

Joe Toste (03:48):

I love that story. I have the similar... although I was born in '80, I didn't graduate. I graduated in the 80s. When I came along, they had... It was very early. They'd just got MACs into elementary school. And then, people were trying to figure out how to put everything together. And I think that was the most dangerous in the sense that I was like, "It's not a bomb." I'm just plugging chords in, I'm trying to figure this out. And I'm putting software and loading packages as a fifth grader or something like that. And yeah, it was fun. It's fun to see the early stages and then where you end up 20, 40, 30 years later. So, I love that. So, a big theme in IT is the move to a modern digital infrastructure that is secure and scalable. Especially for your constituents in Kansas. How's that going? Where do you think you can improve? Where are you along the journey?

Stacy Mill (04:38):

Okay, when I say calling, I spent some time on my own, just personally consulting with the State of Kansas in the very beginning. It was not a paid consultancy. It was just... I took the time off to come in and see what they had just to give them an idea of where to start, because it was a new administration. Dr. Burns-Wallace was the new CITO and really trying to get a lay of the land. And we jokingly refer to ourselves as two halves of the same brain because she takes care of the politics and the funding. And I take care of the technology because I'm not from a government background. And it works so well because she's able to get out and have that discussion with the legislator and with the different committees, judicial committees and legislative committees and councils to tell them where our pain points are.

What I've been able to do is come in for a technology stack and work with the vendors and providers and teams to ensure that we first have a strategy set and that we're following that strategy. Here in the State of Kansas, it was student body left, student body... They would pick a strategy but wouldn't execute on it. And so when we came in, the big thing was the data center. The data center is outdated, underfunded, understaffed, and really wasn't performing appropriately. So they were in the middle of a move to a outsource data center run by Unisys. And in the last two and a half years, they've spent millions and millions of dollars and could only get about 20% of the way there and it wasn't performing. So that was the biggest thing was really working with our vendor partners, walking through those technology stacks and testing to show where we were good, where we weren't.

With that, we worked with Unisys. They moved the data center into Kansas. Even though it's externally hosted, the communication lines from Kansas up to that just wouldn't work. It just was not going to work from a connectivity standpoint. So their system could be perfect and ours could be perfect. They just couldn't connect. So now that we've brought that into the state. Now we're getting those good throughputs from a pilot perspective, even though they're not in our data center. That external data center, that connectivity is what was key. That's really where we can do better as a state is that terraform of conductivity across the state, both in broadband for home use and in our corporate and government connectivity needs as well. So that's the one thing that pulling in our providers, showing them, testing with them and working together collaboratively. We've made a better mouse trap and we're definitely serving our state and our constituency at a much better and faster rate, and less expensive.

Joe Toste (07:26):

Yeah, that's obviously really important. So you touched upon the right brain, the left brain, the right hand, the left hand. Everyone's doing something different. At the top, you have the leadership is basically where you're at. And I'm curious. So, the most underrated leadership aspect seems to be the lack of focus on people and culture. I don't know if it's like this legacy, '80s, '90s, IT. We just think IT people sit in a closet somewhere. It seems to be this lack of focus, but it's really starting to change. I was curious, why do you think technology and IT leadership teams miss on how important it is to invest in their teams and people?

Stacy Mill (08:02):

Some of it, I think is fear-based. They feel like if they spend money on someone to educate them up, grow them, they'll leave. And they want to hire us. A lot of times, the mindset is like, "I will hire this as I need it, or get it as a service as I need it." When, really, the people that are there... People want growth, they want that challenge. They want to move, they get bored. I know I did when I was in technology.

And so, I was always looking for that next thing. And that's one of the reasons why I stayed so long at Humana. I had a great leadership in front of me. Bob Posting was my leader there for many years. Betty Hutson, another great leader. And they believed in people first. Both the customer, as well as their team. So it wasn't just about the bottom line or that project. It was how are we growing our people. Through that, not only did they grow great leaders and a lot of them throughout the industry, but they grew great processes that serve their customers better.

And so, that investment in people has always been a great example that I've got to follow at Humana and I carry through with me. But the main thing though, and then switching roles, and when you start to hire people... I've had to grow security teams from service desk because they knew where the pain points were. I could educate them on the technology and they could see the value of it because they were working with the customer. So again, once you put people first, I think you always succeed. When you don't is where you get those silos and you get people... There are some people that just want to come in and do one thing and repetitively, but that's not going to scale. And that's not going to really benefit you over the long run. I think people are realizing that now. You see a lot of training programs where we did in the past.

Joe Toste (09:47):

Yeah, that's really great. So we get the people, we get the culture. Now let's talk about... One of my favorite things is just vision casting. I don't know if it's the dreamer in me, but talk about the vision of delivering a world-class digital government to the State of Kansas a little bit more.

Stacy Mill (10:02):

So having that corporate background, especially when we were at Yum! with five different brands at the time, across a 120 different countries, what sells in one state doesn't... Or one country may not sell in the other, but the branding. The brand, when you walk into, even though it may not even serve the same menu, the brand was what was important. And so learning about that brand and how to protect that brand and secure the brand and use the brand to better connect with your customers is what I'd like to see the state do.

Digital government is about having that brand of consistency with access and consistency with look and feel. If you go now to our agencies, they're going to look totally different if you're going online. So having that consolidated brand for our State of Kansas. And then having, or I should say that overarching, and then each agency has its own flavor of brand. Like KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, so on and so forth. It's really that mindset that all state governments are coming to that fruition. Is that we have to run this digitally, just like we would a commerce company.

Joe Toste (11:16):

Yeah, and I love that. Especially, I see this trend right now where there's a lot of private sector. Technology is moving into the public sector right now. I just interviewed Doug who's the... He's like the CTO, CIO at the State of Arizona. And same thing, he was at GoDaddy for 12 years. From it going public, the whole thing. And now, he's in the public sector and taking what he learned there and applying it and really breaking down barriers and really breaking a lot of stuff, which is pretty cool. I'm going to release his episode, I think tomorrow, but definitely a must. A must-listen, on Doug's episode.

So, I know you're big on cybersecurity. It's a big career theme. This question was actually requested. A CIO actually asked me to ask you. So that's where this question came from. If you could focus only on two cybersecurity initiatives right now, what would they be and why?

Stacy Mill (12:17):

I've developed a theme over the years with various teams and various boards about, I call it my E4 strategy. To evolve an organization, you have to educate them first and foremost. On the risks, the rewards, and definitely the what for. What financial, operational, reputational risk are you trying to avoid. And so, multilevel like education, number one. From the users, not just about phishing, but about their identity and their responsibility and accountability for their role. Secondarily, coders. People that are writing a coder. If you're buying code, what best to look for. And management, what risks should they be managing and what risks should they be looking for and tracking. And then lastly, when we talk to, for instance, my secretary or to the governor, it's about the overall reason of why and what benefit does it bring? So, that type of education is big.

Secondarily, on the E4 scale, I talked about education enable people to do the right things and then come in with enforcement. But most importantly, that enforcement for me is also, the point is practicing the inevitable. We are going to have breaches. Every company does, every state does. We see it city level, school level. Why aren't we planning for it and anticipating it and training people for what to do when it happens. So again, educate on the front end, but train on the back end. And practice on the back end for when that happens and be ready, because it will. And those who haven't, it shows. When you plan well and you can deal with it. You can shut it down, kill chain much faster than if you're trying to figure it out along the way.

Joe Toste (14:04):

Yeah, that's really great. I don't know if Gary Brantley, he was the CIO at the City of Atlanta... He's hopping from the public sector back to the private sector. A couple of years, maybe three or four years ago, Atlanta had a huge breach and the CIO at the time, I forget the person's name. But they were in that catch-up mode, which kind of leads you to getting replaced. You have to be in the trenches a little bit and know the process and be proactive and educate the team. And Gary did a fantastic job turning that around.

It's far as like speed and mindset. This word, agile, it gets thrown around a lot. There's the project management, meaning of it and concept. And then there's more of the mindset of being agile. And let's focus on the mindset piece, which I believe is really underrated in the technology space. So let's talk about how you bring an agile mindset to your team and the State of Kansas when it comes to deploying technology.

Stacy Mill (14:58):

That is big because that's really... So many people get set with, "Here's where we are, here's what's working for us and this is what we're going to do right here." And they don't see that bigger picture of the art of the possible. And I talk a lot about my team with that. If you could do this the exact way you wanted to do it, how would you do it? And that's so big is to actually ask those questions back and have that agile mindset in that, what got us here today may not be the best for us in the future.

Biggest thing for me was there was this big issue of what are we going to do now? And so when I came into look in and get that lay of the land, you had to see where we were. Look at the fires, for good or bad, and then compare it to what our options were at the time. And so I started working with a team and almost a flow chart mindset of, "Okay, what if this? And what if that?" And we start to work through all those options. And the biggest learn we may have is we have options. You're going to listen to us. And you've asked, they've actually asked us the question of how were we and where do we start. That was big.

And once we did that, and we brought the other CEO's along too, because there was a big culture clash. When I came in here, the culture was very much broken. On my first day, I walked around the office. First official day, and no one spoke to me. No one even questioned who I was or said hello, or hey. They was just like, "Okay, someone's walking through." And it was so foreign to me because I came from these great corporate cultures.

All of them were great. Very recognition and oriented, things like that. So, that in a agile mindset of listening to people and in showing them, giving them that time. It only makes the result better. Not only within my own team, but throughout the agencies, had not been done. Everything had been dictated to, and that's why it wasn't successful. No one was bought into it. So when you give people that purpose and you show them this vision of why not, what about the cloud? And you start to look at your different options. Everybody starts to get an agile mindset because you've, number one, listened to them and you've let them have options.

Joe Toste (17:26):

Okay, so good. I have not heard it like this, but I love what you said. The art of the possible, and you're asking open-ended questions around, how would you do it? And I just love that phrase here. I'm going to actually steal that now, from now on. It's so good. The art of the possible.

I think, naturally, I'm an optimist. And so I'm like, "We can do everything," but not everyone is wired that way. And so, really asking those open-ended questions and including people in. This is what I love about open-ended questions. You start to engage their mind. Instead of saying, "Hey, we can't do this," because like pre-COVID... It was so crazy. Pre-COVID, it was, "I can never work remote. It's not possible. This is ending with paper." Seems to be a theme in government. We must have paper. And then with COVID, it was like, "Wow, we've got to transition the team. And not only go remote, but we got to kill the paper."

Stacy Mill (18:20):

I'm going to tell you that was the biggest thing for me. When I walked in it was like, "Okay, I'm just looking at the laptop build." Going, "Where's my cellphone?" And just my general stuff. Because I didn't live in Topeka and I was having to drive up and all the speed stuff. And I was trying to figure out how to do a little bit of balance of on and off. Work from home and work in the office. It just wasn't possible. Even if I wanted to do it, the meetings weren't set up that way with even a video conference. So it just wasn't enabled, there were still the bricks on the desk. You could listen in if you could hear. And so that was the big thing for me, is that I already saw that when I walked in. And about, "Okay, everything's on cram, everything's on site," and starting to look at, "Yeah, we can go to an outsource data center."

We have mainframe as a service that was outsourced. We have desktop as a service that was outsourced. But again, our team leads that and runs that. It still takes staff. Outsource does not mean you don't own it. You are accountable for it. That's the big learning for the state. Is that you don't relinquish ownership by using a service. So once we got past the whole it's not in my four walls, and we started to show that collaboration and communication, things got better. They got not only better with our partners, but we had a better result. That, for me, is another big thing about the remoteness. Is that all people onsite, all desktops, so on and so forth.

So we're talking when pandemic hit, I'll never forget March 13th, Friday the 13th. I got that call. And we started working on all the systems, especially labor with unemployment. But getting from 0 to 80%... Really, we went from 0 to 100% at work from home. But enabling those capabilities, we rolled out 3000 laptops because it didn't have the connectivity to do VDI. That's another thing. That's our next lows. You know, how to get from on-prem in the laptops in the home to bring your own browser. These are things we've done very successfully at other corporate America companies, but not here in the state.

So again, getting them to think about the security of it. I've had literally had secretary say certain areas couldn't work from home because of the security of PII or PHI. And I'm like, "Let me show you what the industry, Humana in particular, the insurance industry has been doing for 25 years. Of how we can secure it, how we can do it and how you can leverage this work at home." So, that was big. We trained over 3,500 in partnership with Microsoft on Teams. That's the other big change. Before, training was paid by the job, paid by the person. A lot of companies, whether it was Dell, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, they came to government because they knew we had all these gaps. And they provided training and opportunity and quick-signed contracts and then moved at the speed of need rather than...

So we have moved in this state, our digital footprint and ability to work from home remotely in these last five months than we have in five years. And now we have softphones and remote capabilities and work-at-home staff. And we're able to... Our websites are running and functional. We're still working hard with our unemployment system. It's unprecedented to go from like 8,000 hits a week to 250... I'm exaggerating. About 200,000 a day in claims. So that kind of growth and scalability, guess what? It's not going to work on print. We're going to have to go cloud for that. And, yeah.

Joe Toste (22:21):

That's really great. So yeah, not giving up that ownership. I really liked that. When you're working with partners, being that extension of your team and not just checking out and saying, "Oh, they've got it. They're good." It's like getting a financial advisor where you're like, "Oh, I got a guy for my money," and you just take no ownership and leading it yourself in your own life where it's the exact same concept. I love that. I love that. And the big, the Microsofts, the Amazons, the Googles. Yeah, they were across, I think. A number of CIOs and CTOs that I've spoken with just in the last three or four months. At the rate that they're moving and how agile they're being is really impressive, which is really great. So let's chat about cloud real quick. Where's the State of Kansas in its cloud transformation? I know previously we're talking on-prem, can't be there. Do you see a hybrid approach? Do you see just cloud? I'm curious.

Stacy Mill (23:14):

Totally hybrid. I think if you go one way or the other, you sell it short. If you can go all one in the other that works for you, great. But most of us, 90, 95% of the world's got to be somewhat hybrid. So when we look at it, just because of the complexity of the voice systems and all of the other things that make government work, where we are in our journey right now is off. It's starting to get offprint.

For instance, we talked about the Unisys host the data center. That's a big change for us and it's working well because of that collaboration. Also, our mainframe as a service. The big thing with our as a service stuff was just... When I came in, I sat down and said, "Show me the contracts and show me your SLA. How are you performing according to the contracts stated?" And they just looked at it, they just blinked. Like, "What? You just asked me a question about what?" And I was like... because I was so used to corporate America where they've got to prove it every day. They got to show their bandwidth, show their response times, all that good stuff. None of that was happening here, so I started that. And through that monitoring of the SLA, man, everything got better, right? Because someone took accountability, both ends took accountability for it.

So whether it was the performance of the mainframe or the network's, everything's gotten better. Now, that first step was very much necessary to just show and prove that we could do things offprint. That was the first step. So, that's our just starting to scratch into the cloud. I know our revenue department, he started to do some code before pandemic into Azure cloud. Boom, here comes the pandemic and our service desks could not handle the call volumes. That was our first step. And so, working with third parties like Accenture and others... Again, but it took that third party connection to get us into now leveraging a lot of AWS cloud services, Google analytics services, Google software packages for fraud, NUI for unemployment insurance is what you...

Anyway, all of that's happened because people were like, "Okay, we can't scale what we've got. Where do we go? Art of the possible... What vendor can help us do this?" And we worked with them to get, because the Googles and the Amazons of the world did not have even reps here. In my experience, they've never come to me, never met with me. And I don't think can ever met with the state. So now we're seeing a new group come through for those in particular.

So long story short, I think it's just starting. But the good news is that acceleration has happened at warp speed due to the influx of... servicing our constituency during this pandemic. We know it works. We know we can connect with it and we're not afraid of it anymore. That's the big thing.

Joe Toste (26:08):

Yeah, that's really great. I love the SLA. The contract, show it to me. The mindset moves from, "Hey, I'm just doing this job because someone told me to," to "Now, I'm focused on the results. Now, I'm being held accountable to the results of actually making this transformation happen."

Stacy Mill (26:26):

And again, I've got to thank wonderful corporate America like young brands, in that recognition culture of owning your piece of beyond was a big thing there. And that pride of ownership, giving people that purpose and showing them how they matter and value. Again, people first. How much better are we? And so those teams, a lot of those IT teams that have been working in the government for years with lack of funding and understanding and not training.

The good news, we were already working on that when DeAngela got here. DeAngela Burns-Wallace, our secretary at administration. That was a big focus for her. As CITO, technology, again, was a big focus. But number one, across both of those, was people. And so, that was what we both brought. I told you about my visit, my first day. And I made it a mission to get out in front of people, for them to get to know who I was as a person. That I wasn't just sitting in some corner office spouting rules and regulations. In changing things, that they were going to be included.

Those things are so powerful to enable us to meet these needs and to move at warp speed. So we've started training programs. Whether it's a Skillsoft or working with Microsoft. Training that they're giving. As well as certificates for certifications. So they don't have to pay for the certs. I'm doing the same thing across all of the clouds as well. And someone said to me, "We're not in the cloud. Why would we train on it? I said, "Because we will be. We want people to see it and understand it so that we can get there." And that's the big thing that's happened. Very exciting, very fulfilling for me to see all of the agencies and a lot of people grow and know that it's okay to evolve.

Joe Toste (28:23):

I love that. We love evolving. Although somewhat painful sometimes, but we always still love evolving. Okay, so let's wrap up. Two questions for you. Let's go with the heaviest one of the day. Of the morning, my morning. What's the nicest thing someone has done for you?

Stacy Mill (28:39):

Well, that's one was hard for me because like I said, I've had some amazing leaders in front of me and a lot of great teams and a couple of really special things. It was really about in someone recognizing myself and my family during a corporate type of environment.

So, first example is when Betty Hutson, who was my CIO at Humana Military. She had been in my office for something, in and out. And she was the big boss and a very wonderful leader. But there was a picture in my office of my mom and I. It was a little bitty 2x2, almost like a little Polaroid from back in the day. It's actually the only picture I have of my mom and I together. And I don't know why she saw it, but she mentioned it to me like, "Oh, it's a picture of you and your daughter?" And I said, "Oh no, that's my mom." And she was like, "Oh wow."

I didn't even notice and it was like a month later, someone said, "Hey, did you look at your pictures that are standing by my picture?" What she had done is gone and taken that 2x2 and had it blown up and had it digitalized and had it redone for me. That was the most considerate, kind, sweetest thing I think anyone's ever done for me. She did it without any fanfare and she didn't even let me know she did it.

Joe Toste (29:58):

Wow, that is a really sweet story. That's the best so far. Everyone else has... That is an awesome story. Okay, so you've had some great leaders. If it's possible, and I don't know if it is, but I'm going to try and pigeonhole you into just one. What's the number one leadership lesson that you think the audience can take away.

Stacy Mill (30:17):

I got to go Steve Jobs on you on this one. I love his... His mindset is we hire smart people to do the job and listen to your people. That's the thing. It builds so much respect in both directions and you will be better for it because they bring your perception that can actually make things go faster, better and stronger than your own internal ideas. So for me, it's always listen, always collaborate.

Joe Toste (30:47):

Love that. I'm curious, are you a Simon Sinek fan? Simon Sinek, he's the whole, Power of Why.

Stacy Mill (30:54):

No, I've never even heard of him. This is all Stacy Mill right here. Because internally for me, I was that kid that said, "Why do I have to do that? Why does that make sense? Why?" And even as my leaders, and that's why I call it Bob Posting, who I was with for over 10 years, almost 17 years. Gosh, there's a way to ask it. I just said to learn that. And having that great leader in front of me, and that gave me a voice rather than being that kind of irritating... Why was more of a how and helped me understand and how to frame that. So to me, that's big.

Joe Toste (31:31):

Love it. Thank you for coming on TechTables. I really appreciate the time, Stacy. This was a awesome interview.

Stacy Mill (31:36):

It's fun. Have a great day.

VoiceOver (31:38):

If you are interested in seeing what Nagarro, a digital product engineering company that excels at solving complex business challenges through agility and innovation, can do for your company, you can email Joe at joe.toste, that's T-O-S-T-E, at nagarro.com. Or message Joe on LinkedIn. For all information on Nagarro, check out nagarro.com. That's N-A-G-A-R-R-O dot com.

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Joe Toste
Joe Toste
Host of TechTables Podcast

Host of TechTables 🎙- Conversations with Top Technology Leaders