City Hall: The Chief Geek has left the building

After transforming the city's information services, Bill Schrier moves into the private sector. Retirement after just 33 years? Too boring to contemplate.
Crosscut archive image.

Bill Schrier discusses government and technology at a conference.

After transforming the city's information services, Bill Schrier moves into the private sector. Retirement after just 33 years? Too boring to contemplate.

Seattle's Chief Information Officer Bill Schrier recently retired after nearly three decades working for the City of Seattle. During his tenure, most recently as the head of the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), the city launched its website, earned awards for its deployment of web technology, and garnered numerous Emmy awards for programming on the Seattle Channel, the department's cable public television service. Schrier has left for a position in the technology sector and employees will send him off at a party at City Hall on Wednesday (May 23).

Crosscut caught up with Schrier via e-mail (while he was on board an airliner en route) to ask about how things changed — or not—during his time at the city

Crosscut: What was your first job at the City of Seattle?

Schrier: I was an IBM mainframe systems programmer — that means I installed and maintained the operating system for the City’s large computers....  I was doing that at SAFECO insurance, but didn’t like the “long” commute from West Seattle to the University District.  Also I wanted to return to public service — I had been a police officer and a public school teacher in previous jobs.

Crosscut: What has been the biggest change you've seen in how technology and government interact since you started? And did you ever actually use punchcards?

Schrier: Yes, not only did I use punchcards, I punched them and I still have some!

I’d say the two biggest changes were the arrival of the desktop computer and now the ubiquitous use of mobile devices — smart phones and tablets — by almost everyone. Tech used to be the province of “computer priests” who tended large mainframes hidden in data centers. Nowadays almost every citizen is familiar with at least personal technology and terms like “apps” and “reboot” and “network.”

Crosscut: So, when things go down at the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), people notice, like, immediately. What was your most memorable "Oh s#%t!" moment?

Schrier: Two of them, actually. One, in 1983, the computer I managed, which handled building permits, went down, and it turned out to be a new problem that even IBM had never seen, anywhere in the world…. Then, more recently, during the January snowstorm the public safety radio network used by police and fire went down. That network has multiple layers of redundancy and levels of fallback, so I was really startled. Turned out to be an electrical voltage problem in some really old equipment, quickly fixed.

Crosscut: What's the holdup on embracing new technologies for two-way communication with constituents? Example: on a recent trip overseas, my luggage got lost and I was able to tweet the airline's "passenger assist" Twitter account and within a half-hour, from halfway around the world, they rallied the troops and found my bags stuck in the airport basement somewhere. It was astounding. Yet, the Twitter accounts for Seattle City Light and Public Utilities still say "This site is not monitored..." What's up with that? All these new communication tools are easy enough to integrate, aren't they?

Schrier: The biggest issue with this is that it takes people to do that monitoring. Someone has to watch the Twitter account and then have a lot of interaction with the tweeting constituent to find locations, account numbers, and so forth. With outages or other problems, dozens or hundreds of people might tweet ... [but] the City’s workforce has either remained stable or been dropping (I had to lay off 27 people over the last four years in DoIT). It is much more efficient to staff a phone line (206-684-3000 for utilities) or use a website to collect information. Another problem is which social media to monitor and use — there are so many — Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and so forth. I think the ultimate solution is to employ a technology to monitor and respond to multiple sources and large events. But that takes time and money to implement.

Crosscut: You led efforts to get government information online for people to see, use, and crunch however they want. What's next for cities and governments in that area?

Schrier: You’re talking about “open data” of course, and, which is hosted by local tech startup.... First, we need to get much more data online. New York City recently passed a law mandating the posting of all legally permissible data. We have a lot more data that could be posted such as water and electric bills and usage (however, do you want your water bill available for everyone to see?). And we took another step with Startup-Weekend government edition in April and the launching of the Evergreen Apps Challenge to build apps using the open data. That challenge is underway right now with cash prizes to be awarded in September.

Crosscut: You're headed to some high tech firm now, Was the heat getting too hot in the city kitchen? Seriously, what will you be doing there?

Schrier: The heat is always hot in the city kitchen…. eRepublic is a media company, publishing Governing and Emergency Management and Government Technology, and it also sponsors 200 events a year for IT professionals and government officials such as the Pacific Northwest Digital Summit. So, gee, really, I’m joining the media! I always wanted to publish a small-town or neighborhood newspaper. Seriously!

Crosscut: Will you be moving away from Seattle?

Schrier: No, I’ll work from home and travel to participate in events.

Crosscut: Seattle is chock full of successful techies and tech companies, but they sometimes seem not very engaged in local civic affairs. How can city government make getting involved more appealing?

Schrier: Well, I think we — government — need to use the local technology firms and talent. I’ve tried to promote that by contracting… and moving the City email to Microsoft Exchange/Outlook and Office. Next, we’ve got to give local companies something to get passionate about — the Startup Weekend and Evergreen Apps Challenge help to do that. [Tech companies] have thousands of employees here, pay living wages, and that also allows those employees to be active in their neighborhoods and civic life.

Crosscut: Lightning round...

Mac or PC?

Schrier: PC of course and running Windows 7. I do have a mixed marriage, however. My wife Kathy uses an iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad.

In the cloud or servers on the ground?

Schrier: Absolutely need to move to the cloud for backup, redundancy (apps and data in two separate geographic places), and disaster readiness. Operating data centers is not a core competency of any government.

Would YOU ever wear those dorky Google glasses?

Schrier: Yup. I’d even use them to play with an Xbox360 and Kinect!

Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn?

Schrier: I am on Facebook and LinkedIn but rarely use them. I love Twitter and love to tweet articles from Crosscut’s Clicker —

Favorite App?

Schrier: Gotta be Shazam. I’m really starting to learn the titles and lyrics of all that music I love.

Crosscut: You had a police officer’s job, a military career, then a government career, now an enterprise career.... Do you have something against actually retiring?

Schrier: Too boring!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt A. Fikse

Matt A. Fikse

Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Twitter: @mattfikse) covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut from 2009 to 2014. He lives in Seattle and works for a biotechnology firm in Redmond, WA.