This CIO Gets Tech Tips at Coffee Shops and Race Tracks

San Mateo County CIO Jon Walton, an avid racecar driver who makes time to chat with residents at local eateries, believes a tight budget is no excuse for being a tech laggard.

By Ken Kaplan

By Ken Kaplan May 3, 2019

Jumpstarting the day at a local Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee often comes with more than a kick of caffeine for Jon Walton. Whenever people realize he’s the chief information officer of San Mateo County, one of the most tech-savvy places in the U.S., they unabashedly bend Walton’s ear about startups or investments they believe could benefit their hometowns. Sometimes it’s just small talk about car racing.

Most morning earfuls provoke a friendly head nod or handshake from Walton, who runs IT across the bustling peninsula between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. His organization is responsible for all countywide core IT services for public safety, healthcare, public works and traditional government applications.

Occasionally he’s given the kind of advice a CIO might otherwise pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for from big-name consulting firms.

“Local residents teach me a lot about where big investments are being made and what new technologies are gaining traction or dying off,” Walton said. A Fortuitous TipA cafe visit in 2014 led Walton to a then-nascent technology called hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) from Nutanix.

“Meeting Steve Kaplan in downtown Redwood City spurred a conversation about the future of combined computer and storage technologies,” he said, referring to the vice president of customer success finance at Nutanix.

"It was timely, given the need of the county to upgrade an entire data center of obsolete technology.”

That piece of advice spurred Walton and his team to explore this emerging trend and gained the county a simplified, cost-effective way to scale his aging storage and server infrastructure.

Before we moved to HCI, it seemed like most of our time was spent on trying to stay ahead of compute demand.

Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County

That was a coup for the county, in part because – unlike the private sector – governments typically don’t have budget for a regular technology refresh, Walton explained. But by embarking on HCI, he was able to gain control over a patchwork of both old and new technologies that run services critical to San Mateo County.

HCI integrates compute, storage, virtualization, networking and security services inside a common, hardware-based appliance. That makes infrastructure quicker and simpler to manage, deploy, scale and support.

By using HCI, “Things like HR and payroll that used to take three to four years to set up now can be done in a fraction of the time and cost of what it used to,” Walton told Joint Venture, a nonprofit Silicon Valley leadership group.

Hitting the Local Hotspots

The affable Walton is a man about town. Between important meetings, he organizes ad-hoc meetups at local coffeehouses and restaurants like Buck’s, the legendary Woodside hotspot for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Early funding deals over meals at Buck’s led companies like Netscape and PayPal to become household names, and that’s where he met for this interview.

“I remember the first time I stopped by Buck’s for a breakfast burrito and unexpectedly got a lot of good advice on public WiFi technology from two retired tech executives I met while waiting for a table,” Walton said. “The burrito was great and the advice was even better.”

Walton and his team also drop by an old favorite café, Peter’s, in Millbrae or meet people at Alice’s Restaurant, immortalized by the Arlo Guthrie song of the same name, in the scenic mountains between the Bay and the Pacific Ocean. These places are frequented by C-suite and director-level execs from some of the biggest companies and venture capital firms in the world, owing to the fact that Facebook, YouTube, Oracle, NetSuite, Genentech, Visa and many other well-known companies are headquartered nearby.

“Some people I meet have 10 times more experience than me, including some who started and are still running multi-million-dollar companies,” said Walton. “They'll often say, ‘Hey, you should think about this or consider that.’ They’re so generous and really care about the community where they live and work.”
Some can become too advisory.

“They're not shy about telling me when they feel I’m doing something wrong, or not moving fast enough,” he acknowledged. “But all feedback is good feedback.” The Making of a Modern CIO

San Mateo County spans 488 square miles. Home to nearly a million people, it includes 22 cities and towns, 25 school districts and three airports.It also includes beautiful seaside hamlets such as Pacifica, Pescadaro and Half Moon Bay, located along California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway. Walton can be seen on any sunny weekend driving along the coast in his 1996 yellow BMW M3. Building and racing cars is a life-long passion. Walton said he put himself through college working as a mechanic.

Jon Walton races past Corkscrew, a dramatic set of turns that drop the equivalent of a 10-story building in a short distance at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. Jon Walton races past Corkscrew, a dramatic set of turns that drop the equivalent of a 10-story building in a short distance at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif.

Since Walton became its CIO in 2013, San Mateo County has experienced an unprecedented boom. Many healthcare providers opened state-of-the-art hospitals. Dozens of new office buildings are altering the skyline. The county is rich in diversity and public services, but it’s also becoming one of the most expensive places to live in Northern California, forcing most of Walton’s employees to live in more affordable places.

“Having my team living outside the county has helped us to think more broadly about how we can create data systems that work seamlessly across counties and the regions,” he said.

The son of an aerospace engineer and a nurse, Walton grew up riding motorcycles on military installations, playing with decommissioned IBMS PDP’s, reading Ranger Rick magazines and classics by John Steinbeck. Those inspired him to earn a degree in land use planning and management from Humboldt State University. He developed a knack for using computers to discover patterns in satellite imagery and a mind that can figure out complex systems. Along the way, he started a family and began fixing and racing cars.

“I like to work on cars because I'm a doer and a problem solver,” he said. “I identify the problem, buy the part, replace what’s broken and get my car working again. It’s a very rapid reward.”

Walton’s philosophy is to solve problems but not to own every step of each problem. He said this is the mark of a modern CIO. For IT leaders in any space, especially in government, he said, it's less about selecting, building and deploying technology and more about using data to solve problems. And rather than follow what everyone else is doing, Walton advises taking reasonable risks without hesitation and quickly adjust if things don’t fall into place.

He learned this from previous roles. Prior to San Mateo County, he was CIO of San Francisco for five years and served as the deputy CIO of the City of San Jose from 1997 to 2003. In 2017, he was named Bay Area CIO of the Year Community Champion by the Silicon Valley Business Journal and the San Francisco Business Times. Walton’s team credits him with saving the county’s infrastructure from falling apart, pointing to his decision to implement HCI as critical. He chalks it up to rubbing elbows with smart people and pulling them together to find solutions for his diverse community.

“A tight budget isn’t an excuse for being a tech laggard; it can inspire you to find ways to solve challenges in new ways,” he said.

Reducing Complexity to Stay Ahead of the Curve

Walton is helping San Mateo and other government CIOs adopt the same technologies and services used by the private sector. He said he can now adopt and introduce secure services more quickly than was once possible with the help of cloud computing offerings.

“We need to think like the private sector about how to gather, share and act on data, in a secure way for the whole region,” he said.

When he learned about Nutanix, Walton said, the timing was perfect for helping him simplify data center management and scale enterprise cloud computing.

San Mateo county began using Nutanix’s HCI platform five years ago. Today, that technology manages heavy workloads, including countywide voice-over-IP traffic, and it enables one-click upgrades to the county’s virtual software stack with zero downtime and almost zero human involvement.

“Before we moved to HCI, it seemed like most of our time was spent on trying to stay ahead of compute demand,” said Walton. But he said HCI has allowed his IT engineers to become far more agile at reconfiguring infrastructure quickly to meet new demands.

[Related story: San Mateo County Relies on Nutanix Infrastructure and Global Services]

“They can do it with an almost drag-and-drop simplicity. It's a game changer. It caused a culture change because engineers are no longer separated in their silos. Now they have more time to really partner and brainstorm.”

Government Services at the Speed of Business

Walton’s stated goal is to make IT work so well and cost effectively that people in the county can get excited about embracing new technologies rather than being paralyzed by worries about long deployment times and escalating costs.

He favors getting out to talk with people about new ways to tackle problems over relying on research findings, because he thinks they often significantly lag technology progress.

“About a year after we really operationalized HCI, a leading analyst firm came to us to explain it,” he recalled.

He advises CIOs to do their best anticipate such technology sweet spots.

“It’s especially important in government, where there are so few opportunities to make wholesale change. You don't want to be a laggard.”

Meeting a Spectrum of IT Needs

Compared to a typical private sector company, the IT requirements of a county are very broad. IT deployments must accommodate the very different needs of citizens, hospitals, public safety organizations, and others.

Because a series of devastating fires in Northern California have caused San Mateo residents to become concerned about air quality, Walton is working on a sensor system that uses real-time data analytics and pattern recognition to predict when air quality reaches hazardous levels and then alert citizens. That way, parents with an asthmatic child can decide whether or not to send their kid to school, he said.

Another unique situation: With the rise of consumer and commercial drones in the area, Walton said the team is also working with local startups and experts to design a drone detection system that could help keep the critical and sensitive facilities safe.
He also visits the sheriff's department to talk about body-worn cameras, trying to anticipate how the technology could impact network bandwidth and data storage requirements and to figure out ways to encrypt the bodycam-collected data.

Having my team living outside the county has helped us to think more broadly about how we can create data systems that work seamlessly across counties and the regions

Jon Walton, CIO, San Mateo County

He talks with healthcare providers about the future of medical records, 3D imagery and telemedicine.

“We bounce ideas off each other,” he said. “Once I understand the business plan for the next five years, we try to anticipate where technology will intersect with business requirements.”

Before he spends tens of million dollars on new technologies, he makes sure those technologies can be leveraged across the county. “If I invest in public Wi-Fi, I create a framework that allows all of our cities to share infrastructure, access points and data. That way we can support each other,” he explained. Looking Ahead

As for all IT shops, the volumes of data generated by the county are multiplying by leaps and bounds, putting more pressure on IT. It’s driving Walton and his team to investigate new ways to harness all that data for the good of the county, including an evaluation of artificial intelligence for automating data insights.

Walton acknowledged that people have a variety of opinions about the pros and cons of AI, but that he believes it could play a role in making better, stronger communities.

“We need to solve problems around education, homelessness, transportation and housing,” he said. “A lot of answers will come from collecting and understanding the data.”

Walton sees many similarities between being CIO and and a race car driver. Both require relentless innovation and risk taking.

“To stay competitive in the technology industry, you must challenge the status quo, try new ideas every day and fail fast,” he said. “Auto racing is about gaining incremental improvements each lap and there is no place you can test ideas, technology and innovation faster than on a race track.”

Ken Kaplan is Editor in Chief for The Forecast by Nutanix. Find him on Twitter @kenekaplan.

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