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The Boston IT Party

The Boston IT Party

Boston city hall looks like a parking garage, only less homey. Poured concrete, inside and out. Nevertheless, Burlingame's seventh-floor office is impressive; large enough to hold a regulation-size conference table, it also features a knockout view of Boston Harbour. Not bad for a 39-year-old who lacks a college degree and has spent most of his career in the public sector.

Originally from Cape Cod, Burlingame - a burly, bearded man - is a self-taught computer hobbyist who got his start at age 18, working part-time for the town of Barnstable, whose first mainframe he programmed on a wing and a prayer. "We were trying to computerise and having a tough time," says Barnstable town manager John Klimm, who was a selectman in 1981, when Burlingame began coming around. He says the quiet high-school volunteer worked wonders with the system, a feat that most of the older town employees resented. Even so, "they recognised his talent", Klimm says. "He took us from major problems to being a model [computerised] community for that time," while property-assessment and tax-billing functions were run by the mainframe.

After high school, Burlingame stuck around, eventually becoming Barnstable's first IS director. In this position, he established a reputation - very rare at the time and still far too rare today - as a technologist who could discuss IT in layman's terms. Klimm laughs when recalling some of Burlingame's "interesting experiences", trying to persuade Barnstable government's elders to make use of the fancy new computer. But the town manager hastens to add that Burlingame nearly always succeeded. "He brought a ton of patience," Klimm says. "He's a master at speaking plain English."

In 1993, Burlingame took a job with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' Criminal History Systems Board, which tracks offenders in the criminal justice system. And in 1997, after more than a decade of work in the public sector, Burlingame took a CIO position at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety, which oversees a broad range of people, programs and agencies - from maximum-security prisons to bullet-proof vest reimbursement for police, to school violence prevention.

At Public Safety, Burlingame honed his skills at eliminating stovepipes and convincing grudge-bearing groups to meet at the conference table. Early in his tenure in 1994, his IT group created a centralised database for police departments that included data on known criminal offenders: convictions, parole and probation status, and so on. According to Burlingame and Michael Ross, who previously worked in the city's MIS department and is now a Boston city councillor, the major difficulty in implementing the warrant management system was political: "The data came from sources under control of different agencies," Burlingame says. "And some agencies didn't want to give up that data."

Burlingame had a sell job on his hands. His approach, which he hopes to continue in Boston, was to show hostile agencies that if they set aside rivalries and shared their information, there would be something in it for them. He started with the Massachusetts Parole Board, whose officers had "gone berserk" over the plan, according to Ross.

After assuring Parole that the police database was sound - with adequate security and guarantees that data would be used appropriately - Burlingame offered a carrot, redesigning the database to give feedback. Thus, any time a police department made an inquiry, Parole learned of it. This alerted the department to many parole violations they wouldn't have known of otherwise. Parole revocations increased significantly, and word got around the extensive Public Safety community. "Soon, other departments started to call," Burlingame says. "They wanted in too." Ross remembers the episode as an impressive display of diplomacy by Burlingame.

If he doubted it beforehand, his stint at Public Safety taught him that "governments do tend to grow into stovepipes", Burlingame says. "That was the challenge: getting people to work on IT in a collaborative way."

In 1998, Burlingame left Public Safety for another state post, this time as assistant commissioner of IT at the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. In November 2000, Menino lured him back to local government (albeit large-scale local government) as Boston's first-ever CIO. Once again, Burlingame's abilities as a plain speaker stood him in good stead. "He's not overbearing," Menino says. "A lot of these technology guys come in with the razzle-dazzle; they want to blind you with it. Craig is very down-to-earth."

Ross echoes both the sentiment and the locale. "Craig comes from the ground up," he says. "I like that."

One casualty of Burlingame's rapid career climb has been a formal education. While he's taken courses that interested him, both in computer science and other fields, his credits fall far short of a degree. During the interviewing process, some city councillors (the board reviews all major hires) were concerned about his lack of formal education.

Ross was one. Before joining the city council, he helped launch the city's Web site, which he ran for two years. "I brought up the college issue," he says of Burlingame. "When at the chief level, you need sound management practices under your belt."

After talking with the candidate, though, Ross says he and other city councillors were persuaded Burlingame's real-world experience has taught him those practices - probably better than any college could. "Do you want an academic type, or someone who's pulled [himself] up by the bootstraps?" Ross says.

Burlingame concedes that his lack of a formal education is a hole in his résumé and plans to work toward a degree. It's easy to see why his new boss would be sympathetic; Menino earned his own college degree, from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, at the advanced age of 45.

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