As any CIO knows, an executive position is enough to fill up one's time. But Greg Taffet, CIO at U.S. Gas & Electric, felt a need to contribute his time and skills to another important IT endeavor: expanding access to technology in his Florida community. Taffet volunteers with the South Florida Digital Alliance, a group of area businesses and charitable organizations working to provide technology and Internet access to people who can't afford them. Here he talks about the digital divide, his work to bridge it, and what he has learned about leadership.
Tell me about your work with the alliance. I am now taking on a leadership role to bring Internet access to the county parks in Miami-Dade County, and hopefully we'll expand to other counties in Florida. It is definitely a team-building exercise to bring the parks commission, the Internet providers, the universities together so we can provide this service to all the people in the county.
What would the service look like? In some parks we have buildings, so we'd put in equipment that's been donated. We're dealing with the universities to get interns to help provide support to the people who come to the parks, and we're [working] with Comcast to bring in high-speed access at cost. We're getting great support from the parks commissioners, who are encouraging us. The businesses are looking at this as a way to get a better workforce.
Do your efforts extend beyond technical work into political or advocacy roles? I am learning that when you pick a good project, everybody is in favor of helping you, but very few people will actually do anything. So I'm doing more of a team-building, implementation, fundraising and advocacy role. It's not very political because everybody is in favor of this, but getting everybody to work together, getting all the interns set up, to coordinate schedules, to raise the money -- that's the main thing I'll be doing at a very high level. We have everybody in the town and parks commission and the businesses all saying yes, but it takes somebody to actually do it. And that's me. I see this as very similar to when I brought high-speed Internet into the classrooms when my kids were in school. In that case, I did drill holes and pull wires. But in this case, I don't see me doing as much of that. [I'll be] coordinating all the people needed to get this done.
Does the experience teach you something new about leadership? The biggest thing that you learn is that you have to get people motivated. And you can always motivate people to do things that they're good at doing.
Where, and why, does the digital divide persist today? It is definitely an economic barrier right now, and with higher rates of unemployment [among lower-income citizens] it's very critical that we provide the tools that people need to bridge that divide. Right now, here in Miami, we have a huge school system -- it's the fourth-largest in the nation. But 60% of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and when you see numbers like that you [realize] those are the people who can't afford to buy a computer. These are the kids and parents who will come to the parks to use this technology. Some of the older people will be able to come and learn to use Skype and be able to talk to their grandchildren.
Does this divide have an impact on businesses in the area? The impact is very significant because we're looking for employees who are computer-literate. You have to have these skills to be hired in any position. In this area, businesses are having trouble finding qualified people to fill the jobs. Many of the jobs are changing from blue-collar to technology-oriented, and many of them are requiring just basic computer skills, being able to do data entry and be proficient using the computer. And it's more from the older generation, because just about all kids coming out of school today know more than their parents.
You've worked as a technology adviser to other nonprofit institutions. What has that work taught you about leadership? That you must understand the business and the business strategy of the nonprofit. That is so much more important than understanding the technology. Because there are 50 different ways to solve a problem, and the business is looking for something that really aligns with its strategy. If you're just proposing technology, most people will brush it aside and say, "This doesn't solve our problem." They want a solution, not a technology.
What are the biggest challenges in your job today? I see the workplace evolving from what people used to call work-life balance to work-life integration. The fact that technology is available everywhere, that people can work on their cellphones, tablets and laptops, the line between life inside and outside the job has blurred to a point where we have to worry about how [work and life integrate] rather than the balance between the two of them.
We have to become much more than just hands-off managers now. We also have to look at how much time people spend, whether they're actually accomplishing things, whether they are doing the work themselves or working with somebody else and if somebody else is doing most of the work for them. Now you have to be much more intuitive because you don't always see them. Sometimes they don't surface to ask you for help.