Opening IT Lanes in the Tar Heel State

Frederick Jerant Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014, Technology Leave a Comment

NCDOT CIO David Ulmer strives to make the program less of a punchline and more of an efficient public service

riverbed_quoteLong lines and computer glitches at the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles provide made-to-order situations for stand-up comedians. But David Ulmer, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), doesn’t find them funny at all.

Ulmer and his team are responsible for all information technology (IT) functions supporting NCDOT’s 12,000 employees, who oversee the state’s highways, Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), rail, aviation, ferries, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and public transit. Keeping things running smoothly would be a tough order in a perfect environment. To boot, on top of maintaining the operations themselves, Ulmer is in the midst of a complete IT makeover.


From Private to Public

Ulmer formerly acted as Senior Vice President for Global Technology and Operations at Bank of America (BAC). A conversation with state Senator Jeff Tarte led to a discussion of Ulmer’s background.

“When [Tarte] outlined the state’s large IT issues, he suggested that I might be able to help resolve them,” Ulmer said. “It sounded like a wonderful opportunity for public service, so I pursued it.”

“Opportunity” and “challenge” are often two sides of the same coin, and that’s what Ulmer faced. On one hand, there were numerous core strengths and a capable team; on the other, a huge technical debt.

Time to Clean House

The department’s core platforms were grossly outdated, thanks to tight purse strings and benign neglect. “Some of the main systems were 20 years old,” Ulmer said. “They were expensive to operate, and really didn’t meet our needs.”

Ulmer_David_cropHis first long-term program was a complete revamp of the DMV. “The mainframe was running old COBOL [a programming language developed in 1959] applications, and had no data warehousing or reporting functions,” he recalled. The complex, hard-to-change system had evolved piecemeal—sort of like a house with additions randomly tacked on. In order to support the continual need for additional capabilities, Ulmer realized that the best approach would be “creative destruction,” tearing down to build up.

“People get invested in their respective platforms,” Ulmer said. “They tend to defend the status quo and lose touch with their customers. And when you ask them to make changes, they want to go incrementally. But, sometimes you can’t—you go big or go home.” It’s an approach he learned from mentor Amy Brady, now CIO at KeyBank.

Power in Partnerships

Fortunately, Ulmer’s group enjoys strong support from North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory, its General Assembly and the various cabinet agencies. “From the governor on down, senior leadership understands the importance of our mission to improve customer service, drive efficiencies in operation and help grow the state’s economy,” Ulmer said.

The legislature determines the most critical areas, such as cybersecurity and disaster recovery, based on risk identification and assessment. It’s then up to Ulmer and his team to refit those areas, with special consideration given to sustainable efficiencies.

At the same time, NCDOT is essential to the state’s economic health. The department is involved in building and maintaining the nation’s second-largest state-maintained highway system (more than 80,000 miles of road and about 13,500 bridges); air and railway transportation; public ferries; public transit system support; even bicycling and walking.

“We also partner with the Chamber of Commerce to serve companies that are relocating to or expanding in North Carolina,” Ulmer said, “and work closely with the state’s 100 counties to improve access in underserved or impoverished areas.”

Thinking Like a Business

One of Ulmer’s key initiatives is encouraging his team to think in business-like ways. “There was limited visibility into the detail of their operating costs. This, and the lack of private-sector competition, removed any real pressure to drive efficiencies,” Ulmer said. “But we’re starting to call attention to those costs and give the teams the knowledge, authority and accountability to make smart business decisions.”

For example, field engineers’ work had been paper based; it’s now computerized and gives them instant access to any drawings or other materials they may need while on site. “Otherwise, they’d have to visit the office,” Ulmer said. “It makes them more efficient and gets more done with the available dollars.”

Ulmer plans to reinvest those cost savings in innovation to drive even more cost savings, while simultaneously increasing public services. Additionally, he’s developing greater efficiency by flattening the organization.

“Over time, the number of ‘middlemen’ between support services staff and the business units grew,” Ulmer said. “I wanted to improve communication by re-establishing direct connections. We continue to align directors and their respective teams more closely with the business units they serve.”

Don’t Sit Still

In this time of flux, Ulmer urges his team: “Seek out knowledge. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to admit you don’t understand something. Technology is changing too rapidly to do otherwise.”

That’s good advice for success in any field.

“Constant learning equips you to be a value driver,” Ulmer continued. “Always look for ways to deliver higher value to your business partner. For example, we want to improve customer experience with the DMV, so we are expanding delivery channels, including social media and mobile-device apps. But we have to think about the bricks-and-mortar facilities too. How can we eliminate lines and improve capabilities such as virtual services?”

“Get engaged with [your business partners], so you’ll better understand where you can add value,” Ulmer advised. “Otherwise you won’t grow with the organization.”


Frederick Jerant is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

David's Key Partners:
 Riverbed®(SteelHead™) | MorphoTrust USA (IT Vendor) | SAP (Cloud Software Company)

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