Chief Officer Award Finalist Chris Sullivan: ‘Don’t Be Afraid To Push Yourself Out Of Your Comfort Zone And Take Risks’

Chris Sullivan, Serco Inc

The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Chief Officer Awards were announced April 15, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually May 27.

Next is Chief Information Officer Award finalist Chris Sullivan, who’s senior vice president and CIO at Serco Inc. Here, he talks professional achievements, career turning points, career advice and more.

What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?

In May of 2019, Serco signed a purchase agreement to buy a business unit from Alion Science and Technology. As a result, most of my IT team’s focus for the remainder of the year was the planning and execution of a secure and successful “carve out” of this business, and a seamless IT integration into Serco.

The mantra of this program was to ensure we do nothing to impact the Maritime Engineering, Technology and Sustainment Business that we were buying. Serco leadership had a strong desire to complete this integration in 6 months. To complicate things, we discovered that virtually all the computer systems and infrastructure that we were acquiring were “end of life” and required replacement.

This meant that new IT infrastructure had to be purchased, installed, and configured at every physical facility being purchased, every end user computer had to be replaced, and all associated data needed to be migrated to Serco back-office systems.

My team and I embraced this challenge, and with careful planning and coordination with the business we were able to complete this task in the 6-month timeframe with little to no adverse impact on the acquired business.

In addition to the transition and integration of the newly acquired business, another key achievement that began in 2019 and came to fruition in 2020 was the re-architecture of the Serco network in support of a “work from anywhere” goal. This goal was based on a simple, powerful vision: The company’s employees should have the ability to work from any location with the same convenience, connectivity and security that they enjoyed in the office.

In addition, making this investment would help spur collaboration across business groups, position Serco as an attractive employer, harden against cyber vulnerabilities and generate sustainable cost efficiencies. This transformation program included a hardened and standardized Windows 10 OS, the replacement of a legacy remote access solution with a modernized, more user friendly secure remote access solution, and the transformation of Serco’s network to a more scalable and secure solution.

This series of project were successfully completed by January 2020. As it happened, the timing of the completion of this project was critical in enabling the company to rapidly pivot about half of its North American workforce to full time remote work in March 2020 as the COVID pandemic spread. The entire transition of the workforce was completed in less than two weeks, with no significant disruption to the client missions or business operations.

In addition to the above tasks, the remainder of 2020 was focused on the successful execution of six major cyber-hardening projects associated with our preparations for the up-coming required DOD CMMC certification. In addition, the team was able to execute and go live with 10 significant back-office system modernization projects necessary to support the scale of Serco’s business growth.

What has made you successful in your current role?

The primary reason for the success I’ve had in my current role is because I have surrounded myself with a team of very smart technology leaders and innovators, and we have built a relationship of trust and collaboration that enables us to meet the needs of our customers. The management team I have in place, and the engineers that support us are extremely dedicated to operating and maintaining the existing technology used to execute our business.

In addition, they drive the innovation and improvements we make which is tied to our overall business strategy. My role is to facilitate the collaboration between my team and the business, as well as prioritize work efforts and deconflict any issues that may arise during the normal day to day execution of work.

Over my career, I have found that this is the best recipe for success in a technology environment. There are so many changes and technological advancements happening so rapidly, no one person can stay on top of everything. Finding very smart and dedicated people who specialize and have strengths in the different genres of technology, and who are good communicators and collaborators is a key component in the success of any technology focused team or organization.

What was a turning point or inflection point in your career?

Early on in my career, I was definitely not on a CIO career path. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was working for a major telecom provider for about 8 years and was managing a team of project analysts who were responsible for the development of requirements necessary for changes to their online account and ordering system.

One day, the district manager asked me to take on the management of a new team that would focus on the technology changes necessary to move away from mainframe computing to distributed computing. At first, I was very hesitant to make the change. This was a field of work that I knew very little about and had little interest in, and was worried that I would not be successful and would stunt my career. However, the district manager explained that he had faith in my management style which was the most crucial skill needed to make this team successful.

Little did I know at the time that this would be my first exposure to Local and Wide Area Networks, personal computers, Microsoft Windows, etc. I quickly learned that I really enjoyed working in the space and working with the engineers who were making these transformational changes to how we do our work. I really embraced my new role because there was so much to learn in the space that was quickly evolving. This led to more new roles with increasing responsibility and scope, and put me on the path that evolved into becoming a CIO.

I think back on that one conversation with my district manager and if I had chosen differently and not accepted the new position, I may have never had the opportunities or experiences that put my career on the path to get to where I am today.

Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

My career is going on 34 years now, so that’s a really tough question to answer. If I were to pick one thing that I’m most proud of, I would say it’s the work that we have done here at Serco in support of the Affordable Care Act.

As a government services company supporting both defense and federal civilian agencies, Serco is focused on deploying advanced technologies to make essential services smarter and more efficient while improving citizens’ experience. Over the past 7 years, Serco has become a leader in applying artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotic process automation to highly complex transactions and adjudications associated with citizen’s applications for health insurance that were previously considered impossible to automate.

Most recently, my team completed a highly complex project to implement end to end automation of the process to adjudicate annual income inconsistencies for those who are applying for federal health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. This project was one of the largest in scope of its kind, requiring carefully planned, architected, and designed automation features covering the receipt of hard copy documents which are then digitized and ingested for adjudication, to the actual processing of those tasks using the data extracted from the ingested documents.

This project was the first intelligent automation solution that processed these types of complex transactions using unattended RPA to create a true virtual workforce. This not only offloaded work from human eligibility support workers in a manner sufficiently significant to affect workforce staffing requirements and cost, but also greatly improved the speed, accuracy, and consistency of results for the citizen applying for insurance.

Our approach to deploying AI focuses on providing humans with the data and tools to make better-informed decisions, provides greater satisfaction to citizens by giving them the right answers the first time, eliminates repetitive low-value work and cut cycle times. While many people may equate AI-implementations with labor cuts, my view is that Serco’s automated solutions can support higher job satisfaction for workers who are now free to move to more value-added roles to help achieve our customer’s mission.

What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?

I know this is going to sound cliché, but the best career advice I can give someone is don’t be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone and take risks. I’m a firm believer that this is the single best way to grow and advance your career. This goes hand in hand with trusting your instincts and being confident in your abilities that enable you to be successful.

This doesn’t mean that things will always be easy. Everyone is faced with significant challenges of some type during their career that will feel like you’re being pushed to your limits. In those situations, I’ve found that if I trust my instincts and elicit the help and input of the smart people around me, I’m able to overcome whatever obstacles have been placed in my path.

Meet the other Chief Officer Awards finalists here.

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