The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), more commonly known as the T, is the largest transit system in New England and the fifth largest in the United States. It was the first subway in the US. David Gerstle, the agency’s chief digital officer, spoke with Foundry about his role, his team’s digital transformation efforts, and how the IT buying process is evolving.
Q. What are your primary responsibilities as the MBTA’s Chief Digital Officer?
As Chief Digital Officer, I’m responsible for the Technology Innovation Department. Our mission is to use the modern principles of research, design, and technology to make the transit system more accessible for all riders. That pairing – modern principles and rider focus – drives our success and shapes our value proposition to the agency and the public. We build almost all of our technology in-house as we have found that to be the most efficient and effective approach.
In terms of my role specifically, it is translational. My role is to bridge the gap between the agency’s priorities and our technology solutions. I need to understand what the priorities are for people across the agency and communicate our work in a way that matters to them. By understanding what their priorities are, this helps me to translate the agency’s priorities into technical terms for my team.
Q. How would you describe a typical day?
I try to structure my weeks a little bit because, as the psychologists say, context-switching is hard. So I try to group meetings onto different days of the week. For example: one-on-ones with my staff are on Fridays, and one-on-ones with folks across the authority are generally on Tuesdays, sometimes Mondays. There are various standing meetings and committees, etc.
Having to be remote through the pandemic, we quickly shifted to running most of our operations through Slack. And so, I spend a lot of time in Slack managing, delegating, giving guidance, etc.
In addition to managing a 100-person department, I have projects I am individually responsible for. So, I block off time for reviewing the deliverables from those.
Because we’re a 24/7 essential public service, full control over my schedule is limited.
Q. What role do you play in technology purchases?
It depends on the scope, the dollar amounts, and other things. As a public agency, we have a very rigorous procurement process. By and large, I set the approach by which we do technology procurements.
We want to have a great experience for our riders, so we do all of the in-house software development for that [customer-facing] interface. And then we bring in modular pieces behind it. We love it when there’s an opportunity for third parties to show their excellence and be able to contribute. To create a level playing field, as much as possible, we want to use industry-standard interfaces so that [vendors] are not building something custom just for us. One that means it is going to be continuously updated, and two, it means they can sell to other [customers]. It becomes a win-win.
Q. What other internal stakeholders do you collaborate with on technology decisions?
Collaboration is essential. In the public sector, we have the opportunity and the challenge of managing to multiple bottom lines. So you can only be successful by taking a collaborative, partnership approach.
For example, one key partner is our systemwide accessibility group. Going back to our mission, making sure that all riders can use the system well, a big focus is on providing better information to folks who are elevator-dependent. If you’re taking the subway and go to a station and the elevators are out of service, the station might as well be closed to you, given a lack of accessibility. We should make sure we’re giving folks that information upfront. This stakeholder collaboration is the most critical work that we do.
Q. How has the technology buying process evolved over the past 3-5 years?
With a lot of traditional government IT procurement, the name of the game is risk mitigation, which can make the procurement very prescriptive, describing outputs. In striving to use those modern principles of research, design, and technology, we want to set the bar on the outcomes and leave it to the vendor to figure out how they will deliver the results, not prescribing how they get there. What is the latency? What is the throughput? What is the resolution of the screen, etc.?
Interacting with stakeholders is a lot easier when we’re talking in terms of outcomes. You don’t want to talk about network switches; you want to talk about the impact of that switch on the rider, the staff, and the organization. That makes it a lot easier for us to meet them where they are and walk them through solutions in a human-centered way.
One of the innovative things that our procurement department is pushing us toward is using many more RFIs [requests for information]. An RFI gives the government an opportunity to go into the market and invite folks to submit their ideas, approach, interest, etc., in a more informal, lightweight way. An RFI can really open us up to learning about new ways people are approaching a problem. And that helps us refine the outcomes we’re looking for.
Things have changed in other ways: The procurement department’s priorities have shifted to reflect the complex needs of our agency. While they are still committed to helping us acquire specialized software, they are also focused on supporting our day-to-day operations. They many want to help us buy whatever software we need, but they’re also trying to figure out how to order 10 tons of cement by yesterday.
First, we’re making a big push toward standardized terms and conditions. Technology vendors with the flexibility to review and accept our terms and conditions make things go a lot faster.
Second, InfoSec. Government is often the biggest, most attractive target. So give me an industry standard – the stricter, the better – and we’re going to say you have to adopt that. The importance and the non-negotiability of adhering to InfoSec standards is something that has really changed over the last couple of years.
Last is software accessibility. I’ve talked about this, but states like Massachusetts are making a big push on software accessibility. It’s long overdue. But there’s a lack of expertise in the industry.
Q. What can technology vendors do better to get your attention?
The best approach is for companies to inform, not sell. I know that vendors are developing new and different solutions, and I’m eager to learn about those solutions and technologies.
A sales approach is going to be less successful. I can’t and don’t want to buy a piece of software based on a personal relationship I have with the salesperson. We go through an open, equitable, and inclusive procurement process. So, show us the value and impact you can deliver rather than trying to create a personal relationship. When vendors lead with marketing buzzwords, it’s easy to tune them out.
The last thing I’ll note is that historically, many software vendors will only take credit card payments. That’s hard for a government agency. The ability to do purchase orders helps to pave the way.
It comes down to this: Make it easy for us to say yes.