Interview: Seattle’s new tech chief Saad Bashir on 5G, privacy and embracing the tech industry

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City Clerk Monica Martinez Simmons, Mayor Durkan, and new Chief Technology Officer Saad Bashir at his swearing-in ceremony. (City of Seattle Photo / Tim Durkan)

As Seattle’s new chief technology officer, Saad Bashir hopes to make broadband more accessible, champion 5G, and help the city’s newly consolidated IT department operate more cohesively.

Those are a few key takeaways from GeekWire’s interview with Bashir this week, following his confirmation Monday.

As CTO and director of Seattle information technology, Bashir is inheriting a department providing IT support for more than 12,000 city employees and running all of the municipal government’s technology services. More than 750 employees work in IT roles for the city on a wide range of initiatives including an open data portal and the Seattle Channel television station.

For the past eight years, Bashir has served as the City of Ottawa’s chief information officer. Prior to that, he worked in for Calgary’s economic development agency. Bashir also brings experience from the private sector. He worked in business planning and strategy at a handful of companies, including Citi.

Seattle’s CTO position has been vacant for a year following the departure of Bashir’s predecessor, Michael Mattmiller. In 2015, former Mayor Ed Murray created the Seattle IT department to centralize tech teams that were dispersed across city government. It has been a rocky transition at times. In 2017, Seattle news site Crosscut reported that the consolidation had resulted in frustration and chaos.

“We are talking about people who may have been comfortable working on a certain floor or a certain cubicle, on a certain team, and now we have to recreate that team spirit,” Bashir said. “So definitely that is one area on my radar that I’m going to be focusing on.”

Saad Bashir. (LinkedIn Photo)

Bashir’s other areas of focus will include privacy — a key issue as Seattle embraces new technologies — digital equity, and 5G, the next generation of high-speed wireless technology. He addressed those topics and more during our interview. Continue reading for the edited Q&A with Bashir.

GeekWire: Seattle has a lot of tech creativity and I’m curious if you have a plan to harness that innovative spirit to address some of the city’s challenges.

Bashir: When I was in my previous role a few years ago, I started making cold calls to my peers in the private sector community. I was often calling and speaking with people who are either in Seattle or San Francisco or in that vicinity. We found that there was a lot that we could do together with the private sector, not in a traditional vendor relationship, but more in terms of learning from their experiences.

We started sending people regularly to the West Coast, from Ottawa, for that experience. So definitely now that I have that home advantage, given that we’re surrounded with companies that, from all over the world, people want to go and speak with, I want to take advantage of every small and large company, not just Amazon and Microsoft and Expedia, but the ecosystem here in Seattle. It’s really quite something and I want to dip into that for sure.

GW: What role do you think the tech industry should play in civic life?

Bashir: Depending on the type of company we’re talking about, there are some firms in the private sector that are a lot more complex than the City of Seattle. They operate in various geographies and they have got a much larger employee footprint. In those cases, I would love to learn how they are able to manage such a complex business using technology and what lessons are to be learned for the City of Seattle. That could be in many different forms. It could be hackathons with them. It could be [allowing] employees to work alongside with their staff here in Seattle for a short period of time on a regular basis to pick up some practical skills. Just seeing what that experience has been in implementing a big technology system that we might be contemplating to do. From a very selfish Seattle IT perspective, that’s the kind of relationship I would want to definitely build with some of the larger firms.

More on the startup side, one of the programs we had, which was quite successful, back in Ottawa was the Innovation Pilot Program. That was an opportunity for us to, in a very limited fashion, be able to work with the local, mostly startup community to test ideas that were very much oriented to fixing some sort of a municipal, longstanding operational issue … monitoring the strength of bridges and concrete infrastructure, it’s a very municipal operational type of thing. We were able to work with local startups to see if he could do that type of work in a much more of a technical, technology-savvy way versus a very manual process that was followed. I would want to harness that type of innovative spirit in the startup community of Seattle and bring in front of them whatever municipal operation issues we might be faced with.

GW: Speaking of operational issues, there have been some reports that the transition to centralizing Seattle’s IT infrastructure has been a little bit rocky. How will you get the department to run more smoothly?

Bashir: In the last few weeks since I’ve been in this role, my day-to-day activity has been to speak with as many people in IT … as possible and I think the number is close to almost 300 now. There are lots of things, definitely, that we need to perhaps do differently in terms of making Seattle IT be seen as one department, one team. The consolidation brought, as you know, people from different areas of the city together and that is not an overnight change. We are talking about people. We are talking about people who may have been comfortable working on a certain floor or a certain cubicle, on a certain team, and now we have to recreate that team spirit. Definitely that is one area on my radar that I’m going to be focusing on.

GW: Switching gears a little bit, what’s your position on municipal broadband?

Bashir: It is an essential service in terms of having high-speed internet available to the community, so definitely there’s a role for the municipality to play. There are different options that have been talked about in the marketplace and I’m still discovering what the appetite for the City of Seattle is. You probably know there are places like Chattanooga, for example, that have taken it upon themselves to run the whole municipal broadband infrastructure and there’s are other cities where they have come up with some partnerships with the private sector to offer the same kind of service to their citizens, but without taking on the infrastructure responsibility. I fully expect to get into that conversation with the leaders of the city and figure out where do we stand in that spectrum of involvement.

GW: Do you think that it’s something that needs to be improved in Seattle?

Bashir: I come from a city that is about 10 times the size, in terms of geography, as Seattle. Municipal broadband was also an issue there because we did have communities in far-flung areas of the city where they did not have good access. I have to admit, Monica, I still have to understand what the municipal broadband landscape is in Seattle. In all my conversations, it has been brought to my attention that that is an area that needs to be improved and I’ve spoken with counselors or the mayor’s office and people in general. There seems to be a need for improvement. I have to figure it out what that would mean in terms of my, and Seattle IT”s, involvement. If there is a role that I can play to make a difference in municipal broadband, I will not hesitate to act as a champion for that.

GW: How do you plan to prepare Seattle for 5G technology?

Bashir: That’s a great question. There are lots of 5G discussions happening in Seattle, as you know. There’s some stuff that is happening in the more legal domain. But my one personal response to that — and this is something that I also included in my responses, to City Council for my confirmation questions — that there’s a lot to be gained by Seattle … being an early adopter of 5G. And because we have a role to play in how that early adoption happens, because we have a role to play when it comes to permitting and providing the processes for those telecom companies to come in, I would encourage whatever within in our policies and guidelines we can do be on that tier one list of cities that are going to be embracing 5G. I will definitely play a role there. I used to be in economic development in a previous role and so there are definitely economic development related benefits as well as social benefits that one could realize with proper 5G planning. I’m excited.

GW: There’s been some concern that Seattle might fall behind on 5G because of some of the rules that govern how we use street poles. Do you have any insights into that or comment?

Bashir: I don’t have any insights to be honest with you, Monica. I know that there are a lot of discussions happening on how we can make it easy for 5G to come into our community. but I wouldn’t know beyond that the details. Not yet anyway.

GW: No problem. We’ll circle back on that once you’ve had a little more time to settle in.

Bashir: Sounds good.

GW: As smart city technologies are getting more popular, how can cities safeguards citizens’ privacy?

Bashir: Privacy is a very hot topic here and the privacy office, particularly as it relates to technology, is part of [Seattle IT]. I have taken a very active interest in that. My bosses have made it clear that this is something that I need to be on top of. There is a very detailed process that is laid out now for any technology that might have privacy implications to follow so that we can safeguard the interests of the citizens of Seattle and I’m going to be very much plugged into that. At the same time, though, I would want to make sure that we don’t just do process for the sake of process, that there is some real business, tangible value coming out of it. As I learn more about how we are doing privacy business here, wherever I can find ways for us to streamline and still maintain the privacy guidelines and spirit and the policies that we have, but make it easier for us to do business, that would be my approach.

GW: Is there anything else that you think I should know?

Bashir: My approach to this job, and any other job, is that there are more, smarter people around me and definitely outside of the organization as well, from whom we can learn to do our jobs a bit better. I’m always seeking for people to reach out to me directly, to Seattle IT in general, not just to sell us a product or service. I have no shortage of those phone calls that come to me. But for people to guide us a little bit and tell us what their experience has been like doing IT type of work that we’re also undertaking. If through this that message gets across to the community in general, I would very much want to have those discussions with folks.

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