May 10, 2022

Tech Leaders Hiring Well featuring CivicPlus

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CivicPlus creates SaaS products for over 7,500 local governments to positively engage with their community members. Zac Colip, VP, Tech Practice at Hirewell chats with Ben Sebree, VP, R&D and Technology at CivicPlus to learn more about his path to leadership through product management. We also dive into more details on what it’s like working at CivicPlus and the Hackathons and innovation that allows fresh ideas to flourish. Tune in! 

Episode Transcript

Alright, welcome Ben Sebree. He is the Vice President of R&D and technology at CivicPlus, a government technology company that helps local governments operate more efficiently with integrated technology solutions. Ben, welcome to the Tech Leaders Hiring Well series. Yeah, thanks a lot Zac.

Today we’re going to be chatting about your experience as a leader and then dive into exciting things happening at CivicPlus. Awesome. Sounds great. So it’d be great if you could help by just getting started, just learning a little bit more about your background as a leader, and kind of the evolution of that.

Also maybe some exciting things happening at CivicPlus. Yeah, absolutely. So Ben Sebree, I’ve been in technology since about 2011. Spent a lot of my time in the product management kind of discipline and product strategy for different technology organizations. So I’ve worked at organizations as large as 10,000 employees and the smallest, eight employees. Over that tenure, I came to CivicPlus to really kind of lead their platform strategy and their platform technology group as a part of that, and then kind of evolved into really leading the entire engineering, hosting, security and IT team. Wow. Awesome. That’s great. And then as far as like CivicPlus, can you tell me more about what the company does? Yeah, so we’re a SaaS built tech. We focus solely on local governments. So cities, counties, and special districts.

We really kind of rally the entire organization around our mission, which is to make government work better and we do that by focusing on creating these frictionless interactions, with residents, employees and visitors to those different municipalities. And that’s really something that we do better than a lot of our competitors.

So we’re all of our competitors, in my opinion, is that we really focus on those kind of front end interactions to make those as streamlined and efficient as possible. And really when citizens are really- and residents are interacting with their local government it can feel like a very, very siloed process because a lot of organizations are kind of run that way.

We try to break down those silos to make it feel like you’re just interacting with your local government as opposed to specific departments within that municipality. Okay, fantastic. And how has your product management background kind of influenced you as like a technical leader?

How has it helped you kind of grow? Yeah. That’s a great question. I think product management, especially if you’re doing things like more technical product management where I kind of have my background in, is it really allows you to articulate the value of what you’re creating as an organization.

And can be that evangelist for what the engineering group or the security or the hosting group is really accomplishing from creating the product or keeping it resilient or scalable or secure. And so really being able to have those conversations both with the business side of the organization and the technical side of the organization and really tying those together, because sometimes it feels like you’re speaking two different languages as a part of that And

As far as like the projects that you guys are focused on from a technical standpoint, can you elaborate a little bit more on like kind of some of the projects you guys are focused on?

Yeah. Yeah. We have a bunch of really exciting ones so it’s hard to pick just a couple of them. But one of the things that we do really well is we try to put our money where our mouth is. And so we talk about these frictionless, these breaking down the silos, these different interactions that residents or citizens or tourists are having with different municipalities, and even the employees themselves within the municipalities.

And what a lot of folks in the gov tech industry do is they create this really pretty PowerPoint. We call it market texture. And that’s about as integrated as they are from a technology perspective, with all the different systems that they have. What CivicPlus is really doing is we’re really bringing all those systems together.

We have an integration hub. We’re building out a portal. It’s been released. We have a lot of really great enhancements to that portal that are coming in. And the entire point of all of that is to really actually do what we’re saying instead of just having a really nice PowerPoint. As a part of that, we have the technology suite that’s available that creates those frictionless interactions, that really creates those efficiencies beyond just having a bunch of different siloed applications. We spend a lot of time and energy really kind of building the suite out itself as opposed to different models.

Okay, cool. And like what type of tasks or things does it help like local governments basically perform? Yeah. It’s a great question. So some of it can be, you’re just completing an entire process where a lot of different providers might have part of a City Clerk’s process, for example, or a codification process or even just a web type of public information officer type process for their websites. What we’re really doing is bringing all those together and streamlining them. So if you have your Clerk’s solution, it can push information into the codification system to really make that codification process a lot more streamlined and simple.

And then from a resident interaction standpoint, exposing all of those different products and the information within those products through a federated search you do through one of our websites or web CMSs that we have, or through our constituent portal that’s being built out. Really creating that single pane of glass for stakeholders of the municipalities to have those interactions instead of going to a website way over here

and then another one in a completely different area, you have to reenter all of your information, even though you entered it in over here with the same municipality. We’re really trying to break that down and streamline those processes for everyone. Okay. Wow. That’s fantastic. It looks like you guys have *almost 600 employees employees. That’s fantastic. It’s a big company. How have you guys been able to grow that? What’s been your involvement in helping to grow that team? It’s been a lot of fun over the last couple of years.

We’ve gotten a lot of really nice organic growth as an organization. And so we’ve opened up a lot of new roles to really support the acceleration of a lot of product lines that we want to bring into market such as the portal or the integrations that we talked about just a little bit ago. My role is really to kind of set and find the strategy for the different departments that I’m running and really empower the teams to have the authority and the autonomy to enact that vision and that strategy for what’s best for our clients themselves.

So we have a lot of Kaizen type initiatives that we do, continuous improvement within the organization. We really work to make the teams autonomous, the agile teams that we’re working with. Even when it comes to some of the different frameworks that we have. We can have a couple of guard rails in there that we want to be agile.

We want to iterate, we want to get stakeholder feedback very quickly in the pipeline end of the process to make sure that we’re building the best possible software. But really kind of pushing the organization, provide that stakeholder feedback and our clients as well. And then collaborating a lot between the different departments to make sure that we’re providing the best possible client experience for it.

And then from a leadership perspective, a lot of player coaching in a lot of the managers that we have and a lot of the leadership that we have within their organization of we’re going to empower you to be able to accomplish the tasks. We also want to empower you to push concerns or information up through the organization because we really want to have a highly empowered and engaged team as a part of all of that.

And by doing that, we want to make sure that we’re an incredibly accessible leadership team. Okay, fantastic. That sounds really exciting. Sounds ideal for kind of a place that technologists should want to work. What is the technology team like? Why do folks like working there? I think a lot of it comes to culture.

We have a really- although we’re a larger organization now and we’re becoming a much larger organization, we still have a lot of that startup mentality, that culture that really comes with a lot of that. The teams are very close to each other and you kind of really get to know them, which is pretty nice for an organization that is very remote right now, and will continue to be remote into the future.

So as we get more and more work from home, individuals or- we haven’t even opened our corporate office back up fully yet with the pandemic and everything. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about that is how close those teams are, even if they are all across the United States or even part of the world, as a part of that.

You really get to know each other. You really get to know those within cross-functional units and really work in a kind of a matrix environment with our QA or strategy and our engineering group. Okay, great. And what is growth like there? Do you guys like to promote from within? Or how does that look?

We we really like to promote from within when possible. Sometimes we like to get that outside talent in as well. One of the things that we really like from kind of the growth opportunities within CP is we really want all levels to bring the suggestion. So if someone’s coming in from not CivicPlus onto the team, through a new role or anything like that, we really want them to bring their expertise.

And evangelize their expertise, right? If we’re doing something that they think they’ve witnessed a process or a different way of doing it, that can be a better way for us as an organization to either scale or really kind of dig into that purpose, that mission of making government work better or innovation culture.

We want to be able to hear it, might want to be able to implement any of those things as well. Okay. Great. Fantastic. Now, I know when innovation comes up, I have to bring up the question of the Hackathons that you guys are involved in, right. I know a lot of companies say that they do Hackathons but a lot of companies don’t set the time aside to actually have people really dive into it.

How are your guys’s Hackathons different? Yeah, so we spend a lot of time on that innovation type culture and Hackathons are a huge piece of that. So we have Hackathons twice a year that are internal, that we have just a couple of guardrails on. Like we’ll have a theme. You don’t necessarily have to be part of the theme on that.

So like we’ve done integrations as theme or cloud technologies as a theme or frictionless interactions as a theme. And then we’ll have specific prizes that are based on that. We have our Hackathons, they’re 20- 24 hours, 48 hours. Then we do a judging at the very end of that. And as part of the Hackathon process as well, we have a lot of training that goes into those and that’s something that’s really kind of taken off over the last couple of years.

And I’ve really been super impressed with that. We have people from all over the organization come in and provide training. It can be from anything, from here’s how to meditate like if you’re stressed at work, here’s a platform as a business model, here’s a change management and a variety of other different things, or just here’s the processes that we use in implementation in order to go through the entire codification process for a client.

And that way, it’s great because the entire organization can learn more about other departments, other products, other processes. And then from our technology perspective, we can really understands what a lot of our team or our clients are going through and build just the best products possible as part of that.

There’s a lot of innovation that comes out of that. We try not to have anything that’s dictated as part of that. You can pull on different projects or not as you want. Aside from Hackathons, we also have at the beginning of every sprint, or if you’re Kanban at certain time box of whatever your team decides, we have a day of, we call them hack Mondays, even though not every sprint starts on a Monday- depending on which team you’re on.

But you get that kind of personal time to kind of hack on a project that you find really interesting. It could be some IDP time that you want to learn a new technology. It can be, I want to work on this side project app that could be really cool to make government work better.

Or it could be that I just want to really empower my team with a lot of the knowledge that I have so I do some knowledge sharing sessions as part of that. So we ended up spending more than a full person month per employee on hacking innovation time. Wow. That’s incredible. I don’t think I’ve heard really any other companies that have invested that much into the people on their teams.

So that’s super impressive. Now, from those Hackathons, have you found the team like implementing some of this stuff into the project work that you guys are focused on? Absolutely. Every Hackathon we have something that gets fully implemented into production. So Hackathons, we’re looking for someone’s proof of concept.

It doesn’t have to be polished, doesn’t have to be perfect. But then our product strategy team will go through all of that on projects they’re in- I want to finish this one, finish this one, finish this one. And it’s just an amazing amount of things that get sent out in the market. I think one of my favorite Hackathons that we did in the past was at the very beginning of lockdown when COVID and everything was happening.

And we had a COVID related Hackathon that we were doing for our clients. So the market was pivoting so quickly for local government where they had to go from in-office to remote, overnight. And local government wasn’t really- not all local government was set up to do it that way.

A lot of it involved coming into the office, queuing up in line- not something that’s necessarily good in a pandemic. And so we spent, it was a two week long Hackathon. It was the longest one that we’ve ever done. And we spent two whole weeks and it was COVID related, how can we make our products, empower our clients to better go remote, keep their constituents safe, et cetera. And that was the only real thing that we had around there is that theme. We ended up with, I think it was like 14 different projects that were pushed into production at the end of that and that really helped with communication or going remote or empowering workflows from a non in-person environment.

And that really kind of personifies the mission that we have as an organization is to make government work better. So when something like that happened and we weren’t able to go through the full process of a product strategy, collecting all the VOC and everything like that, the voice of customer, we were able to create a whole bunch of really quick value.

And we even had some of our clients come in and judge those projects at the end of the Hackathon as well. And they provided some really awesome feedback for us. That is really cool. That is so interesting. Any product that is shortening the lines anywhere, I’m a hundred percent on board on. I can’t wait until you guys do a Hackathon on the DMV- please!

yeah. I was looking at your background. It looks like you’ve been on the advisory board at Kansas State and flagship. What’s that been like? And are you excited about kind of the next generation of computer science grads of the future?

Absolutely. Yeah. I really enjoy doing some of the not-for-profit work or the advisory board type work, because it really helps us kind of set ourselves up for the future, even though technology is moving at such a accelerated rate right now. I mean, since the seventies and as back, that I’m not sure we’ll ever perfectly set ourselves up for the future.

But really being able to interact with academia from the advisory board standpoint and really be that voice of industry of what would we like to see students coming out of college with a degree or non-college, with apprenticeship or something like that. What are the skill sets that we’re really looking for that would help set them up to be best employed, is a really nice partnership that we have. And then as part of flagship it’s flagship Kansas, is we spend a lot of time working on secondary K through 12 education and kind of computer science initiatives through the state itself. Including going and talking to the house of representatives, from testimonies to really empower that or the board of education to really make sure that computer science is serving all populations, within the state itself.

There’s a lot of other groups like this all over the US that are- I just happened to live in Kansas. So that’s why I’m involved in the Kansas group. But we really see that a lot of pockets of computer science education and in a K through 12 are in the high population areas. So like the Kansas cities, the Topeka’s, the Wichita’s of the state. And what we really want to be able to empower throughout the entire state of Kansas or United States is in the more rural environments.

We want to have computer science education for all. And those opportunities because there is fantastic career path for anyone. Yeah. And especially in this new world post, you know, or hopefully post COVID, people can really work anywhere. So it’s really great to get folks that kind of exposure early on.

So that’s exciting. Awesome. And then I know CivicPlus is hiring right now. What are some positions that are front and center for you guys that maybe you’d like to highlight? Yeah, we’ve got some really nice lead positions that are open right now. So we have a lead for dot net and we have a lead for Ruby on Rails that’s opened at the moment.

And then we’re also looking for some UI, UX, kind of designers, front end engineers to join our team as well. Those are probably the most exciting positions that we have open at the moment. Okay. Awesome. Cool. Well, hey Ben, thank you so much for coming on Tech Leaders Hiring Well. Sounds like some very exciting things happening at CivicPlus.

So if you’re interested in them, go check them out or reach out to somebody at a Hirewell and we can make an introduction for you as well. Thanks Ben! Yeah, thanks Zac.

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