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Virtual Realities: State’s new technology chief needs a system that can handle $1 trillion

Aaron Sandeen, 38, serves as the state’s chief information officer and as deputy director of the Arizona Strategic Enterprise Technology Office. In nine months on the job, he led the former Government Information Technology Agency through the biggest change in its history. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

In accepting an appointment in January of this year by Gov. Jan Brewer to lead the Government Information Technology Agency, Aaron Sandeen, the “chief geek for the state of Arizona” as described by his kids, knew he would be leading the agency through the biggest change in its 15-year history. In fact, he welcomed the challenge.

His first major task was to create a new office responsible for managing all the state’s financial transactions while simultaneously enhancing its ability to do business with its customers by folding GITA into the Arizona Department of Administration Information Services Division.

“That’s exactly why I went there, I was looking to streamline and drive efficiencies within the state,” says Sandeen, whose titles now include chief information officer for the state of Arizona and deputy director of the newly minted Arizona Department of Administration Strategic Enterprise Technology Office (ASET). “We did a physical reorganization where we moved folks around, we changed organizations, we changed the reporting structure…just merging the culture was a massive challenge.”

Although the technophile-workaholic led the state’s chief technology agency through the biggest shift in its history during his first nine months on the job, he isn’t serious all the time.

“I’m from Montana, so I like to have lots of space,” Sandeen says of the ranch he owns in Wickenburg. “I also loved the idea of my children doing manual labor.”

Jokes aside, Sandeen came to lead an agency at a time when the phrase “public service” is synonymous with “crippling budget deficit.” It is that fact, combined with Brewer’s intense focus on spurring business in the state that led to the change, which became official on July 1.

“There were two different agencies, one concentrating on strategy and one on operations,” Sandeen says. “By bringing the two groups together, it really brings a customer-centric focus for the agencies more aligned with their strategic plans and decreases the cost for the state.”

As the dust settles on the reorganization, Sandeen’s attention has quickly turned to what he describes as “mission critical” for ASET — keeping the state’s two decade-old accounting system running on a daily basis. It’s made to handle big numbers, but sometimes it falters.

As an example, the system is hard-coded to handle $999 billion in transactions, which was acceptable for the system when it was designed 20 years ago. But today, with the high volume of transactions the state executes on a daily basis, that number occasionally exceeds $1 trillion, he says.

“That’s one example of how we have to continuously find work-arounds to make the system work for the state’s needs,” Sandeen says. “It’s absolutely limited; it doesn’t provide the capabilities that we need. Technology has changed a lot and our needs have changed a lot.”

Sandeen manages this newly christened “state datacenter,” which handles transactions related to Medicaid, the Department of Corrections and state employees, teachers and contractors’ paychecks, he says. To underscore its importance, Sandeen says in the event of an emergency where electricity was out, the datacenter would be the second location in the state to receive diesel fuel.

In addition to tending to immediate concerns, Sandeen also must consider the longer term goals of ASET. Since the economic downturn has stretched out the timeline of the agency’s projects, Sandeen and his team have developed a three-to-five-year plan, with about 200 designated projects.

“Because of strong funding sweeps, we stopped new development and cut to the bone,” Sandeen says.

Sandeen looks for projects that provide the greatest benefit, employ the most people and that can be easily implemented. “We’ve looked for low-hanging fruit, as opposed to projects that will take five to seven years,” he says. One such project set to debut soon is an overhaul of the governor’s website.

• • •

When the circuits inside the 38-year-old Sandeen’s head aren’t tackling statewide connectivity and business issues, they can be found firing shots in the new video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or simply firing up a barbeque.

“I’m a hardcore gamer, total geek, you betcha,” Sandeen says. “Me and my son got Skyrim on the day it came out, 11-11-11. I’ve also played World of Warcraft for years; I even taught my son how to read with that game.”

Sandeen came to Phoenix in the early 1990s to attend DeVry University where he met his future wife and earned a bachelor’s degree of science in business operations in 1994. Originally from Montana, Sandeen says he quickly became enamored with life in the Valley of the Sun.

“I’m allergic to snow,” he says. “When I saw leaves on the trees in the winter here, I wondered why anyone would ever want to leave Arizona.”

Sandeen and his wife Sonja bonded over a mutual interest. “We live and breathe technology,” he says. With both parents busy — his wife often travels for her job as a project manager with Intel — he describes performing a balancing act in caring for their three young children, a 10-year-old boy, a 6-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl.

• • •

Although he graduated with a business operations degree, Sandeen headed for work in the private technology sector for a simple reason. “That’s where all the cool jobs were,” he says.

He worked for Microsoft and Intel, before getting an “opportunity of a lifetime” to work for the Brewer administration as deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Recovery, where he worked for two and a half years. While there, he served as the campaign field director for the Yes on Prop. 100 campaign in 2010.

Now, still working for the governor as the head of a new office, Sandeen is confident that he is the one to keep the train on the tracks, headed in the right direction.

“My wife thinks I’m a magnet for problems,” he says. “I always find opportunities to fix things and make it better.”

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