No matter how exciting, change is difficult.
These words were relayed last week by Gail Roper as she was preparing to make her exit as Raleigh’s Chief Information Officer after seven years. Her resignation is effective this Friday, though she will continue to assist with operations for the city through the end of the month before starting her new role in July with the St. Joe Company in Watersound, Fla.
St. Joe is a real estate company that develops resorts and residential communities on the Gulf Coast. The company also manages timber operations on thousands of acres and offers rural acreage for sale. Roper described her new executive role with the company as one to lead the IT efforts that bring innovation to the company’s various lines of business.
Before Raleigh, the polished and outspoken technologist previously held similar positions in Austin, Texas, and in Kansas City, Missouri – both of which are now Google Fiber cities. And, when she’s not spending time on the beach and playing golf, she has helped attract the Internet giant’s fiber opportunities to the Triangle as well as led the city’s massive high-speed broadband makeover.
In her words, Roper spoke with The Broadband Report about her 30-year career in information technology:
What was some of your best accomplishments in North Carolina; what will you miss?
North Carolina is growing exponentially and continues to be a hub for technology research and entrepreneurship. I will miss some of the partnerships that I have been able to develop during my time here. The private-sector companies in RTP are great community partners. I personally believe that local government has to engage in social innovation with public/private partnerships to be effective. The tax base can’t be the only funding source for municipal innovation.
Can you talk a little about the role MCNC plays in North Carolina and the impact of having the North Carolina Research and Education Network?
Certainly, MCNC and NCREN are North Carolina’s hidden treasures. Fiber connectivity is the catalyst for the kind of innovation that North Carolina is known for. MCNC got that many years ago and began to build out an infrastructure that supports private, educational and municipal organizations. This is a significant asset for the State of North Carolina. It certainly was one of the reasons I took the job in Raleigh.
What does high-speed connectivity mean to you?
High-speed fiber is an enabler for individuals, communities and the private sector. The Internet has become a core tool for information, and high-speed connectivity is simply the underpinning for the sharing of data information. Entrepreneurs, academics and government are reliant on technology infrastructure to grow and do business. It is a core part of the business infrastructure today. That is why it is so important to make certain everyone has access. It is the modern day road or bridge. We used to rely solely on roads to get products to market, and today, high-speed connectivity is the equivalent transport.
With previous stops in Kansas City and Austin before Raleigh, seems to be a trend that Google Fiber likes to follow you – care to comment on that thought?
That was a joke among my colleagues. The reality is that the body of work I’ve always followed was steeped in opportunities to work in cities where technology infrastructure was important. The fiber rings in Austin and the downtown economic development conduit in Kansas City were proof to me that technology has a direct impact on economic development.
When someone says to you, gigabit, what do you think about?
Advanced medical research and medical diagnosis focused on individual DNA research; our ability to educate global students that have world-wide perspectives that lead to more tolerance in the world; entrepreneurs that continue to use gig technology to bring innovative solutions to the market.
Is the Internet of Things just a buzz word, or does it really mean something to you?
It’s both. As a technologist I have learned to transform buzz words into something meaningful. Smart homes, watches with health monitoring, and the consumption of natural resources are all dependent on Internet connectivity. We are moving towards homes with connected thermostats, security systems, light bulbs and refrigerators. I believe having a connection to the Internet will be a given for most products in just a short 10-year span.
What’s the future of broadband for Raleigh and/or North Carolina?
I have no doubt that Raleigh and its partner municipalities and private-sector companies will drive broadband infrastructure forward. The implementation of fiber-to-the-home has a significant impact on the public’s expectation. The key will be the development of high-speed broadband applications that bring phenomenal solutions to consumers. Virtual reality applications, open data applications, research, entertainment, and television will have no barriers.
What are your thoughts on municipal broadband? Did Raleigh ever want to pursue a model like the City of Wilson before state legislation prohibited it?
It is my personal opinion that municipalities with electric utilities were the better providers for fiber-to-the-home. Now that we have developed public-private / fiber-to-the-home partnerships, we are able to share long term overhead cost. This makes it more palatable for tax payers. Raleigh is working on an institutional broadband network that will connect city facilities including our new public safety facility.
What was your toughest challenge as CIO in Raleigh?
Balancing between keeping up with the changing political landscape and continuing to focus on technological advances was always a challenge. There has to balance for CIOs to know what is important and to bring relevancy to the region. I hope that I was successful and that I will be in Florida as well.
If your mentor was here right now, what would you say to them? What would they say to you?
I would say that I took his advice and will continue to be a purpose-driven leader throughout my career. I think he might say that my efforts to be open-minded and inclusive paid off.
Best of luck to you in Florida.