Michael Cave's journey spans over 22 years in state service, beginning at the age of 22 as an intern at the Department of Transportation in San Diego, California. With a diverse career that includes serving as the Chief Product Officer at the Department of Technology, he currently holds the role of Document Management System Development Manager in the Application Services Division at the Employment Development Department.
Residing in Roseville with his wife and triplets, Michael's passion extends beyond his professional life. His love for innovation has led him to engage in a myriad of different leisure time projects that test his blend of creativity and practical skills to craft sheds or construct solar-powered pool heaters
During our conversation, Mr. Cave delved into several pressing topics. Most notably emphasizing the importance of relevant conversations, the invaluable role of mentors, the impact of delivery, and the numerous challenges and triumphs embedded in the landscape of state service.
Q: Briefly summarize how you became involved in state service
Mentors. I was a student assistant at Caltrans DOT. 22 years – I’m still in state service. My mentor saw something in me that they wanted to nurture and felt could benefit the state. When someone believes in you, it’s in your best interest to run with it.
Q: Who was your mentor?
She was a hippie in Caltrans motor pool. She was well-connected and very service oriented. I think she took me under her wing because she saw that desire to serve in me. In turn, she introduced me to other like-minded people.
To be effective at the state, the two most important attributes are being service-oriented and comfortable interacting with different people. Everyone at the motor pool needed the same thing: a reliable car. All our differences were united by one common goal.
Q: What was the greatest wisdom that you learned from your mentor?
Always make it a priority to get to know the person. At Caltrans, everyone would BBQ in the parking lot during lunch. You learn A LOT about a person by what they bring to the table. Some people put in a lot of effort; some people heat up a can of Bush’s Baked Beans. You learn to people please when you eat bad cooking.
Regardless, I learned that these seemingly ordinary people were extraordinary when you took the time to get to know them. I learned that everyone has value.
Q: You bring up everyone having value, can you go in more depth with how that translates to working with people at the state?
A lot of the people I was working with at that time were uncomfortable with technology. They were just looking to have a working car. That didn’t mean that people who weren’t comfortable with technology didn’t have value, however, they just struggled to embrace change. Having subject matter experts disseminate information is just as valuable.
Technology comes so fast and furious right now with the “just add water” requirements, then you get a deputy director who is forward thinking and doesn’t necessarily see the value in IT given platforms like Workday. But where I see that technology is headed is a greater need for translators. Buy whatever products you want, but make sure to deliver.
Q: What do you mean by deliver?
Delivery is the hardest thing for people to do, but it’s the most vital. Configuration of the translation. Translation being those in the workforce who understand the problem. Delivery requires bringing the right people to the table, and that’s where building a relationship is vital. You end up with shelfware and failed implementation when you fail to lay the right track to be able to develop.
Q: So why do people fail to deliver?
Not getting to know the people that the vendor is working with is the biggest issue. People don’t seem to realize that you don’t need to talk to the CIO or CTO to make headway in an organization. When you build relationships and bring value to people, then they will bring you to who will get the work done. This relationship transcends the product a person is bringing to the table. It’s likely that the person I am working with is going to bounce around in their career, as have I. But the point is that the person has been vetted.
Q: What do you mean by vetted?
Vetted as in the person already knows what motivates and resonates with the person they’ve already taken the time to build a relationship with. The person values understanding the organization on a greater scale. Sometimes a company can be too focused on small outcomes, like purchase orders and achieving quarterly revenue targets, rather than getting to know the organization and the people in it. How large is the organization? Who is the heartbeat? Are they too focused on internal politics? This isn’t only a struggle for vendors, but for C-level people who come into an organization, but don’t take the time to understand the department. Selling successfully is very much like farming. Good soil, timing when you plant seeds, caring for the crop and applying lessons learned is what produces the bountiful harvest. Crops don’t grow overnight, and certainly not because one drops seeds.
Q: Back to our earlier dialogue about Mentorship, why would people take time out of their day to mentor. What’s the value here?
I came up with the idea of a mentorship program at the IT Leadership Academy, and it was implemented for a period. I think they understood why mentorship is so vital. Management is hard. You need people who are willing to do the hard things, and mentors can sell you on a greater purpose. This can only come through sacrifice on the mentor’s part and transformative leadership. It’s how you change government from within
Q: What is the driving force keeping you in state service?
The benefits. It’s hard for non-government organizations to compete with the benefits. We get time off, work life balance, legal aid, disability insurance, dental insurance, health insurance.
Q: What would you do if the state didn’t have these benefits?
I haven’t tripped into the private sector because I don’t know what that would look like for my skillset. I think that there are two main things I am good at: sales and delivery. I think my main strength is in delivery. I am great at getting into environments and talking to people. I like helping people be successful and taking them through the finish line.
Q: What did you want to be when you were younger?
A professional baseball player in the major leagues. I did little league and played in Virginia, but it was always my dream to move to San Diego and become a professional baseball player. I ended up having to change course, I just couldn’t cut it in comparison to the players in California. I ended up getting my associate in business, my bachelor’s in information systems, and a master’s in information systems.
Q: What is an event that deeply moved you?
My father passing away when I was 28 years old. He was my #1 mentor.
Q: What is the greatest wisdom he gave you as a mentor?
The equation 4thought = 7P. Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance! What trips people up the most at the state is failing to plan
Q: What is a piece of wisdom you’ve carried on to your kids?
You can be good at anything if you work at it, practice it. Try things, fail, lose. Last summer I was teaching the triplets to swim, and they were not having it. I eventually had to jump in with them and give them an example. Very slowly, gradually, they began to catch onto it. Now 2 of the 3 are excellent swimmers.
Q: What would you recommend to those just getting involved in state service?
Find a mentor, don’t beat around the bush around finding one either. Shop around. Don’t just accept someone who is offering mentorship. Find someone who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. You need someone who will push you and who will give you a safe place to practice.
Q: Have you ever had a bad mentor?
Certainly. Avoid mentors who have empires. If/when you realize that you are being groomed to conform as a subject in their empire, you should run. Your mentor shouldn’t be trying to get you to conform, they should take the best parts of you and demand you to expand. They should want to watch you grow, even grow to be greater than themselves. A good mentor is not threatened by someone’s potential to do more, let alone great things.
Q: What is one strong opinion that you have.
The government should invest more in relevant conversations about relevant topics. TechCA’s Summit in December was a great example of this. You are always going to have new ideas and new people. The way to keep up innovation is to avoid stale conversations. People want to talk about real challenges, not hear about the same old things that don’t work for them.
Q: Do you think that this would require more input from the vendor community, or do you think this needs to happen more between state workers?
I believe in a hybrid approach. There should be more avenues to have more conversations. Like, everyone is talking about AI, but it feels like people are rushing to use the word instead of smoking out the relevant use cases and actually solving problems.
Q: Other than AI, what are other relevant conversation topics that you believe we should be discussing?
Business continuity, disaster recovery, continuity of operations. Outside of cybersecurity this is where people really need to make investments.
We must confidently invest in the ‘what if’ scenario. You think that covid was bad? Wait until there’s a massive flood, a huge water shortage, or a fire that really causes people to be displaced. Disaster recovery plans can get stale quickly. The names listed are in a constant state of flux due to job changes and retirements, there are many different components of the plan that must be tested, etc.. Technology moves so quickly nowadays. It can take significant down time to test whether the plan works as designed. That is what’s so good about some of the cloud offerings. If you build things right in cloud service providers like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform, then there’s no excuse for critical services or websites to be down. We are living in the age of software-defined everything. Disaster recovery is something that everyone can invest more in.
Q: What’s a topic that you could talk about for hours?
The future of the state. I said something at a round table several weeks ago and people almost laughed me out of the room, “AI in 10 years has the ability to eliminate civil service classifications.” We are entering the era of an actual 24-hour workforce where data-based decisions are being made by AI—24/7 productivity. AI has the ability to make certain civil service classifications obsolete due to technological advances
Q: What else do you see for the state?
I think we may move towards virtual CIOs. Departments don’t have a good enough candidate pool, so they could bring back former CIOs, but on the former CIO’s conditions. CIOs are brought in temporarily to make decisions, solve a problem, recruit, and so on, but because they’re virtual they could technically manage several territories.
Q: What do you think you’re infamous for?
Thought leadership. Whatever I say, it’s going to be thought provoking, it’s going to be funny. There will be a reaction. That, and I care about how people are doing, and what’s new in their lives.
Q: What is one thing you want people to take away from this interview?
When you look at your whole career, just really give a thought to the impact you’ve had on people, how you treated people, and what you are remembered by.