Statesman Journal: Oregon's New Director Of IT Settles Into Work

statesman_journal | Feb. 9, 2014 11 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 11, 2014 9:08 a.m.

Contributed By:

Hannah Hoffman

Alex Pettit and his daughter, Emma, have a running joke that all he cooks is “angry-man meat.” He admits he can’t argue with that characterization — his Oklahoman culinary repertoire is heavy on fried chicken and meatloaf.

However, now that they’ve moved to Salem to allow Pettit to serve as Oregon’s new chief information officer, he’s telling her his new specialty will be “angry-man granola.”

The cultural shift Pettit has made is not lost on him.

He has lived many places besides Oklahoma and Texas, but his roots are there and so was his most recent job. His oldest son is attending the University of Oklahoma. Pettit might listen to classical music rather than country, and he may prefer hiking to horseback riding, but he already feels out of place in Oregon.

“It’s a very different world here,” he said. “It is a sharp cultural difference.”

Pettit came to Oregon on Jan. 6 from Oklahoma, where he served under two governors as that state’s chief information officer, running about 400 computer system projects.

On paper, Oregon’s government should feel familiar. Pettit was originally appointed by a Democratic governor and will serve under one here. The two states have nearly identical populations, so the government is handling the same number of people.

But in other ways, they’re nothing alike.

Pettit was introduced to a legislative committee on Jan. 15, said his “hellos,” answered a few questions and then stuck around to watch the committee speak with Oregon Health Authority Director Bruce Goldberg about the botched roll-out of the Cover Oregon website.

What he saw shocked him.

Goldberg went through every slide of his Power Point presentation, and then lawmakers asked him polite, if pointed, questions. They often prefaced those questions with apologies for how harsh they sounded. The next day, newspapers characterized this as Goldberg “being grilled.”

In Oklahoma, Pettit said, Goldberg would have been cut off after the first slide and hammered with questions and accusations. There would have been no apologies.

“I’m cut from rougher cloth,” he said.

Pettit’s family is from West Texas — there is a Pettit, Texas and a Pettit, Okla., each founded by one side of his family — but he grew up moving around the Midwest.

His father worked for Massey Ferguson, the large agricultural machinery company formerly based in Canada. For many years, Pettit had a collection of the red model tractors the company gave his dad every time it released a new one. Their family lived in Des Moines, Iowa; Akron, Ohio; Racine, Wisc. and many other cities during Pettit’s childhood.

He graduated from high school in Racine and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin. He went to graduate school at Loyola University in Chicago, a city he remembers finding both expensive and very cold.

He recalls a specific memory of walking along the Michigan Avenue bridge, whose base is a grate rather than solid concrete, and having snow blowing straight up off the Chicago River and through the grating.

“It’s very unpleasant,” he said.

His career has taken him as far east as Brown University in Rhode Island and as far south as Denton, Texas (in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area) before he was hired in Oklahoma, and now Salem.

Emma, 14, moved here with him — her two older brothers remained in Oklahoma. They profess to knowing little about Salem, including where to live. To settle the question, Emma wrote to all of the high school band directors (she plays clarinet) to ask about their programs. She liked best what she heard from the West Salem High School director, so Pettit found a house close enough for her to walk to that school.

Their rat terrier, Maddie (or “Madness,” as they call her) keeps Emma company when Pettit is working, which he often is.

In fact, he works so much, he’s not even sure what he does in his spare time.

Pettit has spent the past six years working toward his PhD in information sciences at the University of North Texas, and will defend his dissertation Tuesday.

Working toward his doctorate has consumed his weekends, his nights and most of his spare time. Everything comes back to the PhD — he leads with it in conversation, he listens to classical music to relax after working on the project — and now it’s almost finished. The final notes from his adviser are on his desk, and in a few days, it will all be over.

The program itself took six years, but the foundation was laid more than 35 years ago when Pettit’s father bought him a Heath/Zenith personal computer kit when he was about 10 years old. He assembled it himself and fell in love.

Technology raised questions for him that went deeper than how a microchip works, and he has wrestled with those questions at work and in his research at North Texas.

For a long time, Pettit loved reading science fiction, but as he grew up it depressed him more than anything. Every story about the future was full of technology and tools far more exciting and sophisticated than what existed at the time — but in every story, the people were the same. They made the same mistakes and had the same flaws as in the present, and Pettit found the idea that people could make so much progress with material goods and yet so little with themselves hugely deflating.

That’s what led him to love the technology field. It gave him the chance to answer the question of “how we use our tools to improve the world around us,” or how people can change along with their technology.

Technology, he said, can change who we are.

For example, transportation has improved enormously in the past 100 years. It used to be that people lived where they died, usually near their families, and most people never left their hometowns, Pettit said.

Today, Western society is incredibly mobile, with people moving all over the world.

“As a consequence, our perspectives on things are less provincial,” he said. “We’re much more aware of other viewpoints.”

Doing the research for a doctorate allowed him to answer bigger questions about what he saw working in the field. The “bleeding edge” of technology systems is out there, beyond what happens in research universities, he said. It’s in the university that you make sense of what’s happening in the field.

His research found that the people running IT projects often lose sight of the larger goals of the project because they’re too focused on making the program run perfectly. Those details end up separating the project from any kind of larger mission, and those projects tend to fail, even if they technically work beautifully, he said.

However, just one month into his job, Pettit can see Oregon has the opposite problem.

Oklahomans mock Texans for having a “go-big-or-go-home” attitude about everything, he said, but “Oregon isn’t too far from that in some regards when it comes to IT.”

Cover Oregon is a perfect example.

“Oregon had a very ambitious project with the health-insurance exchange,” Pettit said. “There’s nothing wrong with that vision … but you have to do it in pieces.”

“I’m trying to bring in a certain degree of rigor to the process,” he said.

But before he can overhaul Oregon’s technology systems, Pettit will have to adjust to Oregon itself.

His coworkers are trying to make him feel at home. Julie Pearson, the chief information officer for the Scretary of Sate’s Office, sent him a set of paper party napkins that say, “What part of y’all don’t you understand?”

They’re sitting on the round table in his office, and they do feel homey … sort of.

“If they were accurate (to Oklahoma),” he said, “they’d say `all y’all.’ ” But as far as he knows, there’s no napkin for that.

hhoffman@StatesmanJournal .com, (503) 399-6719 or follow at Twitter.com/HannahKHoffman

 

Getting to know Alex Pettit

Age: 47

Family: Three kids — Zachary, Alton and Emma. Zachary is a freshman at the University of Oklahoma; Alton is in his senior year of high school in Oklahoma but has applied to the University of Oregon; Emma is a freshman at West Salem High School

Hobbies: hiking, cooking, classical music, computer programming with Emma, Boy Scouts with Zachary and Alton

Pets: Maddie, a rat terrier, and Clara, a cat (She now lives with Zachary)

Education: Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin; master’s degree from Loyola University in Chicago; PhD from the University of North Texas (pending)

How he describes himself: “You can tell an extroverted IT geek from an introverted IT geek because they stare at your shoes.”

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