Sep. 11, 2023
Mike Baliel's impressive reputation for all things IT preceded him
Mike is new to the LASC – he’s been here about six months – but not to the California or national court information technology world. When the LASC undertook its national search for a CIO upon the retirement of its longstanding incumbent earlier this year, the nine-page single-spaced job requirements sheet seemed to be describing Mike and his background and experience.
It started 3.5 million years ago with sharpened stones that cut meat. Two and a half million years later, fire. The pace accelerated: pottery, irrigation, sailing, iron, gunpowder, printing, electricity, radio, flying machines, and atom splitting. These technologies were not mere “gamechangers”; each redefined the relationship between humanity and the physical world, and nothing was ever the same again. In the mid-20th century, researchers at the Bell Labs in New Jersey tinkered with substances that were neither electric current conductors nor insulators – they were semiconductors. Then came Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Moore, Page, Brin, Dorsey, Bezos, Ma. And nothing has been the same ever since – in our own lives, within our own memories.
Reflect for a moment on the modern crashing together of the ancient institution of law (brick and mortar courthouses and flesh and blood judges), and the physical act of electrons flipping among silicon atoms. In 1959, when the Stanley Mosk Courthouse was opened, thoughtful people would have been baffled at the suggestion that these things could impact one another. But today, it is beyond dispute that there is no way to operate the Los Angeles Superior Court (LASC) without harnessing the power of contemporary high tech. (We know; we tried, employing technology past its use-by date. More on that below.)
Today’s column is about the person responsible for “technology” at the LASC. The word is in quotes because of the absurdity of trying to capture the scope of the responsibility in a single word. What’s more, as his title suggests, technology is too small a word. He is Mike Baliel, the LASC’s Chief Information Officer, another of the most important people at the LASC you have never heard of. In an information-run institution that exists to develop, manipulate, apply and store information, Mike is in charge of: information.
Mike is new to the LASC – he’s been here about six months – but not to the California or national court information technology world. When the LASC undertook its national search for a CIO upon the retirement of its longstanding incumbent earlier this year, the nine-page single-spaced job requirements sheet seemed to be describing Mike and his background and experience. Amidst those pages of techno-speak, the following requirements rung out like the chimes of Big Ben: a “working technologist” expected to have substantial involvement in complex implementations and data migrations including cybersecurity intrusions and threats. Translated: (1) The biggest division of the LASC, the Criminal Division, is still conducting its business on paper files and long-ago discontinued software supported by a couple of long-time employees reaching retirement. Crim must have its new 21st century case management system up and running, and the new CIO must make that happen. Full-stop. (2) The world is full of evil miscreants who would like nothing more than to bring the LASC to its knees by a malware attack. The new CIO must not let that happen. Full-stop. (3) The job is not for a hands-off, deferential executive; “working technologist” at the Chief level means both walking the walk and talking the talk: IT vision; operational and project management leadership; revenue generation; technical mastery. Dilettantes need not apply.
Mike’s submitted resume identified a Modesto, California home address, but that resume conveyed nothing else “modest” pertaining to Mike’s qualifications and experience. That resume demonstrated in words and images how as CIO of the Santa Clara Superior Court since 2017 he had brought about the “digital maturation” of that court from “the manual court, to the digital court, to the virtual court.” You and I may not know all that entailed, but Mike’s peers certainly did. Before arriving at the LASC, Mike received awards from Best of California – IT Collaboration as the founder and Chair of CourtStack®, a suite of services and applications serving as the foundation for the court’s digital world (awarded by The Center for Digital Government); Tyler Excellence Award, for Santa Clara Superior Court, Tyler Odyssey CMS implementation (Tyler Technologies is a premier solutions provider within the court technology space with a market cap of 13.3 billion); Best of The Web Award, for the Stanislaus County Web Portal (awarded by The Center for Digital Government); RedHat/ JBoss Technology Innovation Award, for the Stanislaus County Integrated Criminal Justice Information System (ICJIS) (RedHat was a premier technology products and solutions provider with a market cap of $33.5 billion in 2019. RedHat was sold to IBM in 2019.) Let’s meet Mike.
Mike, what kind of shape is the LASC in with respect to its tech?
(Laughs.) That’s a big question; how much time do you have? Here’s a short answer: pretty darn good, far better than it was, but not as good as it’s going to be soon.
How about expanding a bit on that?
Sure. Many court systems in the 1990s and into the 2010s were slow adapters to the huge revolutions occurring in tech. Some of that was budget constraint, some of it was institutional inertia, some of it was cultural. “Move fast and break things” is not the motto of most court leaders. The LASC’s tech – both hardware and software – was aging and shopworn. But this court’s leadership over the past decade made a huge investment of resolve and, yes, money, to turn that around. It worked; the LASC today has very robust systems, training and support. We’re doing exciting cutting-edge things. Our upcoming roll out of LACourtConnect 2.0, our virtual appearance platform, speaks for itself. And ask civil and family law lawyers in the community what they think about our Attorney Portal functionality. It has made their, and our, professional lives far better.
What about the Criminal Division?
Later this year, we will implement (“go live” in our parlance) – a state-of-the-art electronic case management system for the LASC Criminal Division. That is a profound statement. It’s been a long time coming, to be sure. But our CEO David Slayton is committed and so is the entire CTS [court technology services] team I manage. Here’s what you need to understand: when we go live for Crim, it will be one of the biggest, most comprehensive case management system implementations in the history of the United States. It will be one for the record books. We will be applying everything we’ve learned along the way with our go lives in civil, family, juvenile justice and probate.
What do you think is the most misunderstood part of your job?
Let me start by saying that I understand that a lot of colleagues at the LASC – many judges, clerical staff, family court services custody evaluators, for example – may not really be interested in how or why tech does what it does for them. They just want it to work and to be intuitive to operate. For many, CTS means the local support representative who comes to fix whatever the problem is on their screen. That’s completely understandable and a large part of what we do.
But to your question, I think the diversity of the kinds of work we do in CTS is not widely understood. Many folks don’t know that there are many different jobs in technology that specialize in different disciplines within the same field, such as Cyber Security Analyst, Network Analyst, Systems Administrator, Software Engineer, Business Analyst and Data Scientist, just to name a few. These are all very different jobs, and it’s likely that someone who is, for example, a Data Scientist would be completely lost when trying to perform the job of a Network Analyst. There is a tendency to think that if someone works in IT, they are skilled in all these different areas, and that just isn’t the case. You wouldn’t go to a foot doctor if you were having heart problems, right?
Well, what does a CIO do?
(Laughs again.) That, too, probably goes into the widely misunderstood column. A short answer is that I supervise a team of some 250 professionals who develop and deliver technology to serve the needs of the public who interact with the court system. This includes public-facing solutions such as remote hearing technology, public access portals (where you can retrieve case information) and internal systems such as case management that help manage case flow and case details. But being a CIO is not just about keeping the IT systems up and running, although that is a big part of it. It’s also about where the court is going and what CTS needs to do now to anticipate that future direction. So, a CIO should, I think, spend a lot of time thinking, and listening, about how an organization should be using technology in the future.
All your peers profiled in this series observe that the biggest change in their court-service careers has been the revolutions arising from technology. Comment?
They’re right in my view but it’s bigger than that. In my career, a court’s technology has gone from an operational vehicle to get things done to a fundamental market differentiator. By this I mean how a court leverages and uses technology is key to whether it will be successful at delivering a strategy to achieve a mission. For me, it’s a huge responsibility and also awesome. It’s fun to get out of bed every morning.
Speaking of fun, what’s fun for you when you’re not on the job?
I’m a hand tool guy. I spent six years personally restoring a 1920s bungalow. Hand tools – saws, chisels, planes – were human technology’s killer apps once long ago. I think they are still fabulous.
By any measure, as the CIO of the nation’s largest court, you are a successful person. What advice do you have for someone entering the LASC CTS team who aspires to achieve?
Non-high-tech advice: open your eyes and ears to what’s happening around you; be the first to step up when an opportunity to stretch your experience is presented; always, always, always do your best work – no “good enough for government work”; and be positive and upbeat in attitude. Nobody likes a grouch.
A shout-out to the LASC’s Technology Committee. [Note: Mike refers to a judicial committee that operates as a liaison between judicial officers, court leadership and administration on matters involving technology.] Judicial officers and CTS professionals do not think about “tech” the same way and often do not even use the same language. Among its other attributes, the Technology Committee is a Rosetta Stone enhancing, and sometimes permitting, communication. It’s a wonderful committee with top-notch leadership.