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S3 E6: Office 365 at Florida Dept of Agriculture and Consumer Services with Eric Brown

It’s okay to feel scared when trying new things out. But does that mean we should stay with what we’re comfortable with?

In today’s podcast, let’s discover why it’s important to not be afraid to try things out when it comes to leveraging technology.

Our guest, Eric Brown, Deputy Director CTO for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, will walk us through his journey in transitioning to Office 365 and how it has modernized the way his team worked.

In this episode:

His story

Technology was a love that I’ve had for a very long time. When I was in high school, one of the ways I’ve made money on the side was installing radio equipment and audio speakers. From time to time, people were bringing me devices, and I would take it and I would do some kind of mapping and make them work. I also got into tinkering old computers, getting them back to working and cleaning them up. When I blew my knee out doing my job in the law enforcement around 1999 to 2000, I started helping out the IT guys quite a bit. And from there, I realized, “Hey, I really like doing computers”, and shifted my focus to IT. I went and got my A plus and network plus certifications first, and then it took off from there.

Metrics on serving the public

Some of the metrics that are near and dear to me is service delivery –how we deliver services to Florida residents, visitors and businesses in a timely manner. Here at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, we have a very broad mission that covers everything from the wholesomeness of food to consumer protection. We even have a law enforcement function here as well. And so, making sure our systems are up and running efficiently so that we can continue to deliver those services to safeguard the public are the metrics that I hold near and dear to my heart.

Office 365 as an important tool for FDACS

Moving to Office 365 allowed us to do a couple of things: to make it more agile and to make our services more accessible to our users. We have folks who are out in the field doing inspections, enforcing the law, and providing consumer protection services. So, for them to be able to access their resources such as email or data via SharePoint online was so critical. Being on-prem did not really serve that purpose in some scenarios. We wanted to make sure that people can work efficiently and not have to lug around a suitcase full of documents and paperwork. With Office 365, by moving into the Cloud, it enabled us to basically expand and stretch our internal services to our support and our users to make them more efficient out in the field.

Overcoming obstacles

One of the obstacles we really had to overcome was the old ideology of, “This is the way I’ve always done it. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Or some people being hesitant because, “Oh, this is a new application or a new technology that I now have to support. And with that support, it’s going to come new issues and things being reported from the user community.”

But adopting the Office 365 platform really modernized the way we work. Microsoft Teams was a home run for our folks in terms of the ability we now have to collaborate and work as a team, especially when COVID hit and we had to telework. OneDrive and SharePoint Online also helped our team have that security control and access to their data in real time. Our local Microsoft team were also awesome, and they’ve helped us with all the training and enabling tools of the Office 365 stack.

Leveraging Office 365 for COVID-related internal activities

As a consumer protection agency, it is important for us to track activities, such as price gouging and things of that nature. So one of the many things we do is to leverage Office 365 and its tools such as SharePoint, OneDrive and Office Lens to upload reports, documents and photos. One of the big benefits of that is that it’s within our environment and we can manage and control it. So now folks can help to mitigate anyone attempting to use a personal device to capture that data because that’s not what we want.

The Power of Microsoft Teams for Public Hearings

Another thing we’re moving to now is, we’re starting to leverage Teams for public hearings due to its ability to transcribe and record meetings, especially ones that require public notice and documentation for historical purposes. Now you don’t have someone with a little small tape recorder that’s probably captured 50% of the information that’s discussed. Now you’re capturing that entire conversation. You also have the closed captioning for those who are hearing impaired or have any other impairments that would prevent them from being able to participate in those meetings and sessions. From a technology perspective, Office 365 and Teams really helped us do our work much better.

On not having a centralized Office 365 tenant:

It’s good in that it’s more controlled at the agency level and I can customize and deploy the services from Office 365. But sometimes when you have that different control, it also leads to different standards and different way you do things. So we have to think about, “Do I want to standardize the way we do things and centralize into one tenant, or do we continue to maintain this distributed model that we have now with each agency controls?” The state doesn’t dictate each agency with what they can use as far as email and things of that nature, so it does give each agency the flexibility to choose what they feel like is best for their department.

Collaboration across agencies

Initially there were some organizations who say, “Well, we’re only going to communicate and use Teams internally. We’re not going to enable this external functionality to communicate with people.” But when one of our divisions said, “Hey, I want to collaborate via Teams with this agency,” we enabled that collaboration, and it turned out to be a great decision because now they’re able to collaborate and share really unrestricted. And that’s two government entities basically working together for the greater good of the state of Florida. And I think that should be encouraged.

One less headache

Another good thing that I like about Office 365 is that since it’s a SaaS solution per se, now I don’t have to worry about hardware. I know there’s some sheer responsibility once you’re in the cloud, but it’s just nice that now, I don’t have to worry about hardware patching and all that. Although I still have to worry about my other security like data loss prevention and things of that nature, there’s now one less headache and one risk that’s now been shifted to that entity and that I don’t have to deal with. So that’s also great from a staffing perspective as well and workload.

On new initiatives:

As we’re moving forward and changing the way we develop and design and architect applications, one of the things I’m looking at moving forward is: What services are we already licensed for that we can leverage? Leveraging PowerApps, the Power Platform or the Dynamics 365 platform and making those work in conjunction with Office 365 and the services associated with that in our government cloud environment to provide modernized services and applications to our users is the big thing for us moving forward.

How to make #ShiftHappen

Don’t be afraid to expand your knowledge and capabilities. Use the tools in the Office 365 stack, because that’s what you’ve been paying for. We have a responsibility to leverage those services not just for the State of Florida, but wherever you are, and utilize it to make your organization grow. If you don’t want to open it all the way up, take baby steps, but create a plan. Microsoft has roadmaps and some engagement planning tools that you can use to start to implement those services if you feel like you need additional assistance.


Today’s takeaway from Eric:

“Don’t be afraid to try things out. Reach out to your local Microsoft team for assistance, because they will help and guide you. They’ll tell you what tools you already have in your stack that can help support or enable the business case that you have.”


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