Simona Rollinson came to Illinois from Bulgaria to further her computer science education. She went on to work for Follett Software in McHenry County, where she rose from programmer to president.
But in 2014, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle asked her to leave that career behind to help bring the county’s aging information technology infrastructure into the 21st century.
In just four years, she has transformed the county’s information systems, making data more easily accessible to the public.
Now, she and her team are winning awards for their work.
Earlier this month, Rollinson was named Government Chief Information Officer of the Year in the Nonprofit category for “demonstrated excellence in technology leadership” at the ORBIE Awards.
Meanwhile, Cook County also picked up an Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties (NACo) for its medical examiner online data portal that provides up-to-date information about deaths in Cook County, including those caused by gun violence and the opioid epidemic.
So what persuaded a successful software executive to come to work for the county?
“I came to work for Cook County government because of President Preckwinkle’s leadership,” Rollinson said. “I was a fan long before I came to this administration. I am really inspired by her policies around criminal justice and public health care – so all of those things really resonated with me.”
When she arrived, the county was still reliant on old technology – very old.
“The systems were quite old, they were mainframe-based, 40-year-old systems – so lifting them from the old world and coming up with new business processes and centralized systems was the first priority,” she said.
With an annual budget of $120 million, Rollinson is responsible for almost the entire IT infrastructure for the county, including telecommunications, data centers and financial systems.
“I’m responsible for all technologies for offices under the president and to varying degrees for the other elected officials,” Rollinson said.
One of the biggest challenges she faced was getting people to cooperate.
“Getting all of the elected officials to collaborate and come to the table and work in a common playground. That was a tall order,” she said. “I often say that we are not in the technology business, we are in the people business. It’s all about relationships and establishing common ground … working to build trust and credibility.”
Rollinson joins Phil Ponce to talk about leading Cook County’s technological transformation.