Chief technology officer McHenry makes strides in just a year on the job

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From dealing with dead animals to buying a bus pass, Santa Rosa's new chief technology officer wants to make your life easier - with the click of a button.

Since being hired a year ago to spearhead the city's technology initiative, Eric McHenry has started moving the city toward the forefront of connectivity.

On its Web site, the city has launched more than 10 online services during the last year that enable residents to do everything from pay parking tickets to apply for city jobs.

And under the guidance of McHenry, the city is working to provide wireless connections for city employees such as firefighters and home inspectors - so they can have critical information such as housing layouts and specs while on the job.

The technology might not only speed up the permitting process for home builders, but also provide valuable information to the men and women charged with saving those homes from fire.

McHenry is hoisting the city out of the late '90s, and looking to place it squarely on the cutting edge: Santa Rosa 2.0.

"The city really wanted me to come in and get us providing these services," he said. "And I think it will change how we do business in the city."

McHenry, 48, is well versed in electronics and technology. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1980. But even before that, engineering was in his blood.

McHenry's father was the first black engineer at Boeing. Growing up in Seattle in the 1960s, McHenry was surrounded by electronic equipment, and it fascinated him.

He still remembers the day his father brought home the first calculator made by Hewlett-Packard.

"It was very impressive to me," McHenry said. "I really liked what my father did."

McHenry joined Hewlett-Packard after graduating from MIT. He initially worked as a research and development engineer in Palo Alto, fitting and soldering components together while developing analog and digital circuits.

In 1991, he left Silicon Valley and transferred to H-P's facility in Sonoma County.

As he continued his climb through the management ranks, he became a vice president in 2001 and oversaw Agilent's wireless network test division, managing about 200 employees based around the world.

"He was very connected in our world to the trends that were out there," said Bill Pike, an Agilent engineer and manager, who worked with McHenry for five years. "I was always impressed by his technical curiosity."

Two years after Hewlett-Packard spun off Agilent in 1999, McHenry decided to make a switch. After working for H-P for more than 20 years, and travelling about 100,000 miles a year on business, he wanted a stronger tie to his community.

He sometimes felt the only thing he knew of Santa Rosa was his house, his office and his kids' schools, he said.

So when his wireless division was absorbed into a larger organization at Agilent in 2001, he took an exit package and began working within the community.

He started volunteering at the United Way of Sonoma-Mendocino-Lake. He eventually joined the board and later served as chairman.

A little more than a year ago he became aware the city was looking for someone to fill a new position: chief technology officer. The new position would be in charge of a far-reaching mandate to bring Santa Rosa to the forefront of technology.

McHenry liked the sound of that ambitious challenge, and he took the job.

"He is just doing a great job. The energy and technical expertise he brings to it is just amazing," said Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender. "We have to get our technology up to being state of the art if we are going to remain competitive as a city. And Eric is a huge advocate of that."

A year into the job, McHenry said the connection he now has to his community was worth the switch.

"What I do here affects my friends and family," he said. "I can see its impact in the local community."

McHenry and his wife, LaVerne, 49, have two children. Their daughter is a senior at Montgomery High School, and their son attends Santa Rosa Junior College. LaVerne McHenry still works for Agilent.

Eric McHenry carries himself with confidence, and flashes a quick smile. Dapper and well dressed, he is a self-described geek.

But his hobbies get him out from behind an LCD monitor - sort of.

"I'm an avid outdoorsman. I love hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, kayaking, all that stuff," he said.

"I view it as my downtime from tech," McHenry said. "But my friends and family always kid me, because I've had a GPS device since they first came out."

McHenry brings a different perspective to City Hall, one he developed during more than 20 years in the corporate world.

"At Agilent, if we built a good product and our customers loved it, then we were successful," he said. "I'm bringing that same mentality to the city."

McHenry admits working for the city is different than the private sector. The pace is less frenetic at the city.

And he operates with a tighter budget in his civic role - he now manages only about 25 people.

At the same time however, he is in charge of maintaining technology support for 1,500 city employees.

McHenry has used his corporate know-how to move the city forward. To expand the city's wireless network, he forged a partnership to borrow cutting-edge equipment from Cisco and AT&T.

In exchange, the two telecom equipment companies get an opportunity to test their technology in Santa Rosa for three months and gain a potential customer.

McHenry is also involved in the project to temporarily place security cameras around downtown as part of the test run for the wireless expan-sion.

The cameras are intended to help police keep tabs on crime in the area, but drew criticism from some people who complained it seemed invasive.

But most of his projects do not make the headlines. Such as his work with the Recreation and Parks department to catalogue the city's estimated 50,000 trees.

The department will use technology to record the GPS coordinates of each tree and its species and health.

The information will be used to better schedule maintenance.

"We'll get some efficiencies with this," McHenry said.

The city also needs to transition its paperwork, such as applying for street parking permits, to electronic forms, McHenry said.

"I think we can get rid of over half our paper forms," he said.

Now people can report a dead animal in the road or a broken street light, on the city's Web site.

At his core, McHenry is an engineer.

And his work with the city is his latest project.

"I think people don't generally understand what an engineer does: we create things," he said. "And what we are creating at the city is phenomenal."

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