What is an Assistant To: Nil Blackburn, Burlingame, CA

Posted on March 22, 2016

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]What is an Assistant to the City Manager? In between other duties as assigned, council meetings, and a bewildering assortment of public inquiries, ELGL members identify the essential functions of the position.

Nil Blackburn

Nil Blackburn

Assistant to the City Manager – Burlingame, CA

Nil Blackburn (LinkedIn) launched her local government career in 2014, serving the City of Burlingame, CA as Assistant to the City Manager. Before joining the City, Blackburn studied English and Political Science as a student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In addition to her undergraduate studies, she went on to obtain a MBA/JD there in 1999. Her dual degrees provided an assortment of exciting career opportunities in the private sector.

In 1999, Blackburn hit the road  as an IT Consultant with IBM.  This, coupled with later experiences as a Global Sourcing Manager for Hitachi and a Strategy Consultant with CB Richard Ellis, allowed Blackburn to develop valuable expertise in the areas of technology, real estate and facilities, contracts and project management. The ten plus years of experience and skills Blackburn gained working in the private sector would prove key to her transition to local government. Today, Blackburn works with the public on an array of high profile projects, including a major upgrade to the City’s website.

Lightning Round

My first job was.….

Pre-Professional Job: Checkout counter at a discount store in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a great opportunity to interface with the public and to develop emotional intelligence.  People just want to be heard. It’s amazing how much they’ll divulge to a 16-year-old at the checkout counter!

First Professional Job: IT Consultant, IBM Global Business Services.  I traveled 48 weeks a year for the first two years. It’s great when you’re young and just out of school.  It would be a little tough to do now.

The last concert that I attended was….

The Bridge School Benefit Concert – it’s an annual, outdoor, all acoustic, non-profit charity event hosted by Neil Young and Peggy Young every October. This year we packed a big picnic and listened to 8 bands ranging from Spoon and Ben Harper to St. Vincent and Ryan Adams.

I am currently reading……

When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi

Favorite restaurant in your community……

Café on Primrose.  My manager took me there my first day on the job. In addition to great Middle Eastern food, it has a friendly, quaint and cozy vibe. The owner knows your name and you always see a familiar face.  It reminds me of growing up in Cleveland.

The Job

What is one project you are currently working on?

I am currently in the midst of a new website RFP for a website redesign and development project. Our current website is 10 years old.  It’s amazing how much web development has changed over the years. I had to catch up and learn about open source solutions.  But the other stuff hasn’t changed that much.  Addressing issues such as look-and-feel, usability, and information design are still as challenging as ever.  We don’t have an IT department; we currently outsource from another city.  As such, I’ve come to rely heavily on the three amazing and dedicated community members that have agreed to help us with this initiative. Their technical expertise has been invaluable throughout this process.

How will local government change in the next ten (10) years?

I’m not sure how it will be different but I definitely have some opinions on how it should be different.  First, since we are competing for talent in an increasingly challenging environment (especially here in the SF Bay Area), local governments need to pay more attention to skill sets rather than job titles when hiring.  I came to the City of Burlingame with zero experience in local government. Fortunately, our City Manager was able to look beyond the job titles on my resume and notice that my skills in project management, strategic planning, communications and purchasing would be transferable to the job requirements of an “Assistant to the City Manager” position. Second, we hear a lot about using technology to make government more transparent.  I think we need to talk more about using technology to make citizens more empowered to organize, contribute and be a part of the solutions we seek.

What is one important skill every “Assistant To” should have?

Excellent project management skills.  This includes expectation management, planning and multitasking.  City managers have enough on their plates.  He or she should be able to assign a project and know that it will get done and get done well.

Name three public organizations (other than your own) you admire:

The New York Public Library for jumpstarting the #BookfaceFriday hastag on Instagram and helping to catapult the Burlingame Public Library into the limelight for its own medley of amazing bookfaces. See the burlingame_library on Instagram or read the NY Times article.

Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”)

National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association


Networking & Interviewing

What job titles should a recent graduate be considering?

I’ve always been a big fan of the management analyst position. It allows you to gain experience in management skills while also mastering the processes that are integral to achieving organizational support for projects. I’d also recommend accounting technicians and assistant planner positions. If you are able to develop a mastery of budgeting and/or the development process, these are skills that you will use throughout your career and, hopefully, will position you well for your next move.

Three tips for interviewing.

For the likely, “tell us about yourself” question at the outset of a meeting, prepare a 1-2 minute “elevator speech” that briefly highlights something interesting about your personal life and your key skills and professional goals.

Have a clear set of three skills you want to emphasize and be prepared to provide 1-2 detailed work examples of how you successfully demonstrated each of these skills.

Remember you made it to the interview phase because you presumably have some or most of the required skills for the job. You’re qualified.  A lot of the interview process focuses on fit and compatibility with the team. I know this is cliché but “be yourself”, try to relax and make the interview conversational. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.

Who are three role models/mentors?

My brother – He’s the epitome of the “American Dream”. He moved to the U.S. with our family when he was 8 years old and didn’t speak a word of English.  He worked odd jobs in restaurants and did landscape work throughout college and completely funded his own education.  Now, as a successful Anesthesiologist, he provides me wonderful consul on seeking life balance and staying away from jobs that “sound good” or seem “prestigious”.  Even though he’s “made it” professionally, he’s chosen jobs that may not pay as much or have prestigious titles in high ranking teaching hospitals, but rather, give him time to spend with his family and to pursue his personal interests and hobbies.

My manager (Lisa Goldman) – I report to the City Manager.  Everything is WYSIWYG or “What You See Is What You Get With” with Lisa.  She has a tremendous sense of what is fair or just. She has no ego in her title or role and has no problem rolling up her sleeves to get the job done – even if it means getting coffee for the team or creating the weekly e-newsletter for me while I’m on vacation.  She gives me the freedom to make mistakes and never micro-manages.  I also appreciate her “open-door” policy.  Staff and I are welcome to “pop-in” to discuss an issue or get an opinion anytime.  She’s never rescheduled one of our bi-weekly meetings because she’s too busy or because a more important meeting came up.  Additionally, she knows her stuff and takes the time to study, know and understand the details of every project.

My husband – He has a tremendous work ethic and puts 100% into everything he does.  Despite this, he has the super-human ability to compartmentalize work and play and “turn off” the work day when it comes to his personal life and family.

Just for Fun

Briefly describe your ideal Saturday morning.

A cup of coffee and two hours to read an old fashioned newspaper in bed.

If you had one free hour each day, how would you use it? 


If you could create a local government super hero, who would they be?

“Efficiency Girl” – She’d fly around and delete inefficient rules, processes, emails and meetings with one wish of her wand.

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