August 24, 2012 By Colin Wood
For every big-city CIO commanding a small army of staff members, there are dozens of small-town IT directors whose entire departments fit in the single chair behind their desks. To get a sense of what life is like for these one-person IT staffs, we talked to three of them — all from small Texas communities.
They all say the workload can be crushing. When you’re the only government IT pro in town, everyone wants your attention and it can be tough to prioritize. There’s also no place to hide. Late-night phone calls are routine, and lunch in the local diner often is interrupted by co-workers with questions. What’s more, the job can be thankless. Small-town officials don’t always see the value in technology, or the folks who keep it running.
Despite all of that, however, these guys don’t hate their jobs. Handling every IT problem in town delivers a daily dose of variety and constant challenges. And then there’s the satisfaction of knowing your handiwork may be the only thing keeping critical government services up and running — not to mention the autonomy that comes with running your own show.
Yes, it can be a stressful way to earn a living. But those who do it say the job also is rewarding — if you can take the heat.
Brian Jacobs likes his job. He must. As the only member of the Rockport, Texas, IT department for the past eight years, his days are full of annoying problems, and yet he continues on. Surely there are more relaxing jobs available for a man approaching 60 years old, but he said he plans to work another seven years as the city’s go-to tech guy before he retires.
“I’m never bored; my days are never the same,” Jacobs said. “On the flip side, I get aggravated. I have health problems because of it. That’s part of doing this job. I’ve had high blood pressure since I started doing tech support work.”
Jacobs also finds himself in the position of being the de facto IT support staff for many of the town’s 9,000 residents, whether or not he likes it. If Jacobs goes out to eat, people approach him with their laptops asking for help, he said. His shift typically starts around 7 a.m. and ends at about 6 p.m. But the police department changes shifts at 11 p.m., which is usually about the time officers contact him with the problems they’ve been storing up. If Jacobs doesn’t answer his phone, they know where to find him.
“Being a small town, they come to my house, park outside and turn their lights on,” Jacobs said. “I know all my neighbors think I’m a drug dealer because every couple of weeks there are three police cars in front of my house with lights on.”
As you might imagine, Jacobs spends nearly all of his time fixing broken equipment or solving user problems, leaving little room for innovation. For instance, when presented with the idea of putting QR (quick response) code posters in front of city buildings, Jacobs had to share his reality.
“It’s a great idea,” Jacobs said. “The city secretary heard about it at a conference. And I said, ‘Yes, we can do that. What do you want me to not do while I do that?’ That’s where our problems come from.”
Rockport’s website is outdated, but every hour Jacobs spends on it, support tickets pile up. Most city computers are 7 years old and run Windows XP, he said. “Three years in a row, we have asked for Office 2007, and now 2010, and been told no. So that is frustrating — using old technology,” he said.
But the tough environment also has forged a tight camaraderie between Jacobs and his peers in nearby jurisdictions. For instance, the surrounding county, school district and several neighboring cities use similar network and telephone gear, and they’ve become adept at sharing resources.
“We’re all small shops, so we try not to reinvent the wheel,” Jacobs said. “We all use the same phone system and we have replacements stored centrally, so if something breaks we have what we need to get back up and running.”
In addition, the jurisdictions share network diagrams, firewall settings and computer use policies, he said. The local techs also cover for one another during family emergencies and pitch in when a colleague’s workload spikes.
Still, Rockport’s tight-fisted technology budget takes its toll. Outdated technology can turn even simple tasks into productivity bottlenecks.
For instance, the Microsoft Office software used by city workers is so old that employees must email Jacobs .docx files, which he converts to .doc and emails back.
“I see it as a really frustrating problem, but by the same token, the surrounding counties, because of the economy, are laying people off and we’re not,” he said.
On the other hand, Rockport often makes expensive emergency purchases that could’ve been avoided had the city upgraded pre-emptively with a dealer discount. “Because we don’t have the money, we don’t get to do efficient things,” Jacobs said. Circumventing these problems is difficult. Usually in small city or county governments, he said, those holding the purse strings are older and have little technical knowledge.
Again, partnering with other local IT professionals helps Jacobs come up with solutions — or at least blow off steam.
“We often eat lunch together, share war stories and talk about upcoming projects and budget issues,” Jacobs said.
Ultimately, he enjoys his position because it’s interesting and varied. And when the going really gets tough, Jacobs merely needs to recall his prior job in a cement factory to put things in perspective.
“The first 20 years I was working outside,” he said. “Now I’m working in air conditioning. All in all, I like my job.”
Just south of Austin is the city of Kyle, Texas. With a population of 5,000 in 2000, Kyle now has 30,000 residents, making it one of the fastest growing cities in the state.
And inside the one-person IT shop for the Kyle Police Department is a man with a prodigious workload. Because Robert Olvera is the only person available to fix something when it breaks, he sometimes only sleeps a couple of hours each night. But despite sleepless nights and earning just half the salary he made working for tech startups in Austin a few years ago, he doesn’t complain much — Olvera said he loves his job.
“There’s always something you can do better, and I think that if we had no [support] tickets come in for a week and I could work on projects, I’d still be up until three in the morning reading up on new systems.”
Olvera has been with the Kyle Police Department for two and a half years. His second day on the job, officers decided to test the 20-something’s mettle by asking him to transfer some video, which was gory evidence footage. “That was a huge shock,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared for that portion of it. I’ll see stuff like that now and I won’t even think twice about it.”
Though not a police officer, Olvera spends much of his day around cops and gets some of the perks and recognition officers are accustomed to, like discounts on meals. He has made friends at the department, but working with the officers isn’t always easy. “They’re not your typical user,” Olvera said. “A lot of them aren’t very technical. They can be kind of tough to deal with every once in a while, because they’re not used to hearing [the word] no.”
The officers were fairly set in their ways when Olvera started working for the department, he said. After switching from paper to electronic tickets, it took about a year before he thought the officers were comfortable with the system.
Before Olvera’s arrival, the police department didn’t have permanent IT staff, so it took time for officers to adjust to his presence. Initially there were complaints when Olvera couldn’t fix things fast enough. “They hear about hackers doing things in five minutes or breaking passwords. They expect you to be exactly like that and fix stuff remotely in two seconds,” he said. “I try to explain to the officers, it’s just like the ‘CSI effect.’ Citizens think we can solve a crime in less than two days because we can pull a hair off the floor and find out who stole their iPod.” They started to come around after recognizing that bit of common ground, Olvera said.
One of his biggest frustrations is simply not having enough hours in the day to get his job done. “I come in about 7:30 every day, and probably stay until 10:00 at night. And I still have a lot of work to do,” Olvera said. “When I go home, I’m constantly getting emails, and most of the problems that come in I have to deal with right away.
“I had a dispatcher call me last week at three in the morning because their computer was constantly rebooting. I had just fallen asleep. I had to drive in — it happened to be a virus. I’m sitting there cleaning it off, it took about two hours, I’m done at five. I get home, sleep for an hour and a half and come back in at 7:30 in the morning and start over.”
Much of the work Olvera does is typical for IT support. He updates software, monitors the server and does many other things that go unseen. “If they don’t see me working on something physical that affects them, it’s almost like they don’t think I’m working,” Olvera said. “I can feel a little unappreciated when that happens, but I tell them, ‘You know, you haven’t had a server issue in six months and that’s because of all the work I’m doing in the background.’”
Despite the difficulties, Olvera enjoys being a one-man shop. He doesn’t have to explain his decisions to another technical person, always finds things how he left them, and feels good about helping out the town where he grew up.
“I don’t see myself going back to startups,” he said. “I do love this job now.”
Information Technology Manager Tommy Prior is the entire IT department for Navarro County, Texas. He’s responsible for about 200 users, most of whom neither understand nor fully appreciate what he does. He spends many of his days being pulled in different directions.
“Sometimes it’s just overwhelming,” Pryor said. “Everybody’s problem is more important than everyone else’s. I have to fight that daily, keep my time split up and try to keep everyone pacified. Sometimes that’s not easy to do when users get irate.” He reports to the county commissioners and county judge. Technical know-how isn’t always a strong suit. “I’ve literally had to go in and turn one guy’s computer on. Twice,” Pryor said.
Lack of technical sophistication among county leadership translates into little support for new projects.
“This town has always been about 20 years behind the times,” Pryor said. “When the people who make the decisions don’t understand, of course you’re not going to get any money. There are a lot of things they don’t realize we need. I don’t think they understand the importance of protecting that data and exactly what can happen if someone got in on the network or if we had a fire. People’s lives are in this courthouse. Computers run the county. It’s not a grader, it’s not a tractor, it’s computers.”
Despite Pryor’s obvious frustration, he also finds things to like. His three years with the county have been a constant learning experience.
“There’s one thing about my job that I absolutely love, and that’s the fact that every day I leave here with more knowledge than I had when I arrived,” he said.
And even though some of his co-workers haven’t the slightest idea what he’s doing, Pryor says they’re grateful for his efforts.
“I’m surrounded by a lot of wonderful people and, for the most part, they’ve come to realize that I’m here to help them,” he said. “I supply a service that’s necessary for them to perform their duties.”
So, sure, Pryor needs a bigger budget and he wouldn’t mind being able to take a vacation once in a while. On the other hand, there’s no one looking over his shoulder and he finds it fairly easy to separate his work and personal lives.
“I would like some help from time to time. But as far as working on a big team … I don’t know,” Pryor said. “I love my job. Even with all the headaches, there’s nothing else I can think of that I’d rather be doing.”
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