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Untapped Potential: States Turn to Non-Traditional Tech Hires

Some states like Texas, Indiana and Colorado are filling their open positions with innovative programs that point people eager to learn in the direction of government IT.

Kevin Barthauer is a graduate of the Indiana SEAL program
Kevin Barthauer spent 25 years in the restaurant industry before pivoting to state cybersecurity.
Tod Martens
In Texas, a former schoolteacher and soccer coach is now doing statewide cybersecurity training. In Indiana, an IT help desk specialist worked in a factory two years ago — a sweaty factory, where he made toothpaste caps, shovels for gardening and dozens of other things with plastic molds. And in Colorado, a recent immigrant from India is working her way through a software development apprenticeship, already helping to serve the tech needs of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

These people and their stories are part of an emerging trend in state government — finding new ways to hire folks with nontraditional backgrounds for tech jobs, boosting their careers while at the same time filling public-sector workforce gaps. States are doing this through a mix of academic collaborations, third-party employment vendors and rapidly growing internal support programs. It’s a relatively small investment that solves a major challenge — in the face of rolling staff retirements and ongoing competition from the private sector, IT hiring and retention is tricky for states.

A successful nontraditional hiring program, however, is proving to be a classic win-win, and the benefits of these emerging approaches — for both the employees as well as the states that invest with them — are pretty clear in talking with the people involved. 


Jennifer Zwarycz worked in kitchens her entire adult life, mostly as a cook. At times she’d wondered about going back to school, maybe doing something related to tech, but the older she got, the harder it seemed to make a change.

Then the pandemic hit. Zwarycz and her fiance had just bought a house, and while they weren’t desperate, all of a sudden they rarely had extra cash. Life wasn’t easy. So Zwarycz decided to get serious about going back to school.

She enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College, and while waiting for the term to start, she learned about Indiana’s State Earn and Learn (SEAL) program from a school newsletter. The concept was exactly what the name implied: a pathway for people to learn an entirely new job, start a new career and, essentially, begin a new life — all while getting paid to do it.  

“It sounded too good to be true,” Zwarycz said. “Just from my job experience, a lot of things had seemed too good to be true, but I thought, I don’t have anything to lose, as far as giving up my work now.”

Zwarycz couldn’t have known this, but it was actually one of the most robust and innovative programs for reskilling workers for public-sector IT jobs. Launched in early 2020, the SEAL program started with just two enrollees. It has now been used to hire 46 people into state government IT roles, out of 51 total participants, netting a 90 percent retention rate.

Jennifer Zwarycz is a graduate of Indiana's SEAL program.
After spending years working in kitchens, Jennifer Zwarycz jumped at the chance to learn IT skills while also earning a living.
Tod Martens
In SEAL, people get paid to do on-the-job training, generally with the jobs they will later be doing. The state finds people by using an employment vendor called Brooksource and by teaming with institutions like Ivy Tech. 

Zwarycz learned all this about SEAL and decided to apply. She was pulled into the interview process. At the time, she’d never applied for a job outside of a kitchen — she didn’t even have a resume.

“Usually in restaurants you just show up,” she said. “They say, ‘Can you cook?’ You say, ‘Yep.’ And that’s that.”

So she made one, got a call back and found herself interviewing with the state, twice, both times feeling like she bombed it. But that was all jitters. Zwarycz was exactly the type of person the state wanted, eager and with a great deal of potential. She has now graduated from SEAL and is working full time for Indiana as a junior security engineer with the Office of Technology.

It’s a concept Zwarycz says she hopes is adopted by other states, too.

“I just hope that others give opportunities to people who don’t have IT experience but have enough drive to want to change their career,” she said, “because I feel like the enthusiasm can push somebody to succeed and learn all these things. I’ve learned so much out of pure excitement in the last two years. I think people just need a chance.”

And, of course, Zwarycz is not the only one Indiana has given a chance. One of her close friends in the program is Kevin Barthauer, another veteran of the food service industry. Barthauer had logged roughly 25 years in restaurants before coming to state technology work through SEAL. He also does cybersecurity, working as a security engineer with the full title of vulnerability management program coordinator.

“This program changes lives,” Barthauer said. “It certainly changed my life and the lives of my family. It took me from a sort of dead-end career that wasn’t ever going to pay me significantly more than I was making and moved me to a new career. I have nowhere to go but up, and I absolutely love working at it every day.”

On the surface, managing the Weber Grill location in downtown Indianapolis and doing cybersecurity for the state may not seem to have much in common, but Barthauer says he has also brought skills from that job to his new role. He can’t turn his management instincts off entirely, which manifests in a keen desire for his co-workers to succeed. 

Part of this for Barthauer is taking ownership in the SEAL program. He is officially the president of the SEAL Alumni Association in Indiana, a group that has occasional meetings to check in.

And restaurant workers are not the only ones participating here. Jon Rogers is the director of strategic workforce planning within the Indiana Office of Technology, and while he’d probably never describe it this way, he is one of the masterminds of the SEAL program. He can rattle off a long list of previous professions that his SEAL participants have had, from bartending to the Peace Corps to long-haul truck driving to repairing arcade games at Dave & Buster’s. 

Hayden Howell, for example, was working for a plastic injection molding company, spending his days in a hot factory. Armed with a state grant, Howell got an IT certificate through a one-year program at Ivy Tech, but afterward he couldn’t get a call back from private companies since he didn’t have IT experience. 

That’s where the SEAL program came in, hiring Howell for on-the-job training that eventually landed him a help desk position. He started the SEAL program in fall 2021 and still feels immensely grateful for the opportunity.

“I feel like I almost have a debt,” Howell said. “These other companies wouldn’t give me a chance or even the light of day. The state was willing to give me an opportunity to prove myself, and so I almost want to make them proud.”

Hayden Howell is a graduate of Indiana's SEAL program
Before going through Indiana’s SEAL program, Hayden Howell worked on a factory floor.
Tod Martens


While Indiana’s SEAL program likely ranks as the most robust and structured state IT reskilling program in the country, other states are increasingly embracing the spirit of it. They’re doing so by changing their thinking and actively courting people with nontraditional backgrounds. One of those states is Texas.

Like many states, Texas is working to revamp its job descriptions to try to expand candidate pools for tech positions, says Lisa Jammer, chief people and culture officer within Texas’ Department of Information Resources (DIR).

Kris Lautenschlager, here pictured on a soccer field holding a trophy, retrained as a cybersecurity instructor in Texas
Kris Lautenschlager retrained as a cybersecurity instructor in Texas, not too different from his previous career teaching high school math and coaching sports.
Jammer and her team have tried to cut out traditional job posting verbiage — things like “must be competitive” that don’t even really mean anything, when you think about it — in favor of describing what a day on the job might be like. In addition, Texas is partnering with universities in the state on experiential learning programs, including Angelo State University, the University of Houston and the University of Texas. The state has even opened some regional security operations centers with those partners, one of which was through Angelo State, with funding for others pending. Those centers give the state another pipeline for tech talent recruitment.

Kris Lautenschlager is one current employee there who has a past career in another field. Lautenschlager taught high school math for 20 years, also coaching sports like soccer and cross-country. During COVID-19, he too decided it was time for a change, and he enrolled in a training boot camp through the University of Texas. It spanned eight months, with 10 hours of school per week during nights and weekends, allowing him to keep his job.

That boot camp eventually resulted in a job with the state. Texas law requires all state employees to go through cybersecurity training, and now Lautenschlager — with his finely honed classroom skills — is one of the people conducting that training. His official title is a cybersecurity sharing and analysis specialist for the Texas DIR. To date, he has helped certify 129 state employees in cybersecurity. That’s a whole mess of cyber-secure Texans. 

Lautenschlager’s background has also been very helpful in his new line of work, he says, giving him “a different lens to look through” when he approaches instruction, different from someone who has spent their entire career working in IT.


In Colorado, the state is working to embrace apprenticeships across all industries with its Apprenticeship Colorado program, run by Colorado’s Office of the Future of Work. Apprenticeship Colorado is supported by multiple pieces of recent legislation, codifying it and making it a key part of the state’s workforce strategy and economy moving forward, says Denise Miller, director of Colorado’s State Apprenticeship Agency.

It’s also a program that is helping get new, more diverse employees into the state’s Office of Information Technology. They are doing this by working with ActivateWork, a nonprofit organization in the state that works in part to connect employers with more diverse employees. 

Chitra Venkatesan got a software apprenticeship with Colorado via a boot camp program
After immigrating to the U.S. from India, Chitra Venkatesan worked in customer service roles, but Colorado’s IT boot camp got her a software apprenticeship with the state and she’s grateful for the opportunity to give back.
Bart Levy Photography
Helen Hayes, the founder and CEO of ActivateWork, says that since starting out in 2016, the group has really improved the diversity of IT hiring within the state. They do this by putting willing participants through 15-week boot camps, where they earn IT certifications through classes that are five days a week, for seven hours a day, on Zoom.

ActivateWork has launched a software engineering apprenticeship program in partnership with the Colorado Office of Information Technology. This program takes individuals right out of the 15-week boot camp. Hayes says they have hired three participants and have three more that may be hired six months from now, all of whom are women of color, from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in IT jobs.

One of these is Chitra Venkatesan, an immigrant from India who before the ActivateWork boot camp had mostly worked in customer service for the insurance and telecommunications industries. Venkatesan began working for the state in March as an apprentice in software development, helping serve the state’s Department of Natural Resources. 

Venkatesan says that doing this work also means a great deal to her personally, as an immigrant who has had a chance to make a life in the United States. The opportunity to serve is part of why she is grateful that the state is embracing reskilled workers.

“I thought it was time to give back to the society that has given me a career here, one that helps my whole family,” Venkatesan said.

Aside from her husband, most of her family still lives in India, and it is very difficult to make the trip back to see them. Through technology, however, Venkatesan has been able to use video calls to keep in touch and approximate visits as best she can. Having a career where she can potentially use technology is all the more meaningful to her because of this connection.

“I always dreamed about being part of something bigger,” Venkatesan said, “like technology that is connecting people.”

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.