As part of a series of articles on the duties and responsibilities of municipal employees, we spoke with three IT directors. Tasked with developing and managing information technology budgets, procurement and planning, all of these directors said they have seen rapid advances in technology over the years that have changed the face of IT.
Wes Ratterree started in IT in the late 1980s. He has been chief information officer for the City of Charleston since December 2004. Before that, he worked in IT positions in the private sector.
“Changes in technology occur more often and more quickly
now than they did in years past.”
Chief information officer, City of Charleston
Much has changed since Ratterree began his career in IT 24 years ago. He recalls that personal computers and local area networks were fairly new then. There was virtually no mobility. Even personal mobile phones were just coming into the market and laptops didn’t exist yet.
“Software was limited and equipment was expensive,” Ratterree said. “IT positions and requirements were not as clearly defined as they are now, and there was a significant amount of unknown territory in how to manage organizational IT environments and deploy new information technology.”
Ratterree said the most significant trend he has seen is mobility, especially over the past decade. He notes having the flexibility to access and enter data and perform IT tasks in the field with portable and powerful hardware and software has become a requirement for many organizations. This flexibility has driven most to invest in this technology to better support their operations.
“Earlier on I would point to the shift away from mini/mainframe computers with dumb terminals to the now standard client-server based technology with PCs. However, with the advent of cloud computing, we appear to be circling back around,” Ratterree said. “Changes in technology occur more often and more quickly now than they did in years past.”
Keeping up with rapidly changing technologies can be difficult, said Leo Larkin, information technology manager for the Town of Summerville.
“Desktops are beginning to be phased out because mobile devices are becoming more prevalent. IT departments must learn how these devices fit in with the strategic plan of the organization”
Information technology manager, Town of Summerville
“The biggest challenge in my job, and for most in IT today, is the increasingly dynamic nature of the IT industry,” Larkin said. “Technology is shifting and changing so much more rapidly now. It is an incredible challenge for a chief information officer/IT director to keep up with these changes, determine what best fits the operational needs of the organization, secure the funding and implement the technology in an effective way that will serve the organization long term without it needing to be replaced in just another two years.”
Larkin has been in his position with the town for the past six and a half years, having previously worked in IT for the SC State Ports Authority. One of the trends he has witnessed is the evolution of the typical user.
“Desktops are beginning to be phased out because mobile devices are becoming more prevalent,” he said. “IT departments must learn how these devices fit in with the strategic plan of the organization.”
Everyone wants mobile accessibility today because it gives them the ability to do their job anytime, anywhere, said Joshua Emory, information technology manager for the Town of Lexington.
Emory has been with the Town of Lexington for more than seven years, serving as IT manager since 2009. Prior to working with the town, he was employed at a small software development company in Alexandria, Virginia.
Over the last year, Lexington has more than doubled the number of mobile devices it had the previous year and increased the resources employees have access to from those devices, Emory said. For instance, Emory is able to securely control his work computer from his cell phone. That allows him to unlock user accounts, make website changes and even make updates to the local community channel from virtually anywhere.
Although they work for municipalities of different sizes, these three IT directors still share many of the same duties.
Ratterree’s responsibilities center on managing department staff and operations, IT budget development and management, IT policy development and enforcement, IT procurement, emergency management, strategic planning, and project development and management. He spends his days consumed with meetings or conference calls, and working on reports or projects.
Larkin is responsible for network administration, email administration, help desk support, backups/restores, public safety support, managing employees, overseeing projects and preparing budgets. Along with dealing with normal work orders, he attends to managerial duties such as project planning, meetings and budgeting issues.
Emory is responsible for establishing and maintaining a budget and directly overseeing two employees, the GIS analyst and information technology specialist. He also is the database, network and server administrator as well as programmer.
“From my perspective, I think in total that the IT duties in a small and large town are the same, with the biggest differences being scope and funding,” Ratterree said. “A larger city has larger operations requiring more, and sometimes different, technology to facilitate those operations, as well as the staff to implement and support it. In other ways it isn’t the size that makes a difference but the philosophy and priorities of the municipality in terms of what information technology is implemented and how it is implemented.”
Emory said people typically don’t realize how much work goes into running an IT program for a municipality. The Town of Lexington, for example, has a website that provides online services; a community access television station; police, utility, building and finance departments that all rely on services that are hosted exclusively in-house; 350 networked devices; and 130 employees.
Ratterree said others also are surprised to learn what a significant role financial management plays in IT responsibilities.
The job also comes with some unexpected duties. Ratterree has become part of the public safety team because of his work with emergency management.
“IT plays a key role in this area in most organizations now, but it is elevated to an even higher degree in municipalities due to the need to maintain and support critical city functions and operations during a natural or man-made event or disaster,” he said.
Emory is involved with running his town’s community access television station. Larkin, meanwhile, has played DJ for various town events such as the July 4th fireworks show and the annual tree lighting. He also administers the town hall complex’s HVAC system — a computer controlled system that uses water from wells for the cooling system.
For Larkin, some of the most rewarding aspects of the job include finding solutions to complex problems and being proactive when it comes to new methodologies and processes. Ratterree enjoys successfully completing a project that allows city employees to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently. Emory is pleased that he’s helping to keep the Town of Lexington ahead of the technology curve.