Dothan IT director reflects on 27 years [Dothan Eagle, Ala.]
(Dothan Eagle (AL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 09--Tim Stewart can remember the day in 1987 when the City of Dothan bought its first desktop personal computer, an IBM PC, Model 5170.
The beige contraption included a keyboard, a main unit with an integrated floppy disk drive and a bulky monitor. It fit comfortably on a card table and cost more than $5,000.
He marveled at its power -- an eye-popping 5 megabytes of hard disk space and 4K of memory.
"I can remember standing there and staring at that thing and thinking 'We are never, ever going to need that much disk space,'" Stewart said.
That was 26 years ago. Robert Bork was being nominated to the Supreme Court, and later rejected. George Michael and Whitney Houston dominated the pop music charts and "Cheers" led the TV ratings. Terabytes (a million megabytes) were science fiction fantasies and clouds were simply things in the sky that brought rain.
Not only was the personal computing revolution just beginning, so was the integration of computers and networking into city government.
Stewart was on the ground floor of a complete transformation of how local government business is conducted.
Today, an 8 gigabyte (8,000 megabytes) jump drive is the size of a paper clip and available for about $6. iPhones have the computing capacity of the first 100 computers purchased by the City of Dothan.
"The longer I am in the business and know more about it, the more I realize how much I don't know," Stewart said. "It's a never-ending story and an always-moving target."
Soon, the City of Dothan's Information Technology director will box up his personal belongings, carefully remove the deer mounts from his office wall and walk away after 27 years. Stewart said he has agreed to take another job in the area, but declined to reveal the opportunity.
It is either the perfect time to walk away, or the worst. Stewart said the City of Dothan is on the verge of a major shift in Information Technology. Several major new software programs will come online within the next few months, and the city's current equipment won't be able to handle the additional load.
"There are some decisions about the future direction of IT here that need to be made within the next three to six months and it will set tone for the next decade," Stewart said.
--Within 30 days, the City will need to install software designed to oversee Dothan's entire sewer system. The program is part of the recent consent order between the City and the Environmental Protection Agency.
--Soon, the City will install new software designed to manage the local court system.
--Soon, the City will install new "Firehouse" software designed to manage almost all of the records generated by the department.
The decisions made will mark the latest reinvention of the department, but certainly not the first. When the City hired Stewart in 1986, he and six others were computer programmers who wrote almost all of the programs administered by the City. The department was then known as "data processing."
By the early 1990s, the department began to assist in the implementation of Enhanced 911, oversaw the records management programs for the police and fire departments and helped implement the city's computer-aided dispatch program.
"From what I know, no IT department in the country did E-911, computer aided dispatch and fire and police records management. We were the only ones," Stewart said.
The department grew from seven to nine employees in 1993. By then, the city had 200 PCs and three IBM mainframes.
In 1996, the department switched from writing its own programs to purchasing programs from outside vendors. The programmers soon became analysts, maintaining a vast network of 500 PCs and 30 dedicated servers.
Over the course of the next 15 years, several other city departments became digitally integrated, a city GIS mapping system was installed, mobile data terminals were placed inside all police patrol cars, an Ethernet network was built and a wide fiber optic network was installed, just to name a few advancements.
Although the department has now grown to 16 employees, there are few idle moments. A sign in Stewart's office reads "Leadership: The ability to hide your panic from others."
"They run from can to can't every day," Stewart said. "We're very lean for what we do. I think we're very good at responding to the hot item. I know a lot of staff would say we are slow to respond to some things, but we're just having to prioritize."
Stewart said whoever guides the department through its latest reinvention will likely face another reinvention soon for the same reason personal computers become obsolete a few months after production.
"Two years in this department is about like 10 years everywhere else," Stewart said.
Stewart became interested in computers while taking a programming class at Enterprise State Junior College in the early 1980s.
"A couple of years in I realized I could make a living doing this. What held me in after that was that it was just fun.
"The most fulfilling part of my job is taking a piece of software and making it easier for someone so they can do their job better," Stewart said.
(c)2013 the Dothan Eagle (Dothan, Ala.)
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