If you’re one of the 158 City employees who recently got a new desktop computer, or one of the nearly 400 public safety employees who got a new laptop for your work vehicle, the installation of that device may have taken 15 minutes out of your workday.
Jeremy Owens of Technology Services says installation is the quick and easy part. “What people don’t see in the background is that it’s a month’s worth of work,” he says. “One month to set it up, test it, wipe it, set it up, change it, test it, repeat, repeat, repeat.”
Tech Services says troubleshooting on the front end saves employees time and avoids problems after installation. “When someone from Tech Services shows up at your office and replaces your machine with a new one, we have tested that machine to make sure you won’t have any issues,” Owens says. “We try to streamline the process and increase efficiency, reducing any disruptions to employees while they are working.”
Tech Services oversees a lot more than computers. They also handle desk phones and City-issued cellphones, the entire phone system, radio support, servers, networking, software applications, security cameras, Wi-Fi connections, video systems in conference rooms, the City’s website, and equipment leases for devices like copiers. “If it has a power button, we probably deal with it,” Owens says.
And they serve more than City of Gastonia employees. Tech Services has 1,500 users, about 500 of those being public safety employees outside of the City. “We have an interlocal agreement with Gaston County for public safety,” explains Beverly Bieker, the City’s Chief Information Officer. She oversees Technology Services, along with Assistant Director Brandon Jackson. “The 1,400 devices we maintain include the laptops and desktops used by the County Sheriff’s Office, the jail, the 911 Center, the Gaston County Police, and Animal Care and Enforcement,” Bieker says.
Belmont and Cramerton have joined that public safety system, using software and a database maintained by the City of Gastonia. “So if a crime is committed in Belmont, Gastonia police can see it on their computers. Gaston County Police can see it,” Bieker says. “It’s a win-win because we get data-sharing between the agencies, and the smaller cities can access software features like report writing that might not be available to them otherwise.”
‘It only takes one’
October was Cybersecurity Month, and Bieker says protecting the City’s systems is her highest priority. That’s why Tech Services periodically sends emails to employees to test their ability to sniff out phishing and fakes. A few weeks ago, City employees received an email claiming to be from CNN that said President Trump had resigned. It actually was sent by Technology Services, and anyone who clicked the link in the body of the email gets some additional education about the dangers of malware.
“We only had 19 employees click the link, and that counts Gaston County Public Safety, too,” Bieker says. “That’s very good. But it only takes one.”
Computer systems of both Mecklenburg County and the City of Atlanta were among those hacked in recent years. In Mecklenburg County, a well-intentioned employee clicked on a link in a bogus email, triggering a ransomware attack. Mecklenburg’s data servers were shut down for weeks, affecting about 200 software programs and online services used by Mecklenburg County employees and the public.
“That’s my worst nightmare,” Bieker says. “It’s imperative that we test employees with emails and that they learn from the tests.”
Owens says it’s not just emails that pose a risk. Devious people are calling City phone numbers, trying to get personal information for identity theft. “They may call four or five people to get a phone number from one, an email from another, and the next thing you know, they have five pieces of information.”
Human Resources has gotten a few phone calls and emails from people requesting that their payroll direct deposit be changed to a different bank account. It turns out that some of those requests came from imposters, not actual employees. So HR and Payroll now require employees to fill out a form to change their deposit information.
Owens says City employees should not assume any caller or emailer is who they claim to be. “If you get a phone call and something doesn’t seem right, hang up and call the Help Desk,” he says. “If the Help Desk doesn’t know, they will do background research to find out. There’s a lot of tech stuff we can do to verify if it was legit.” Do the same for a suspicious email.
Changing with the times
Cyber education is just one of many new roles for the department. As technology shifted over the decades from typewriters to desktop computers, and from employees being tied to a desk to using mobile devices, Technology Services had to change, as well. Bieker has worked for the department for more than 30 years. “Back then, we were creating software applications by writing code,” she says. “My first task was to write a payroll system.” Now, the City buys applications from private companies, often specifically designed for local governments. “Our role has changed from creating the applications to supporting the programs that we buy and supporting the end users,” Bieker says.
City employees have always worked out in the community. Now, they expect to take their technology with them. “If the guy is in the field, he needs the equivalent of a desktop in his vehicle,” Bieker says. “So let’s give him a mobile device with an air card, and maybe a cellphone, because that’s where he’s working. For a number of years, they’d have to do their field work, then come back and do the rest of their job on a desktop. That’s just not efficient.” She adds that the City began migrating to mobile field units many years ago, but says it’s “financially challenging” to equip all of the field personnel.
Tech Services’ budget is $7.4 million. Of that, about $1.7 million comes from the public safety partners outside of the City. The remaining $5.6 million comes from the City of Gastonia. City departments are billed by Tech Services for each device assigned to their employees. Departments also pay a prorated charge for the software applications they use.
Technology Services has 35 employees and the number has not gone up as technology demands have increased. Instead, responsibilities are reassigned or redesigned to meet changing demand. “External departments’ needs change,” Owens says. “As their needs change, our needs to support them change.”
Tech Services has five divisions or teams:
- Infrastructure led by Jeremy Owen
- Communications/Radio Shop led by Paul Privett
- Software for Public Safety under Tim Morrow
- Software for CIS/Utility billing led by Jessica Marshall
- Software for GIS, Finance and Asset Management led by Ray Kurtiak
According to Bieker, the fun part of working in Tech Services is being involved in so many different lines of business, from finance to permitting to human resources to water treatment. And when a department launches a new project or is discussing a possible idea, she’d like Tech Services to be involved earlier. “We’d just like to be involved in the conversations so the City buys wisely and spends money smartly,” she says. “We don’t want to control anything. We just want to be part of the conversation.”
Or as Owens puts it, “We love to work with other departments to help them come up with solutions that technology can solve.” And that means letting Tech Services come out of the shadows, magic wands in hand.