IT Innovators
IT Innovators: Building An Entire IT Department From The Server Room Up

IT Innovators: Building An Entire IT Department From The Server Room Up

This IT Director had to set up an IT department with minimal budget, on a tight deadline and in the middle of a government shutdown. Can her insight into how she commanded this process help you?

There are many ways that setting up an IT department from scratch can be particularly challenging. Maybe you’re working on a tight budget, or a tight deadline. Perhaps your staff is inexperienced and forced to learn on the fly. Tonia Williams, the CIO and IT director for the Housing Authority of the Cherokee Nation and her team successfully dealt with all of those challenges in setting up her IT department, with a government shutdown thrown in for good measure.

In April 2012, the decision was made to split the Housing Authority from the Cherokee Nation—a federally recognized Native American tribe and sovereign government—into its own entity. Splitting the department out involved starting from scratch in many respects, including for the IT department.

“It wasn’t so much that we rebuilt it, as it was that we had to separate it and build it from nothing,” Williams explained. “The scope of work started from literally the electricity in the server room.” And it all had to happen quickly. The Housing Authority’s servers were set up in August 2012, but the IT staff didn’t fully start until November 1—the same day payroll had to be ready. Williams herself started on October 15, two weeks before her IT team.

The already daunting challenge of building an entire IT department on a tight budget and on short notice, was intensified by an outside factor beyond the Housing Authority’s control. All of this happened during the government sequestration, which meant budgets were frozen.

“The money that I had to come up with for this [IT] budget was the operating budget we were already using,” Williams said. That was done largely by searching out and eliminating inefficiencies, such as moving landlines over to a Voice over IP (VoIP) system.

A limited budget was just one of the challenges Williams overcame in building a new IT department for the Housing Authority. She also had to work with an IT staff that was very green  and didn’t have experience with an undertaking of this size.

“Not that they couldn’t learn fast,” she said of her staff for the transition, “but they didn’t have years of experience to look to.” For example, their current systems lead previously had two years of experience as a hardware tech; a very different position. That reality meant Williams had to focus on finding hardware and software for the Housing Authority’s IT system that was quick to implement and learn.

“I did rely a lot of the vendors in regards to implementation and training for our new staff,” Williams said of the IT software and hardware they chose. She also relied on her own two decades of expertise in the industry. One of the decisions she made was to go with a mature set of productivity tools, Office 365, which provided several important benefits in its ease of use and functionality. “Office 365 was a big help because now I didn’t have to hire a systems administrator or a SharePoint administrator,” she said. It allowed her to both get her staff up to speed quickly and avoid additional overhead costs longer term.

“I was able to look for the best cost with the least amount of overhead,” Williams said. “That’s a balancing act.”

The geographic realities of the area covered by the Cherokee Housing Authority also played a role in the implementation of the IT system across their offices. “Not all of the areas within our northeast area of Oklahoma have high-speed internet access,” Williams explained. This meant the IT team had to physically go to some of the Housing Authority’s locations to set things up.

Creative thinking, well-researched software and hardware decisions, cost cutting, and good planning got the IT department ready on time for the Housing Authority’s separation, and now Williams and team have a solid foundation to build on. “I’m just really proud of our entire team,” Williams said, “that we were able to work and learn and build as fast as we did. I’m just amazed at how well we pulled everything off.”

Terri Coles is a freelance writer based in St. John’s, NL. Her work covers topics as diverse as food, health and business. If you have a story you would like profiled, contact her at [email protected].

The IT Innovators series of articles is underwritten by Microsoft, and is editorially independent.

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