In the fall of 2017, after a successful and highly rewarding 20+ year run in various information technology roles at UNC-Chapel Hill, I took a huge leap of faith and accepted an offer from Summit Design and Engineering Services as its first director of IT. That leap was made easier by the fact that the job offer started with a chance encounter in downtown Hillsborough, home to Summit HQ. There I stood on a beautiful midsummer Friday night, sipping a beer in front of the favorite local watering hole, The Wooden Nickel. I would soon learn this place is a favorite destination of Summit’s CEO/founder for socializing, good food and beverages.
Jim Parker, Summit’s CEO/founder, invited me to sit with him and his wife since there were no other tables or seats available. Though I politely declined, telling him I didn’t want to interrupt their dinner, I eventually sat down and started talking about living in Hillsborough and working at UNC in information technology. Jim’s ears perked up when I said IT. He immediately asked if I’d be open to talking about a potential job leading the IT department at Summit. His ears perked up even more when I said I played guitar! After bonding over mutual interests, I handed Jim my business card before saying goodnight and told him “give me a call if you’re serious about a job opening at Summit.”
Within a couple months, I’d resigned from a safe and comfortable position at UNC and started my new role as Director of IT for Summit Design and Engineering Services. At the time, the company was growing rapidly, hiring people every week and beginning to expand into new markets. It was a fast-paced, exciting work environment, even if it was a total departure from the familiar academic setting I’d grown to love.
The thing I most enjoyed from the minute I started at Summit was the sense that it felt like a place where people mattered, where every employee was valued even as the company evolved and continued to grow. We each had an important role to play and—as the new Ddirector of IT—I felt responsible for making sure my team treated ALL employees like valued customers. That customer-centric approach to delivering IT support and services is something I developed during my years at UNC. I love helping people and wanted the employees to know that IT was there to make their jobs easier and better, not harder or frustrating.
This was easier said than done! I only had two direct reports at the time, and the first time I referred to our fellow Summit employees as “our customers” they both gave me a blank stare. With so many different disciplines—from Geotech to survey and land development to structural engineering and architecture—learning about how each of the departments did their work and getting up to speed with all the software they required was a steep climb. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to make any “…but I reached the Summit” jokes!)
I started to get to know the people and the pain points that had frustrated them in the past as far as IT was concerned. A big part of what I did those first few months was LISTEN. I can’t emphasize how important that is for anyone in a senior leadership role, IT or otherwise. It’s easy to charge into a new job and want to change everything right away…or play it safe and not rock the boat. The trick is finding the balance between the two. Listening really helps. What I heard helped me shape a strategic approach to improving the IT department’s services, developing new workflows to increase efficiency, and cutting costs where possible without compromising quality.
Since those early months at Summit, I’ve seen IT play an increasingly critical role in how the company operates and have strived to align IT with the business needs. A recent example of this was when my team and I got out ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, planning for a sudden shift to remote work for many of our employees. The job was executing that change without much of a negative impact to worker productivity. Yes, there were challenges in getting people who were used to coming into a high-speed office network set up for WFH but through the use of various existing technologies (VPN, Splashtop, ConnectWise Control for remote assistance) and the implementation of some critical new ones (Panzura), my team and I rose to the challenge.
Many employees were already accustomed to using the VPN (Virtual Private Network) from outside the office to create a safe, secure connection through which they could access corporate data. But at the outset of the pandemic and initial lockdown, we quickly added many new users to the VPN permissions group. Right away we saw significant spikes in the number of simultaneous connections on any given day. This trend has continued through today as most employees who used to work in offices continue to work from home. But we have yet to see any serious degradation in VPN service thanks to right-sizing our infrastructure ahead of time.
In addition to VPN access for laptops users, we also created new remote access capabilities using Splashtop. This solution served the needs of another population of users whose primary computer was a high-powered desktop. Splashtop allowed them to connect remotely and control that desktop as if they were sitting (or standing!) in their office. This meant that these folks could still take advantage of the high-speed Summit network from afar, with no need for the VPN to access mapped drives and data stored on file servers.
The transition of over a hundred employees to WFH was intense, but the biggest project that Summit IT has tackled was migrating over 10 years’ worth of project data from these same on-prem file servers to cloud storage, using Panzura. Panzura is a hardware/software solution that greatly increases the speed at which data can be accessed from widely spread out geographic locations by placing the global file repository in Microsoft’s Azure cloud storage. Panzura hardware devices at four of our main office hubs then cache (i.e., store) metadata for every single file in the global cloud repository, which reduces latency and makes remote CAD work much more viable. The Panzura project also allowed us to put all our project data in a single place, rather than having files scattered around three or four different file servers at different offices. And it allowed us to create a better data governance structure around this mission-critical data. It was a lot of work, but all worth it.
Out on the horizon, as I look ahead to 2021 and beyond, the big picture IT initiatives that I see shaping how we win business and continue to excel as a company are DaaS (Desktop as a Service), aka VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure); increased use of our Leica scanning technology; adoption of drones for survey and civil engineering work; and venturing into virtual reality so we can provide a more immersive experience for some of our clients. In any case, I certainly see no slowing down in my role as Director of IT! And I’m still grateful that I took that big leap of faith back in 2017 after a chance encounter over good beer in Summit’s hometown, Hillsborough, NC.
Doug prides himself on being a communicator and collaborator who understands the value that IT can bring to any organization, but he is also sensitive to the ways in which it can drive people crazy at times. With advances in technology, there are always going to be problems and Doug likes being faced with the challenge of making those problems disappear.