The Journal Gazette
Sunday, June 28, 2020 1:00 am

IT workers

Team key to government amid virus

DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

As cities and counties everywhere in March began to send employees home, Fort Wayne and Allen County's information technology teams had to turn an entire system inside out.

Knowing there could potentially be 2,000 public employees working remotely, officials worked quickly to increase the capacity of the network shared by city and county government and City Utilities.

“We immediately asked our network engineers to assess what we had and recommend something that would expand that capacity, or recommend what hardware or software would need to be replaced to expand our capacity to cover what was likely to happen,” said Joe Welch, City Utilities' chief information officer.

Fort Wayne and Allen County have had a shared computer system since the 1970s, which the heads of the city, county and utility technology departments say helped them manage workplace changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Welch said in meetings with Jim Haley, the city's chief information officer, and Ed Steinman, the county's director of technology, it was hard to imagine that everything would shut down.

Once the shutdown started, city employees began connecting to their workstations via a virtual private network, or VPN.

A shift to remote work meant hackers and others with nefarious intent could research and exploit weaknesses to compromise a network, Welch said. That required network engineers to research and prepare for things like phishing scams, which are attempts to gain access to networks or computers via data gathered through fraudulent, yet official-looking, emails.

Preparing for an influx of remote VPN users meant hardware upgrades were necessary earlier than expected.

A key component still had about 10 months of life left, Welch said, but allowed for user capacity “well below what we knew could happen” during the shutdown.

Welch, Steinman and Haley debated whether to perform the upgrade early. They ultimately did; a decision Welch said paid off.

“We had to make the decision to go for it, just in case we were where we are right now,” he said. “We have to be prepared for the likelihood that this (pandemic) might not be such a short-term reality, where a lot more people are going to be working from home than they were before this happened.”

For the first few days in March after the stay-at-home order, some remote workers experienced dropouts.

That may have had more to do with general internet connectivity, rather than issues with the city's network.

“When we had employees going home, the schools also had students going home and starting e-learning at the same time,” Steinman said. “So (internet service providers) started to struggle because it was an unprecedented usage of their capacity.”

For all of the challenges involved in getting workers set up for remote access, once they were connected, service issues stayed largely the same, Haley said.

“Once they got it, I think they were surprised with how similar the remote desktop is to their normal workstation,” he said.

Navigating a pandemic has produced a few lessons for the information technology team. Steinman said he learned that cities and counties of all sizes experienced similar challenges.

“I thought that it was very eye-opening that it doesn't matter what size you are, you're probably going to experience the same kinds of things,” he said. “In all the planning people have done, a pandemic was never on anybody's radar. So I think to this point, we've come through this very well.”

Setting up a person's remote access takes time, Haley said, and often there's nothing to do but chat while waiting for updates to be applied or applications to install.

Haley said he was struck by how many people – some of whom he's known since he began working for the city in the 1980s – had a personal responsibility to help a loved one.

“I knew how hard they worked here, but I didn't know how much they had going on, on the outside,” he said. “Working from home was crucial to them working at all during that time, because they had people in the house with (medical issues).”

From a connectivity standpoint, Welch, Steinman and Haley think the network is well-prepared for the possibility that workers may have to go back to working from home this fall and winter, though many of them returned to their government offices in May.

Many remote options, such as virtual meetings and chat applications, are probably here to stay, Steinman said.

“I think between the city and county there are over 100 facilities. A meeting that's larger than a few people is likely to include people who aren't in the same (physical location),” he said. “(Virtual meetings) don't cause as much disruption in your day.”

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