Information Technology Director Jim Lawson began working for Douglas County in 1984 as an entry level computer programmer. “I’ve seen a lot of change. My iPhone has more memory and as much computing power as the mainframe we had when I started,” he said.
Douglas County used a mainframe computer to run all of its systems until personal computers became popular. Then, they designed Douglas County’s first computer network, which has grown and changed many times since then. “I’ve worked here forever. I think some people think I came with the building,” he joked.
Lawson grew up in Ottawa, where he graduated from high school. He then drove a dump truck and built swimming pools until he decided to enter the U.S. Army. He served in the Army for six years towards the end of the Vietnam War and spent most of his time stationed in Germany. He was a launch control technician and a M551 Sheridan Light Tank gunner.
After Lawson left the Army, he decided to further his education. He was considering two career options: dentistry or computers. “I looked into both and I thought, ‘I really don’t want to spend my life putting my hand into people’s mouths,’ and the only dental school was in Columbia, Mo., home of the University of Missouri. So, I said, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’”
He chose to study computers in Florida where he attended Gulf Coast Community College for two years in Panama City and then earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of West Florida in Pensacola. “I’ve always liked computers ever since I was a kid. I read everything I could about them,” he said.
After college, he worked for H.D. Lee Mercantile Company in Ottawa doing quality control and then he joined Douglas County as a computer programmer, where worked for about five years before leaving to work for a couple of private businesses. He worked for them for a few years before returning to Douglas County. “I felt more comfortable coming back to work for government where I could feel like I was helping out the community instead of helping some company chase that profit,” he said.
Lawson said he has worked in a variety of positions over the years: programmer analyst, senior programmer, systems programmer for mainframe, network administrator, database administrator and project management. He became IT Director in 1997.
He now oversees 10 full-time IT employees and one full-time GIS Coordinator and an approximately $1.9 million annual budget. Lawson said he enjoys his job because it’s challenging. “It’s never boring. There’s always something new to learn which makes it interesting. It’s one of those jobs where you don’t know what you’re going to run into when you come in.”
However, those challenges don’t stress him too much because he has highly-skilled employees who can help him problem-solve. “I have such great staff that I really don’t have a lot of worries. We can tackle about any problem that comes up. I have very experienced, very talented staff, which makes my job easier and less stressful.”
Employees in the IT Department say they’ve continued to work for Douglas County for many years because of Lawson’s leadership. “Jim is a magnificent person to work with,” said Ollie Wenger, senior software support analyst, who has worked for Douglas County for 22 years. “Not only is he at the top of his profession, but he looks out for his staff and always has their best interest at heart. Douglas County is fortunate to have such a knowledgeable, skilled and dedicated person to lead the Information Technology Department.”
IT Support Specialist Beverly Gardner has worked with Lawson since 1984. She said, “Jim is a great person to work with because he cares about the entire staff and their families. He is involved in helping every department with their computer needs. He also works hard to save the county money.”
Lawson also can lean on peers around the region and nationally and they can lean on him. He has been a member of the Kansas Chapter of Government Management Information Sciences (GMIS) since 1996 and has served in elected positions including a term as president. For the last 10 years he has also served on the advisory board for the international GMIS group. In addition he served on the State of Kansas I.T. Security Council for many years.
Technology advances, he said, have effected every Douglas County employee in every Department, from Public Works and Zoning to the Register of Deeds Office and District Court, internally and externally.
Lawson pointed out that employees used to use one local device to access computerized information and now it not uncommon for many of the county’s approximately 430 employees to use a desktop, laptop, phone or tablet to access the data from multiple locations.
Lawson said the IT Department now spends an enormous amount of time and effort on security. “We have invested in a layered security environment and have also invested in continual training for our employees. We do everything we can to protect the network.”
IT staff also are continuously working to add functionality to the Douglas County website – douglascountyks.org – for employees and the public. Today, people can find property and election information, reserve fairground buildings, pay taxes, register for events, view interactive maps and much more with the click of a button. “You used to have to look in multiple places to find the information you want or make phone calls to a person to assist you. Now you can pull up the information interactively in real time and help yourself,” he said. “It really is information at your fingertips.”
* Story by Douglas County Communications Specialist Karrey Britt