IT leaders from Dell, Honeywell, Vancouver Film School and City of Amarillo discuss COVID-19 lessons and changes

COVID-19 forced significant changes on every IT leader, and some believe these changes are here to stay.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

 COVID-19 threw a wrench into every IT leader's plans for 2020, forcing a speedy, unexpected tech evolution onto every organization across the world. 

IT leaders from government, education, and business sectors joined Dell chief digital officer Jen Felch this week to discuss the changes they made at the beginning of the pandemic and what the future may look like. 

Vancouver Film School head of IT Bernard Gucake, Honeywell chief digital technology officer Sheila Jordan and Richard Gagnon, chief information officer for the City of Amarillo, spoke with Felch about the problems they faced at the start of the pandemic and how they had to make quick changes to support their organizations. 

Gagnon spoke at length about the struggles Amarillo faced as the city dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that led them to have one of the highest hospitalization rates in the state of Texas. 

His own offices had to go remote in weeks and in just a weekend, he and his team had to build out a 75-person call center to support state and federal resources coming to help the city during the outbreak. 

"You don't hear the words 'agility' and 'government' in the same sentence very often but it turns out it's really critical. Having an adaptive staff and modern infrastructure allowed us to very quickly move resources and deploy solutions and applications so we could be responsive to changes in our environment," Gagnon explained. 

He added that the public health department needed significant IT resources to handle contact tracing, mass vaccinations and other efforts for the city's 200,000 residents. The city was prepared due to technological changes that were made when he started in the role in 2016, but he admitted that the city underestimated the severe digital divide among residents. 

"It exposed the impact of the digital divide in our community. What we saw with pockets of our community is that they really need greater access to the internet to even have access to essential services. How do you bank when the lobbies are closed and how do you get assistance from social services and nonprofits when their facilities are closed and you don't have internet access?" he said.

Felch noted that like Amarillo, Dell itself had benefited from investments made before the pandemic in technology like SD-Wan and more that helped them better deal with the quick shift to remote work.

Gucake said he faced similar issues at the Vancouver Film School, which was never intended to be an online school but had to adjust in weeks to a student body that was attending classes from across Canada and internationally.

Gucake explained that as a film school, students are working on data and graphics-heavy projects, requiring processing power that the school had to find a way to provide. 

"We were already in the process of deploying hundreds of Dell Precision workstations and displays for our on-campus teaching labs here in Vancouver. But when the pandemic hit, some students went back home," Gucake said. 

"We reached out to studios locally and around the world and implemented solutions to deliver access to workstations in our labs. This meant that the students could access the workstation's processing power from their own PCs at home. We also shipped computers and laptops to students that did not have PCs at home."

But like Gagnon, the school struggled to help students who had low internet speeds at home or lackluster Wi-Fi access. Similar to both Gagnon and Gucake, Jordan said Honeywell had to figure out how to provide VPN access to 110,000 employees across 70 countries.

She said that on top of the technological changes thrust upon their workforce, the company had to manage the cultural changes that come along with moving to teleworking. 

"Working from home was truly new for a lot of workers within Honeywell. There was an adjustment period to being online 12 hours a day. We wanted to make sure that we really encouraged an engaged employee base and so we said, turn your videos on. We don't care if your slippers are on, but turn your videos on," Jordan said. 

"With that came this incredible bonding experience because I think working from home has enabled us to see the other half of our employees. In the past, if your dog barks or teenage kids come in wanting something, it was an intrusion. I think the world has changed. That's the other half of who we are."

For the future, Gagnon said the city is hard at work coordinating with local government leaders, businesses and nonprofits to solve the connectivity gap with some of the city's residents. The city has also seen significantly greater buy-in on a variety of IT projects because of the interest in speeding processes up and making services more digital.

Gagnon noted that one of the first departments to invest in tech heavily were the police, who started an analytics process that cut 911 response times by 60% in less than 12 months. 

"We're doing a lot of what I call human-focused technology projects about driving services and access out to our community. Simple things like mobile public health and WIC clinics and utilities billing services out in the community. There's an expectation to do those things digitally. Our healthcare providers are seeing an 80-fold increase in virtual healthcare," Gagnon said.

"It links back to our broadband projects and it's a big thing for closing equity. I want to live in a city where all of my citizens have access to essential services."

He added that the city is also working hard to upskill its residents through local schools and community colleges, both as a way to make the city's residents generally more tech-savvy and to build a wider base of people with IT skills to draw more employment opportunities to the area. 

Felch said internally, Dell was investing heavily in its DevOps teams and automation to make their processes faster. Jordan explained that Honeywell was focusing on a "data-as-a-service" initiative because many of their customers and employees complained about the siloing of data in CRMs and other systems. 

The company is also looking to meld its operational technology with its IT processes, according to Jordan, who called it "OT meeting IT."

Gucake said the film school is prioritizing ways to support their students as they create films with higher and higher resolutions. An average 4K short film that is five minutes can create up to 20 GBs of data, he said. 

"We're investing in the infrastructure, including PowerEdge servers, to provide a solid backbone for a graphics-intensive curriculum. We also implemented software on top of our Dell tools to mimic a Google Drive and Dropbox application. We are giving our students the ability to share files and access storage more seamlessly from anywhere in the world," Gucake said, adding that more students are doing 4K And 6K animation projects requiring faster render times. 

"But in order to transform, it's really important to touch base with your users, look at the tickets and see what problems students and end-users are having. You have to sit down as an IT team and try to figure out how you can solve these problems. We have to remove these problems, make the experience better for our end users and that's ultimately what will help you transform as an organization."

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