“I would never want to be them,” said Thomas Dewar, LSSNY’s Executive Director of Information Technology, when he witnessed the massive disruption at other organizations during 9/11. Employees couldn’t access their workplaces, servers, or locally stored files for several months. When Superstorm Sandy hit, offices were flooded. These memories have stayed with Thomas for years, so he didn’t beat around the bush when he came to work at LSSNY in 2015.

Asked for his observations that first week on the job, Thomas handed his boss what he nostalgically refers to as the “burn-it-all-and-start-over memo.” Thomas told him that almost everything needed to be replaced. To his surprise, the reaction was, “When can we get started…on all of it?”

Thomas set out to overhaul the agency’s technical infrastructure. LSSNY had 26 locations, which weren’t networked to one another. Each computer had a local log-in, so if a user forgot his or her password, the IT department couldn’t access the machine. The average age of a computer was 10 years old. The wiring was terrible. Staff complained about phone service. There were six connections between employees and the internet.

This was a million-dollar project. Finding ways to save and raise money, Thomas replaced everything in two years, moved everyone’s files and automatically backed them up, secured competitive grants from E-Rate and The Dormitory Authority for the State of New York, and renegotiated the agency’s telephone contract and computer purchases.

When he started this massive undertaking, Thomas knew he had to be strategic. Unlike his predecessor, who had spent his time putting out fires, Thomas decided to focus on the visioning process. He told his new boss, “There are two ways to run IT. Either you need an army or you need equipment that takes care of itself. And no one’s giving money for an army anymore!” The technology design that Dewar implemented had three golden rules:

The equipment had to take care of itself.

  • He needed to be able to manage the entire organization from his living room.
  • People had to be able to work from anywhere, especially because many of LSSNY’s workers are field workers, not office-based.

Because of this design, LSSNY’s IT department of three people is able to provide service to 730 — albeit patient and understanding — staff members. Naturally, there have been some bumpy patches, but if not for this technology design, the agency would have struggled to accommodate remote work at such a large scale and on such short notice.

The system that Thomas designed included cloud computing (useful for staff to save and access files but also for IT to troubleshoot and fix problems remotely), Microsoft Teams for video conferencing, SharePoint and OneDrive to store files, networking equipment manageable from anywhere, a soft phone app to let workers’ cell phones display as their office phones, TeamViewer to remotely service computers, and service contracts with providers who could — following COVID protocols — service LSSNY’s copy machines, internet, and phones. Thomas also put an important tool in place in case of emergencies: a broadcast alerting system that would prove to be essential.

As COVID raged and New York City moved to shut down, LSSNY President and CEO Dr. Damyn Kelly had to decide when and how to close the offices. He asked Thomas how long it would take to prepare the organization to work remotely and was pleased with his answer. “About three days.”

The good news was that a lot had already been put in place. The bad news was that employees weren’t using it regularly and needed training. Plus, LSSNY had provided staff with computers, which are cheaper and faster than laptops and easier to maintain because they’re attached to the network all the time. During the lockdown, they needed to order laptops quickly, but there was a worldwide shortage. Thanks to receiving some COVID funding, LSSNY was able to order laptops. Thomas had already standardized all laptops, so that made it easy for staff to exchange broken ones for replacements. He switched gears and spent roughly half his time training staff virtually, whether in one-on-one sessions, large classroom sessions, or through videos he created and shared. He also tackled the need for remote instruction at LSSNY schools, training staff and students in how to use Office 365.

A generous grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation supplied funding for Chromebooks for all of LSSNY’s New LIFE School students, with an unlimited data plan for one year, so that families without technology or internet access would have the ability to participate in remote instruction.

As COVID raged and New York City moved to shut down, LSSNY President and CEO Dr. Damyn Kelly had to decide when and how to close the offices. He asked Thomas how long it would take to prepare the organization to work remotely and was pleased with his answer. “About three days.”

As for that broadcast alerting system Thomas had put in place a year earlier for LSSNY to easily send out phone calls, emails, and text messages to all staff? It was initially intended for LSSNY’s Early LIFE and New LIFE schools to communicate with parents, but Thomas had presciently configured and tested the system as part of the agency’s emergency preparedness. Says Thomas, “My thought was to contact staff for the occasional snow day, and I never imagined it would be needed for weekly pep talks and updates during a pandemic. It has been crucial in having Damyn communicate with staff.”

Watch NYNMedia’s 2020 Nonprofit OpCon panel, “The Intersection of Technology and Office Space in a Post COVID 19 Era,” moderated by Thomas Dewar, LSSNY’s Executive Director of Information Technology. Panel starts at 38:20.