The Toughest Job In I.T.

Ben Standifer battles red tape, poverty, rickety equipment, heat, and flash floods to do his job

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 27, 2002

3 Min Read

Standifer's IT team was instrumental in helping the nation become one of the first governments to achieve compliance with the General Accounting Standards Board's Requirement 34, a new rule that requires all government organizations and some companies to comply with improved financial and accounting statements standards. Complying with the rule, which isn't due until 2004, includes ensuring the integrity of the IT accounting systems and software.

The IT group is migrating geographic information system and global positioning system technology, currently used to manage water resources, to develop a standard that multiple tribal agencies can use to exchange information. That would make it possible for, say, the police department to use GPS coordinates to direct helicopters to pick up accident victims or undocumented immigrants crossing tribal land. Also, the nation is in the process of moving a satellite uplink from the local utility, which oversees management of such projects, to the police department. "It's so rural and remote, our officers can use a satellite uplink to get required training they'd normally have to go into Tucson or Phoenix to get," Standifer says.

While it took the work of many people to get the idea from paper to reality, Standifer's IT group played a central role in helping the Tohono O'odham open its first higher-education facility, Tohono O'odham Community College, in 2000. It was a landmark effort that for the first time lets the nation offer degrees, certifications, and training to its residents on its own land. Vanegas-Funcheon, the VP of finance and administrative services, says Standifer was selfless in helping the college establish one of the most advanced distance-learning programs in the state. A federal grant of $400,000 is dedicated to building out the distance-learning program, and vice chairman Ramon says tutoring remote residents from the school is going to be key to the nation's future.

Most of the courses offered at the school are for skilled labor, but as evidence of the importance the nation places on IT and its desire to become more self-sufficient, the college will soon offer residents accredited degrees in computer science. Still, it won't be easy to keep the classes full: The nation's two high schools graduated their largest classes this past summer, totaling about 40 students, Standifer says.

Indeed, the migration to a more self-sufficient and prosperous nation is a slow process. Standifer recounts the story of a technician from his team who left for personal reasons and sought a job at a computer-retail store in Tucson. "Even though he was A+ certified and had several other certifications, to the outside world working for a tribe was not like working for Raytheon. They think we're still working with smoke signals," he says. "That guy came back to the reservation feeling like he wasn't good enough." Standifer says that big IT service and consulting firms often talk about solving the nation's IT problems, but he's not buying. "We're looking to be self-sufficient," he says. "If teaching one of our own causes us to delay a project, but we do it ourselves, that's much better."

When asked how he'll one day be able to tell if his efforts have made a difference, Standifer doesn't hesitate: "Our success will be when we see students in our outreach programs come back one day and start taking some of these jobs and maybe even take my job," he says. "Ultimately, we'll know we've been successful."

Though they start from this office, the nation's IT staff can travel hundreds of miles a day.

Tohono O'odham leaders balance support for IT efforts with the reality of scarce resources.

The White House is home to the center of the Tohono O'odham Nation's government.

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