Award-Winning IT Department Model… At A Church

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Like many organizations in New York City, Trinity Church reached a turning point on September 11, 2001. James Kennedy, director of Technology Information Systems, the church’s information-technology department, remembers that day well. He was on his way to work when one of his staff called to inform him that planes had flown into the World Trade Center ‘s twin towers, half a block from Trinity Church. Kennedy stayed in communication with two IT staff who were at the church when the towers fell. Luckily, the church and the people there were unharmed, but a temporary site had to be established in order to restore technical and business operations in this emergency situation. Kennedy and his team moved fast to place a new IT center in another Trinity location at Hudson Square. Thanks to the good graces of the New York City Mayor’s office who allowed them access to Trinity’s main location where their server room was located, they were able to move their equipment and 28 servers to their temporary office. They had minimal services up in four days and a complete system running in two weeks.
Nearly five years later, the neighborhood where the World Trade Center originally stood is rebuilding, Trinity Church is revitalized, and Trinity Information Systems (TIS) is an award-winning model of an IT department that any parish, business or Fortune 500 corporation would be proud to have.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Like many other nonprofits, when Kennedy arrived, Trinity Church had not yet made technological advances a high priority. Kennedy did not fully realize that when he began at Trinity Church as a network administrator in 1999. The data center was a mess, with wires draped all over the place. Computers in the church’s administrative offices ran on Windows 95, a major concern since they most likely would be affected by the “Y2K” bug that was, at that time, the talk of the IT world.

Kennedy, who had been in IT for 5 years and had even run his own technology firm, had tired of his previous job. When one of his client’s wives, who worked at Trinity as a director, offered him an opportunity in its IT department, Kennedy decided to take a chance. When he saw the disorganized cabling, old equipment, and general disarray in the server room, he saw opportunities for improvement for the organization’s technological future.

“I walked into a lot of disorganization,” Kennedy recalls. “There were no policies, no procedures and no standardization.”

So Kennedy rolled up his sleeves and got to work. As a jack-of-all-trades, he did multiple technical duties in the IT department, the first of which was upgrading the church’s computers, servers and network infrastructure before Y2K hit. Two years later, Kennedy became director of the seven-person IT department with a server room well on it’s way to becoming a data center. Through technological know-how, innovation, collaboration with the church’s other departments and strategic thinking, he developed it into TIS, a 13-person department which manages the IT aspects for Trinity Church and all of its holdings.

Founded in 1697, Trinity Parish is the site of the oldest church in New York City (George Washington held his inaugural services here and Alexander Hamilton was buried here after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr), but it also is home to a grant-making organization and an award-winning preschool, host to an annual national theological conference, a safe-harbor center for the mentally ill, and a housing community for the elderly and disabled. Trinity is also an important player in New York City commercial realty, having developed six million square feet in 14 buildings in Lower Manhattan. Its 175 tenants include high-profile names like Morgan Stanley, Sears and Estee Lauder, and the real-estate income generated goes towards the church’s religious and philanthropic work.

More than 225 people work for Trinity, and its holdings are divided into 17 business units, each of which has its own unique technological needs and methods. As director of TIS, Kennedy’s role is not just to offer service and support but to also act as a business partner for the units. Because of its advanced IT skills and processes, TIS partners and builds relationships with outside congregations, The NY Dioceses, and nonprofit organizations to help them use technology in ways that suit each unique organization. Recently, TIS and the Grants department hosted the 2nd annual NY Diocesan Technical Conference, helping churches create their own websites and put them on the Internet to further their presence on the web.

In the future, TIS would like to offer its IT services to other not-for-profits, churches and possibly to its tenants in the real estate portfolio, many of whom typically pay $150 to over $200 per hour for those services. Kennedy is forming a business plan that will allow TIS to be very competitive with pricing and in some cases almost 50% less. “I have the resources here to offer lower rates because we’re not looking to make money, just to offset costs for the church to improve their programs and better improve community relations.”

Because of September 11th, TIS looked at disaster recovery in a whole new light. Even though backups of systems were being performed daily and sent offsite, Kennedy decided further action was necessary. A “hot site” offering point-to-point T-1 access was established at one of Trinity’s cemeteries in Harlem, about 10 miles away from the church. The T-1 allows access to update some of the critical services that are replicated at that site. DSL service with a VPN connection is enabled for access to the site in case of an emergency or disaster. To enhance the capabilities for the “hot site”, TIS will be adding a Citrix software solution to give better access to its applications and content.

“The idea was that if we lost access at our main site downtown, we can still access the hot site from a broadband connection anywhere and continue Trinity’s operations,” says Kennedy. TIS is now in the planning stage of moving its “hot site” to a location at least 50 miles outside of Manhattan where the TIS staff can install a backup Storage Area Network (SAN) and other critical applications. Kennedy says, “10 miles is just too close for a true disaster recovery co-location site.”

As TIS grew, Kennedy admits that it was not easy to get approval for all IT enhancements and suggestions, but the current Executive Team additions have been tech-friendly. He credits Trinity’s new rector, Dr. James Cooper, and Executive VP of Finance, Business and Services, Steve Duggan for fully backing TIS. “They guided us in making our visions very real. We’ve had a lot of positive changes and now the employees believe in our service.”

Still, major upgrades must be approved by committee, and Kennedy has to illustrate it’s importance for Trinity to implement. “Technology additions need to be fully explained, and it must have some kind of connection to the vision and the mission of the church and its programs.”

One of the reasons TIS is able to get approval for its upgrades is that they work with proven technology. “We are not big on new, bleeding-edge tech, although research and development are done on new technology,” Kennedy explains. “But we want to use what works, which can be fairly new but has still been proven by other organizations to work.”

As a result, TIS’s equipment runs error-free 99.976 percent of the time, outstanding for an organization of its kind. Because of its technological sophistication, Trinity is more on par with Fortune 500 companies’ IT departments than with those of other churches. Kennedy has peers in those companies and bounces ideas off of them but because they have much larger budgets, their strategies may be too different to compare. “I often have to explain to them what’s behind the Trinity parish and what we’re doing, because they think it’s just a church,” Kennedy says with a laugh.

And as an IT center rivaling that of any company, TIS won the Silver and Bronze Real-Time Infrastructure award from American Power Conversion, which honors advocates for technological change due to its new data center. The cable-covered disarray Kennedy saw when he first joined was rebuilt two years ago, complete with redundant air conditioning, fire suppression, and environmental control monitoring. Security is kept tight through cameras and card access. The battery backup for power loss gracefully shuts down servers in the data center so no data is lost during an outage. Kennedy says TIS is frequently complemented on the results. “When we installed Novell’s Identity Management software on our servers, their engineer who came to help said this is probably the most well organized server room of our size he has seen, and he is looking at data centers every day. So we are very proud.”

TIS is also proud of the way it focuses on training Trinity employees, congregation and the Diocese to better use the technology at their fingertips. It created a Learning Center with a state-of-the-art projector and sound system. The staff trainer, Trish Emery, runs the center and teaches classes in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and e-mail use. She also offers customized training of the nearly 75 applications Trinity uses. Originally, the learning center was going to be made available only to Trinity’s staff, but when members of the congregation took a guided tour of the center, they requested classes. The first one about home security was a hit. “It’s gone from being a staff training service to a training program for the staff, congregation and diocese,” says Kennedy. “And it also establishes relationships that may never have been started in the past.”

TIS’ success has grown through heavy emphasis on testing and research in a development environment. “One approach that my staff and I have, is if we try something and it doesn’t work, we know when to change gears,” Kennedy says. One example is policies and procedures. People dislike filling out request forms, but before Kennedy joined, there was no rhyme or reason to Trinity’s technology requests. Now everything is standardized. The lesson for TIS was making the process for requesting new technology and changes simple. “We learned people don’t want to read a lot of text so we had to try different form variations,” Kennedy explains. To expedite the forms, TIS also plans to make the forms available to fill out and send back online.

Embracing change has also improved TIS’s service and training to its staff. A Helpdesk was established three years ago to provide a place where an employee can call with a technology problem. A ticket is entered and sent to the appropriate hardware, software or network technician. The tech then discusses the ticket with the caller and works to resolve the issue. Kennedy also has staff follow up two days later to make sure everything is fine. “We send reminders to the IT staff on their cell phones or BlackBerry so they’re reminded to follow up even when they’re out of the office.” TIS also prints out reports to determine where people are having technical problems. If the problem is persistent throughout a group or on a certain application, Emery develops a group training program at the learning center to give people more understanding.

Kennedy owes TIS’s success to the devotion of his staff. “They’re my top priority and my most important asset.” He has only lost two people in the last two years, nearly unheard of for any IT staff. “It’s exciting here with constant change and there’s so much going on, they want to stick around!” Kennedy laughs. “You’re only as good as people who work for you, and they make me look good.”

For new IT staff who have just entered a church’s low-tech server room where loose cables may or may not be visible, Kennedy has the following advice: Take a deep breath, roll up your sleeves, and expect to do a lot of work. “Change takes a long time. It took us six years and we’re now at a point where people are trusting us and asking us to get involved, which before they never did.”

And don’t give up, he urges. “Though often overwhelmed, I’m glad I’ve stayed and look forward to new challenges in the future!”