Q&A: Art Sawatzky

In the mid-1980s Art Sawatzky was an application manager for a large multi-national enterprise operating out of Winnipeg. He had just finished a major project for the company and had learned that he would soon be transferred to Minneapolis, Minn., when he happened to see a job posting in a Winnipeg newspaper that would change is life.

Brandon, a city of 40,000 residents located in Western Manitoba, was looking to hire a data processing manager. For Sawatzky, the opportunity was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t looking to leave the organization I was working for at the time,” he said. “But it looked like it could be my dream job because I had always wanted to work in a smaller community. I applied for the position and was hired. I’ve been very happy with my decision over the years.”

Since joining the City of Brandon’s IT department 18 years ago, Sawatzky has moved up in the organization to become the director of information technology. In his current role he is responsible for future planning, network support, desktop support, GIS applications, systems integration, contract negotiation with suppliers and communication technology.

Sawatzky recently spoke to Assistant Editor Blair McQuillan about the aspects of his job he most enjoys, the challenges he faces in running a municipal IT department and one of the more complex projects he is currently involved in.

Excerpts from their interview follow:

Q. Could you outline one of the major IT initiatives the City of Brandon is presently working on?

A. The one that’s consuming most of our resources right now is a new ERP application. We’ve been working on it for almost a year now. It’s somewhat unique because Brandon – as you may or may not know – is one of the Smart Community projects Industry Canada has funded over the last several years. I’m also on the board of the Manitoba Smart Network, which is the name of our project. It involves Brandon and four neighbouring towns – Carberry, Minnedosa, Neepawa and Souris.

With some funding from the Smart Communities project, we’ve acquired the ERP software and we expect that once we’re finished implementing it later this fall, we’ll roll it out to the smaller communities around us and offer it as an application service provider. The business plan is to roll this out in such a way that we can provide that same service to any municipality or school division in Manitoba that is interested in acquiring our services. We have a partnership agreement with the software supplier that allows us to do that. They’re very supportive of thus particular offering.

Q. Is there anything about this ERP application that’s unique?

A. What’s unique about the way we’re doing it is the fact that it will be affordable for the municipalities to have a quality application that they may not have otherwise been able to afford. Also, we will provide local service and support for those applications. The first line of support will be through the City of Brandon’s IT department.

Q. Is it the funding from Industry Canada that allows you to offer this application?

A. Yes. But once it’s implemented it’s to be sustainable on its own. We will be charging municipalities a fee for service. It will be enough to cover expenses and perhaps make a very modest profit. But the intent is that everyone will win in terms of getting better applications for less money.

Q. What were the challenges with getting this initiative up and running?

A. Getting to this stage has not been too difficult – other than the various negotiations that had to play into it and the signing of agreements. That’s all worked very well.

One of the challenges is going to be that the smaller communities don’t have quite the same needs that we do here in Brandon because our population is significantly larger and we offer services to our citizens that the others don’t.

They also don’t really have any IT staff, so it makes it a little more interesting in terms of getting them to the point where we can support them properly. But there are great people out there and they’re eager to get involved and to learn. I think it’s like any other application development project; it’s a matter of working through the day-to-day problems and making it happen.

Q. In terms of day-to-day operations, could you give some examples of the ongoing challenges you face as part of your job?

Manitoba is a bit unique in the way our population is distributed. We have Winnipeg, which has about 700,000 people and the next largest community is Brandon, which has just over 40,000. The next size down from that is about 13,000. As a result, there is really no peer group at the municipal IT level within the province. I occasionally talk to Peter Bennett – the manager of information systems for the City of Winnipeg – about various ideas, but they have quite different needs and requirements than we do because of their size. I’ve had to rely to some degree on trying to form a peer group with some other cities across Western Canada. That’s been helpful. There are some really good people out there that have been useful when I need some ideas on various challenges.

One of the other challenges we face is in keeping up with currently available technology and what we can use to improve service delivery to the public. As a smaller organization you don’t really have the resources to take a chance and be on the bleeding edge. Sometimes you have to make sure a product is proven before you can jump out on a limb and use the technology. There have been a few times when I’ve jumped on something sooner than I should have and been burned a little bit. So I’m more cautious now about some of those things.

Q. What’s been your greatest achievement during your 18 years in Brandon?

A. That, for me, is a fairly easy one. In Manitoba, until about seven years ago, there was 9-1-1 service in Winnipeg and Brandon, but the rest of the province did not have 9-1-1 service. What they City of Brandon did was take a leadership role in providing 9-1-1 service for all of Manitoba outside of Winnipeg.

The province had been talking about doing this for many years. They’d done studies over and over and nothing was happening. There were some communities that had eight different phone numbers they had to keep track of depending on the type of emergency service they required.

We took the lead on that and because 9-1-1 and dispatching is communication technology, I was heavily involved in finding the solution and taking it through to implementation. We opened our enhanced 9-1-1 centre in September of 1996. We started with five communities and at this point there are about 180 communities that we’re providing 9-1-1 service for on a fee for service basis.

That’s been very gratifying because it’s the kind of project where you feel you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life through IT. It’s something that I feel really good about in terms of an achievement in my career.

Q. You sound very enthusiastic about your job. What aspect of it do you most enjoy?

A. What’s interesting is the complexity of the environment. I came from a private enterprise and I find this environment more complex than that one because there are so many unique needs in the areas we deal with. For example, public works, law enforcement, community services, and parks and recreation all have their own requirements. It’s like running multiple businesses within a larger entity. It’s a constantly changing environment and that really makes it exciting.

Find more information on:

– The City of Brandon at www.city.brandon.mb.ca

– The Smart Communities Program at http://smartcommunities.ic.gc.ca

– The Manitoba Smart Network at www.manitobasmartnetwork.ca