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IT department employees reflect on 50 years of service

Photo of various tech gadgets in Derek Drawhorn's office (Photo by Nathan Jeter/UTHealth Houston)
A collection of gizmos and gadgets in the office of Derek Drawhorn, associate vice president of IT infrastructure, reflect the progress of technology and IT support throughout the years. (Photo by Nathan Jeter/UTHealth Houston)

Fifty years ago, a family of four could eat at McDonald’s for about $4, the digital watch made its debut, floppy disks were used for storing electronic data, and UTHealth Houston’s Information Technology Department began its trek into what is now known as cyberspace.

Rick Miller, former vice president for information technology at UTHealth Houston, spent 32 years helping to create the current IT department before retiring in 2019.

“I joined UTHealth as the assistant vice president of information systems in 1987; however, I had been a consultant there as early as 1979,” Miller said. 

As a consultant, Miller was the project manager for the implementation of the university’s first financial system, TUFIMS (The University Financial Information Management System).

Miller said in the early days, employees accessed the mainframe using terminals which had no computing capability like today’s personal computers. They were merely screens that displayed what the mainframe sent, like a TV screen. Terminals were attached to the mainframe on the 12th floor of the Houston Main Building via miles of coaxial cable which ran through the ceilings and walls of the campus buildings.

Miller said off-campus access to the campus network was provided by dial-up modems. There was no internet and no wireless network, Miller said. Today, wireless and cellular networks are almost everywhere, and everything is connected to the internet.

Miller said when it came to security, access to systems was limited to dial-up modems. He said disk storage was expensive, so large volumes of data were stored on about 6,000 tapes, requiring computer operators to mount tapes on tape drives for access. The tape drive read the tape and a program processed it.

Several UTHealth Houston academic support departments were housed in the historic Houston Main building before it was demolished in 2012. The building sat on the corner of Main Street and Holcombe Boulevard. Miller said they moved the data center into the University Center Tower.

“We basically built and equipped a second data center, because it was too risky to try to move the old equipment,” he said.

Miller said the data center was staffed 24/7 with two computer operators per shift. Today, the data center can run in “lights out” mode with minimal or no staff on site, he said.

“Currently, systems are generally available on the internet, but they are also vulnerable to hacking. As a result, security is one of the most important functions of IT,” he said.

Bassel Choucair, associate vice president of IT user experience and support, came to the university in 1992 as a recent biomedical engineering graduate. He worked in a lab in the Department of Otolaryngology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston for his first two years before taking on an IT project.

“In 1994, the dean of the medical school decided that all departments needed to have to have email,” Choucair said. “At the time very few departments had it, and my department had only one computer shared by all staff, faculty, and residents. So I went to the chair of the department and asked to become the Local Area Network (LAN) manager and take on the challenge of setting up the network, server, and computers for everyone.”

Choucair said he was taught networking and server administration on the job, as well as how to manually install internet protocol software on each computer. That knowledge gave him an advantage in 1996 as he transitioned to the dean’s office as its LAN manager.

When Tropical Storm Allison hit in 2001, it severely damaged the medical school, and flooded its main datacenter, which was on the ground floor.

“I had a small data center in the John Freeman Building, and that became the de facto servers for the entire medical school,” he said. “The other departments brought down their servers to my data center, and that’s how we continued to work. I would put information on the website for people at home to find out what was going on. It was remote work before remote work was necessary because the school was out of commission for a while.”

The storm also created financial stress as the university rebuilt what was damaged in the storm. Choucair put together a proposal to centralize IT at the medical school. MSIT was born, and it took five years to complete the process, from 2004 to 2009, he said.

Choucair said the clinical needs have also exploded in his 30-year tenure. In 2011, when his team started supporting UT Physicians, there were 35 clinics. Today, there are more than 150.

Beverly Moore, associate vice president and chief information security officer, watched the IT department skyrocket in the 28 years she’s worked for UTHealth Houston. She said security was built around the mainframe and there wasn’t a firewall.

“In 2000, one of our UNIX systems was breached and defaced,” said Moore, who was the security analyst for the mainframe at the time. “A long weekend of rebuilding a system and scrubbing data was the beginning of our IT security department.”

Moore said that’s when a whole security team was born, and the team installed a firewall, VPN, and other safety measures.

Moore said the IT department was like a big family.

“When I joined the HelpDesk out at the Operations Center Building (OCB) in 1995, I worked with a great group. Everyone knew each other and we would have a picnic every year in the grassy area where the Houston Main Building was,” she said. “By a chance crossing of our paths, I met my husband Barry while working at OCB. He worked across the street at the Ozarka company, and more than 20 years and a beautiful daughter later, I am really glad I was working at OCB in 1998.”

In the 34 years since Wanda “Dennie” Clemons, manager of telecommunications, joined the UTHealth Houston family, she has been a part of technological advancements that keep the university on the cutting edge.

In 1988, she started out in data entry in the accounting department. Processes, Clemons said, were slower then, and snail mail was a primary mode of communication. Now, work activities that used to take days are either automated or can be completed online in a matter of minutes.

One of the major advancements Clemons has seen in her career at UTHealth Houston is the consolidation of multiple telephone systems into one universal system on one platform. 

“I’m so proud to work at UTHealth Houston and be a part of the team,” Clemons said. “If you look at key moments in our history – floods, hurricanes, the COVID-19 pandemic – IT has been at the forefront and has done an exceptional job either keeping up with technology or staying ahead of the curve. I can’t wait to see what’s to come. The future is wide open for UTHealth Houston as technology grows exponentially.”

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