I’ve gotten a lot of questions from TechRepublic members about the best ways to direct their careers. There is the inevitable certification vs. degree debate as well as questions about experience vs. education.

Since each situation is unique, there is no clear answer across the board. What I’ve decided to do in the coming weeks, however, is feature personal stories from top IT pros as to how they got into IT and succeeded at it. I hope you’ll find these stories useful in making your own career moves.

This week, our featured guest is Jeanne DeVore, the Technology Manager of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Jeanne has been in IT for almost 25 years, but started out with a degree in theater. Her background:

Rather than get a traditional “do you want fries with that” job, I became a secretary, and my aptitude for technology meant that I was hired as the secretary for an IT department at a small college. On the job training and lots of experience found me moving up the ladder from secretary to IT director in the 14 years I was with the college, until I took a job as the Technology Manager with Chicago Shakespeare Theater. My theatre background made me an excellent fit for this position, because not only did I understand technology, I also understood the frequently crazy and unusual world of theater. I knew that a theater would have some very specific requirements in terms of its technology, and my knowledge of the profession put me in good stead for supporting those requirements.

Toni: Do you think it’s unusual for someone interested in theater (or any of  the arts) to also have an aptitude for technology? Usually, those skills use two different parts of the brain.
Jeanne: Not necessarily. When I was in college, one of my friends was a double-major in theatre and computer science. In many ways theatre is a microcosm of life. Yes, there are the artistic folks – the actors, the designers, the directors, but there are also the technicians – the sound and lighting folks, the ones who build the sets, make the props and costumes, and run them during the shows. Generally, of the theatre’s staff, the ones who are the most proficient with technology tend to be the ones in the technical areas of the theater – our sound designer is extremely technology-savvy, for example.
Toni: What kinds of technology (and technological tasks) did you deal with in the beginning and what kinds were you doing at the end of your tenure at the college?
Jeanne:When I started at the college in 1986, I did routine maintenance (backups, printing reports, etc.) on an IBM System/38. There were two PCs in the college at that time, one of which was on my desk (an original IBM PC), so I was the one who learned about them. As more PCs came into the organization, I became the de facto “expert”. Eventually, my position became “PC Coordinator”, and I took care of all the PCs in the organization, as well as a network of Macs. When we joined the Internet age, we got a Unix web server and I learned Unix. Budgetary cuts in 1999 left me as a department of one, and with the advent of a Windows NT network, I finally got the “Director of Information Systems” title. So I was running an NT4 network with about 75 users, running a Unix web server and emails for about 300 students, and still running an IBM AS/400 (successor to the S/38) for legacy Student Records applications an JD Edwards. I also hired a person to do desktop support.

My shift to Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2001 was an easy one, as I was still supporting an NT network, but didn’t have the Unix or AS/400 components to worry about. I am the first Technology staff at the Theater; prior to my hiring, they used a consultant as needed. My interview was really more of my convincing them why they needed to bring IT in-house than why they needed to hire me to be that person. Because of my theatre background, however, and the fact that I’d been a subscriber to the Theater for seven years, so was well-versed in their work, it was an excellent fit and I’ve been here for nine years.

Toni: Finally, can you give some specifics of how technology is used in the theater?
Jeanne: We’re not really that different from any other business, but with a few unusual twists. When you think theatre, you think actors. But in reality, the acting company is only one small part of what creates theatre as we know it, and the actors have very little to do with the technology that runs a company. There are two fairly distinct areas of the company – the Administration side, which includes everything you’d expect, plus things like fundraising, education, and producing (scheduling and contracts, etc.), and the Artistic/Technical side, which includes directors, designers, and all of the technicians who make stage magic happen – lighting and sound technicians, scene techs, costumers, wigmakers, etc.

In addition to the obvious universal functions like word processing, email and finance, we have a CRM application, called Tessitura, that keeps all our patron records, sells our tickets, tracks customer service issues, and serves as our fundraising, marketing, and education software. It even runs our bookstall! Our ticketing software interfaces with our website so we can sell tickets online 24/7. It also interfaces with our direct emailing service for targeted marketing. We also do our graphics in-house (our program book, advertising, and other publications), so we have a graphic artist who uses the Adobe Creative Suite.

On the technical side, our designers use AutoCAD for technical drawings, light plots, stage diagrams, etc. and our costume designers will scan in their original drawings for digital copies to distribute to our costume shop, and our costume inventory is kept in a searchable database. Our Props department uses design programs to create posters, books, etc., anything paper that needs to be onstage.

And, of course, our lighting board and sound boards are computerized. Lighting cues are programmed into the board, which can handle very complex transitions with the press of a button.

Our newest use of technology is increased use of web conferencing and Skype as an efficient way to communicate with designers and visiting directors who may be half a world away (in the case of the director for our upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, who is in Australia). Skype enables us to easily have production meetings and planning sessions without the expense of either long-distance travel or long-distance phone calls. It’s really been a boon to the organization.