Twenty-five years ago, George Helton was a missionary in a tiny Alaska fishing village with a population of 300. The nearest town, he recalls, was 200 miles away.
Helton, a 24-year-old at the time, was more than qualified for his remote teaching job, boasting degrees in church music and music education and an associate's degree in counseling from Warner Pacific College, a Christian liberal arts college in Portland.
The Helton family stayed four years before they had to move to Kennewick, WA, so one of Helton’s three children, who was born with a hearing impairment, could receive special care.
The move brought more than a few unexpected surprises. His lifestyle changed dramatically; gone was the quiet serenity of preaching the gospel to Alaskan fisherman and helping teenagers. Helton found himself working at manual jobs to pay rent and bills. When he tried to apply for a teaching job in Kennewick, he learned that the school district wouldn’t grant him a teaching license, as he hadn’t fulfilled certain requirements.
Now, 19 years later, much of that time is a distant memory. Today Helton serves as Director of Technology Services for Yakima County, where he supervises a staff of 25 people and manages a budget of $2.2 million. The former missionary is responsible for the county’s 850 computer workstations, 28 computer servers, computer security systems, and county e-mail and telephone systems.
IT initiatives make the news
Helton recently made national news when he helped the poorly funded county make some smart technology decisions that saved taxpayers millions of dollars. He has also conceived and spearheaded a wireless project that helps track down lawbreakers by allowing different agencies to share information. The network features antennas and radios arranged in a line-of-sight pattern that transmits and receives encrypted signals. These signals, which contain data from a central location that law-enforcement and public-safety agencies can access, travel from the county courthouse in the city of Yakima southward through the Yakima Valley.
Yakima County is the second-largest land area and the seventh-largest population area in Washington State. While it ranks first in the nation in the number of fruit trees and was recently ranked the 25th most-livable city in the United States, it’s unfortunately also an active drug trafficking area, according to law enforcement.
Moving into IT was circumstance
Helton's life has been full of hard-won victories and tough, menial work, including jobs like pipe fitting, construction work, ditch-digging, welding inspection, and retail stocking.
His first foray into IT was actually just the latest in a series of low-rung positions he took to make ends meet. He took a job in 1980 in Washington State’s Department of Transportation (DOT) as a “temporary tech 1.” The low-paying job, however, presented Helton with an opportunity to turn his life around, he recalls, and he began transforming himself into a techie.
Helton discovered an affinity for technology, which he traces to his childhood. “I have always been intrigued by anything that seemed to be a puzzle,” he said.
In those early days of the job, Helton stayed up nights working on a Sinclair computer. He taught himself how to program "by peeking and poking directly into video memory,” he explained. “I also taught myself how to create video games for my kids.”
The long hours paid off when his DOT bosses realized his dedication and potential. They gave him an IBM XT and told him to write code systems. They sent him to school to beef up his skills, and it wasn’t long before he was writing business software. A few years into the job, he was promoted to IT manager.
While a move from delivering Sunday sermons to running an IT department appears to be a pretty straightforward career change, Helton doesn’t share that view. What he’s doing today is very similar to what he did as a missionary, he said.
“A lot of people lose sight of what technology should be,” he explained. “It should be about helping people and enabling them to live their lives better. If I do my job well, I’m doing just that. The projects I head are focused on making a difference in people’s lives. They may be large and technically complex, but the beneficiaries are the citizens of Washington.”
In for the long haul
Despite bureaucracy, which is rampant in government jobs, and what most techies would consider an average salary for his job responsibilities, Helton has never considered leaving the IT gig.
“I’ve been offered jobs paying three times more than I’m earning, but I turned them down,” he said. “I love my job. I see no point in leaving for more money.”
And just because he’s now a techie doesn’t mean he’s cut off his missionary roots. He serves as a minister, preaching on Sundays and counseling people in his free time. His weekends are devoted to his family and faith; he makes a habit to never turn on his home computer after hours. That alone is inconceivable for anyone with a big tech job.
When asked if he would change anything if he could, Helton said he “wouldn’t change one moment.”
“I am who I am because of it,” he said. “I know what it’s like to suffer, to be without life’s comforts, and to experience constant uncertainty. It’s all behind me now, but it was a life-altering experience.”