Jako van Blerk – Macomb County
Onward it goes, the migration of on-premise case management systems to the more secure yet still accessible cloud. Time was when it might have been met with dissent by the people who administer Michigan’s Macomb County, but as Chief Information Officer Jako van Blerk assures, the process proceeds according to plan and with the support of other departments.
The prosecutor’s office seems relieved, it scheduled to access a more seamless SaaS solution come Aug. 21, as the sheriff’s department has been doing in recent years. The financial and human resources systems also are being replaced as part of a project begun in early June. The number of requests for technological assistance from county employees having more than doubled from 5,900 to over 13,000 between 2015 and 2022, all hands should appreciate the efficiencies that van Blerk says are forthcoming.
“These systems improve integration among applications, have more tools available, reduce maintenance windows and provide ease of use while also helping to break down silos among departments and allow for data sharing,” he tells Toggle in July from his office in Mt. Clemens. “And we need a very strong connection to the outside world. Quality services to our constituents are essential.”
Microsoft Azure having proven itself for security and bandwidth, it’s been entrusted with most of the county’s data, but van Blerk says he’s open-minded about bringing others into the mix. Limit yourself to one cloud provider and he says you’re limiting yourself to solutions.
“Interoperability’s the word,” van Blerk says. “We won’t limit ourselves. We’ve increased our bandwidth very significantly to accommodate potential growth and we need the ability to increase it further.”
Macomb County is Michigan’s third largest and its 571 square miles and 870,000 dwellers are part of Metro Detroit. It’s got a couple military installations and an economy that includes manufacturers of military and automotive products. Then there’s Lake St. Clair on the eastern border, which brings in the tourists and sportsmen.
And, van Blerk goes on to say, this county has had plenty of reminders of IT’s indispensability and the Office of the County Executive and 13 commissioners have been sensitive to his budgetary and personnel requests. His department scheduled vaccinations during COVID-19, but county officials were mindful that many elderly residents weren’t logging onto computers, so they had van Blerk and his team assist in setting up a phone bank.
“This was just one of the 67 COVID-related implementations, many on short notice, that my team took care of,” he says. “A truly remarkable performance.”
Whereas a decade ago, people mostly accessed the county website through a personal computer or laptop, they now often use a mobile device. The IT department has responded by changing the website to be more adaptive to modern needs.
Any revisions must be done without compromises to network security and van Blerk says he’s got his own cost-effective strategy for that. Rather than pay premium salary for a chief information security officer, he’s opted for a more economical security administrator and partnership with a private company. When van Blerk spoke with Toggle, the county was accepting bids for a new cybersecurity partner.
He credits his own department of about 50 to meeting its responsibilities, though rounding up such talent can be a challenge, given how needed technologists are in the private sector. While he can’t always meet salary demands, van Blerk says he’s been competitive on that front while offering a flexible working schedule.
“We strive to provide a better work/life balance,” he says. “There’s a perception that government people aren’t as skilled, but we’ve hired people with excellent skills, and I’d put them up against the private sector every day.”
Coming to America
Van Blerk’s speaking from experience, having logged five years as a network engineer at a consulting company before joining Macomb County as a network specialist in November 2003. His mission: Move the county from the antiquated Windows NT4 to Active Directory. Having handled that role, he earned promotion after promotion and ascended into the CIO’s office in March 2016.
“It’s been quite a journey and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he says.
And it has been literally quite a journey, van Blerk coming to Michigan from South Africa where he grew up on a sheep farm. Ever the farmer’s son, he earned degrees in botany and zoology from Stellenbosch University, an honors in vegetation ecology from the University of Pretoria and another honors in business from Stellenbosch.
Upon marrying his high school sweetheart, Martha, they settled in Cape Town where van Blerk practiced vegetation ecology. Then when the couple were in their 30s and raising three children, they moved to the U.S. where Martha had been offered a position as a physical therapist.
Among the adjustments: van Blerk having to tell Americans that his first name is pronounced “Yay-Koo” and not “Jay-Koo.” But whatever the name, his visa didn’t allow him to work right away.
Having grown comfortable with the computers he had used in business, van Blerk enrolled in IT classes and earned certifications that made him marketable. ITD sponsored him for an H-1B visa, as well as an eventual green card, so he could work in its Detroit office, which he did from January 1999 to November 2003. He’ll soon celebrate his 20th anniversary with Macomb County’s IT department.
The worst of the pandemic hopefully over, he’s glad to be back in the office three days a week. Adept as van Blerk is with remote meetings, he’d still rather interact personally. It’s quite pleasant, he says, noting the importance the county places on IT. According to van Blerk, County Executive Mark Hackel has been very pro-IT and receptive to his needs.
But that shouldn’t surprise, as this county—like so many jurisdictions—knows well the problems when IT is down. Van Blerk recalls how Southeast Michigan was affected when the Northeastern U.S. electric grid collapsed in 2003. And 10 years ago, a fire in the data center left the county without its network for five days.
“Those events showed how critical IT infrastructure is,” he says. “We’re providing a more resilient and redundant infrastructure today.”
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