A woman who has seen computer technology advance from machines that filled rooms to devices that can be held in a toddler’s hand is stepping down after a 41-year career
Sandy Barnes, director of information technology, retired from the Greenville Utilities Commission this week. Barnes was the first woman to serve on the 114-year-old organization’s management team. It was one of several firsts Barnes’ experienced since she took a computer math class at Southern Nash High School and later studied data programming at what is now Wilson Community College.
In various settings throughout her career, Barnes was usually only one of a few women and sometimes the only woman.
She always felt well received and never felt like it limited her, so she rarely thought about her status until she joined GUC.
A female employee approached Barnes one day and said seeing her on the management team gave her and other female employees a sense that they could do more.
“I had never looked at it that way until that individual said that to me,” Barnes said. “It gave me more of a sense of responsibility because you are representing a group. You always want to do good but there is a little bit extra pressure because you want to do good for them.”
Barnes began her career as a programmer at People’s Bank and Trust, a Rocky Mount-based bank. Programming was “very much a man’s field,” at the time, Barnes said.
“We had a large mainframe computer. You would walk into the room and it was a very large,” she said. “As a programmer you had key punch machines. You would punch your program on cards. You had a card deck and the computer would read the cards. It was very different from today.”
She advanced to systems programming, which involved developing operating programs so the mainframe computer could carry out its functions.
She eventually become the bank’s director of information technology operations and technical support. She left in the early 1990s when the bank merged with another. She joined what was then Pitt County Memorial Hospital, now Vidant Medical Center, as a system programming manager.
Joel Butler, chairman of GUC’s Board of Commissioners, worked with Barnes at the hospital.
“You were one of the individuals who it was easy to go to and get clear answers about IT things,” he said at a recent meeting.
Barnes joined GUC in 2003, looking for a better work-life balance.
Working at GUC also gave her the opportunity to earn a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Mount Olive College.
She also has completed the Chief Information Officers Certification Program through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as the Pitt County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Institute.
According to a May 2019 report released by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, a nonprofit organization that seeks to bring more women into computing, 57 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in 2017 were women but only 19 percent of computer and information science degree recipients were female. That number is far below 1985 figures, when 37 percent of the recipients of computer science degrees were women.
The same report states that women made up 26 percent of the 2018 computing workforce, with only 3 percent being African American women and 2 percent being Hispanic women.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2026 there will be 3.5 million computing-related job openings in the United States. Barnes said any woman interested in pursuing computing or another STEM-related field should “feel you can do it and have the confidence.”
Barnes tells all young people, whether male or female, with an interest in computing to take electives in the field to see if the work is something they would enjoy.
There are YouTube videos that teach coding and other free online resources, she said.
“If they think they have an interest, explore, look around,” she said. “Talk to someone (your) age who seems to have an interest or is already involved.”
Young people already pursuing a technology degree should pursue internships, Barnes said.
“Through an internship you can get exposure,” she said, “There are so many facets to IT. People think if you are in IT you know everything about a PC or you know everything about a spreadsheet. But there are databases, there are servers, there is now (cyber) security, which is now growing.”
Internships give students work experience and can help them zero in on an area of interest, she said.
GUC has developed and written code to automate some of the department’s work, Barnes said.
“We are giving them things we can actually use and will make a difference in their department. They are contributing,” she said. “It’s working very well for us.”
Among her staff of 33, two recent hires were individuals who participated in GUC’s internship program.
“Sometimes what limits us is our own self-doubt and the voice in our head,” Barnes said. “We need to be willing to realize there is more out there and to take a chance.”
There is probably someone who is willing to help, she said, if you just reach out.
Contact Ginger Livingston at [email protected] or 252-329-9570.