Of Tangled Webs and Putting the Work in Network: Information Technology Superhero Sam Luis

This interview, a bonus in our series on non-performing jobs in the performing arts, features one of your friendly neighborhood performing arts center IT guys, Sam Luis.

Maybe you think it’s all tights, pancake makeup and “take it one more time from the top” over here, but the Straz Center relies on massive amounts of technology to run our organization and run our shows. That’s right—even Morsani and Ferguson stages have network connectivity now so shows can digitally control their sets, lighting and sound. We’ve got internets, intranets, emails everywhere from New York to Dubai, apps, snaps, hashtags, servers and an organizational text messaging alert system so we get the latest info on emergencies that affect The Straz. Although tech might be far from folks’ minds when they think about the performing arts, we are linked, synched, wi-fied and wired over every square foot of this joint. That’s why you’ll see our IT team literally running from one part of the campus to the next—they have that much to take care of in and around The Straz. They’ve got a big job to do here, and we’d like to introduce you to one of them.

Meet Sam Luis.

At rare moments, Sam can be found at his desk working on various tasks from networking and building Wifi to data security.

Caught in the Act: All right, Sam. Get us started with your path to IT, and if you will, explain what IT is.

Sam Luis: Sure. I think when you say “IT,” in general, people think it’s a guy fixing your computer.

CITA: Yes, that’s exactly what we think it is.

SL: There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes things that IT does, though. We make sure that our data’s secure. We also pull together reports in certain data for the business to make decisions, we present that in a consumable fashion.

CITA: What does that mean exactly? Can you give a specific example?

SL: Sure. A person in the organization might say, “Hey, I really want to visualize ticket purchases, but we don’t really know where they’re coming from or how we’re getting these tickets sold.” That’s where my other counterparts on my team, they go through the data and massage the data to make it more presentable. In other words, we analyze the hard data, then say, “Okay, this zip code has a lot of people coming to Show X, but this zip code has a lot of people coming to Speaker Y.” So on and so forth. That kind of visualization is what IT does. We facilitate practical interpretations of hard data the computer captures.

CITA: That makes a lot more sense.

SL: Then, how I started my career … Actually, I was fortunate enough, back when I was in middle school, that I won the magnet school lottery here in Hillsborough County.

CITA: Cool!

SL: It was a program where you would get diverted into a technology school. It’s now called Ferrell Middle Magnet School so that’s where I came from. It used to be called Middleton Middle Magnet School for Technology. We were completely immersed in technology from middle school, and it was a very early pilot program. That’s where I started, then I just kept on going and going and going in the field. Technology has always been my passion. I loved computers before I won the lottery, but that just kind of set me on my track to IT.

CITA: But this happened at a time when technology wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is as a career path today.

SL: A hundred percent. Then, when I went to the magnet school, there was a lot of, “Oh, it’s a fun little tool to play with. You should learn typing in case you want to type in a typewriter,” kind of attitudes. We were right on the cusp of the birth of the internet, so I actually got to witness that progression from having to dial in to get internet service to now. It just amazes me every day. So, yeah, I grew up with the birth of the internet.

CITA: Then what happened? Did you graduate and go to USF? Did you stick around here?

SL: I didn’t think conventional college was the right way for me. I went to a technical school. I went to ITT Tech. They’re defunct now, but I think education is what you make out of it. ITT really helped me base my overall technology standards, to learn about all the different technologies.

Sam is often called to troubleshoot connectivity issues in different areas of the building. This small closet houses audio and video connections for several of the halls and his most valuable tool in places like this is his flashlight.

CITA: You ended up at the Straz Center. How?

SL: It was very interesting. I was working at ITT as a support technician. The HR lady over there knew the HR person that was over here. I was looking to spread my wings. In IT, we move a lot, but I’m not that way. I like to stay where I’m at, so I was with ITT for about four or five years and they started mentioning, “Hey, there’s a position coming up at the Straz Center.”

I was like, what technology at the Straz Center? Four or five computers? It’s a performing arts center. They don’t have computers. Then I got interviewed, and I realized there was a lot of technology needs that just weren’t up-to-date. That excited me. It was a challenge. “Oh, I could really optimize this and change this and do this …” Fortunately, I was hired.

CITA: Mm-hmm (affirmative). When did you get to the Straz?

SL: I’ve been here seven years. I had a little hiatus for about a year between that so I was here, I think, 2013, I believe? I was here for about a year, I left for about a year, and then I came back and I’ve been here ever since.

CITA: That’s awesome. Let’s go back to something that you said, “It’s a performing arts center and they don’t have computers.’ That seems like a common belief about performing arts centers, that they’re not tech-savvy, but we cannot live without technology.

SL: A hundred percent. Five hundred percent.

CITA: It’s our ticket sales. It’s our communication tool. Our entire internal operations.

SL: Our lighting control system. I mean, just everything for the organization. It’s really amazing because I interview people for my team, and one of applicants’ top questions is ‘What technology do you guys have here?’ They think it’s just a couple of computers for the admin assistants and that’s it. Then, when we do the tour, and I show them all the controls and all the systems that we manage and maintain and secure, they’re like, ‘Wow. I would have never thought there’s that much technology behind a performing arts center.’

The IT Department has spare parts and wires on hand at all times so they can answer and fix almost any emergency.

CITA: In ticket sales alone, the importance of data security is paramount. People don’t know how far ahead of the game you guys have to be all the time. Then, our new stage floors had to be tech-ready because so many shows now rely on connectivity and technology.

SL: Correct. A lot of shows come in and they’ll require dedicated internet for their shows for automations. If that isn’t there, the show is not going to run because a lot of the automations are controlled, actually, from their headquarters in New York or Chicago. It’s a good feeling for a lot of the touring shows to not have to worry about running over wi-fi, which can be unreliable, because we have a dedicated internet network just for them.

CITA: What keeps you here versus heading to San Francisco or somewhere where people more readily associate big tech and big money?

SL: I think it’s the culture, right? Not-for-profit and the performing arts—it’s a very amazing culture. During my little hiatus when I was gone for a year, I went to a big health care firm, and I felt like just another cog in the wheel. You just kind of missed that personality and the lightness of people, just the atmosphere at The Straz. It’s a totally different animal when a show’s on. When there’s a show in you can just feel that energy of the show, and in the for-profit world you don’t have that. That’s why I like it here. I like my peers. I like working here. I like the atmosphere.

CITA: Now that you’ve been here for about seven years, do you feel compelled to get on the stage? Do you feel the itch to be a star?

SL: Unless I want to wake every dog in the neighborhood with my singing, no way. I’m more of a logical thinker. That’s just my brain. I’ve been to plenty of performances here. I’ve actually talked to my wife about, later in my years, once the kids are out of the house, picking up guitar or something like that, you know, we offer classes here. It’s crossed my mind but, I don’t know, I feel like I don’t the right mind for it. [laughs]

Sam’s tool bag is filled with everything from networking cables and scissors to screwdrivers and his flashlight.

CITA: Just so everybody is aware, you are really, really super busy as part of the IT team at the Straz.

SL: Correct.

CITA: This isn’t like you’re just sitting at your desk waiting for a call.

SL: No, I’m not playing Maytag repairman here. No, no. I have three guys underneath me. We’re in charge of support, infrastructure and security, so anything’s that’s plugged into the network, we manage. Any security issues, we manage. And then, just supporting day-to-day, “My computer broke, I need a new keyboard, emails,” All that stuff, we work on.

I think we ran a report last year, and we averaged about 10 to 12 work orders a day between the team. People go, oh, well that’s only 12. Well, one work order might take two or three hours. If you put that into context, we’re pretty busy. That’s not even including projects.

CITA: When you multiply it out over 365 days a year, then it really starts to add up.

SL: Oh, yeah. Yes.

CITA: All right, Sam, so what else do you want to tell our readers about your job here and what if they’re interested in joining you guys in IT? Do you have interns?

SL: We do. We actually have an intern position coming up. I don’t know the exact scope of the work, but I know that we are going to be hiring or getting an intern. In regards to joining the team, I know we’re potentially growing as the center grows, so definitely check the HR website. It’s a good, family team. We all pitch in together, and you don’t often find that in IT. I think that’s one of the other reasons I stick around is we’re all a team, where in bigger organizations, you’re just doing your own thing. I like that, the departure from the normal IT experience.

Called away from his desk yet again, Sam heads backstage for his next IT adventure.

If you want to intern with the Straz Center Information Technology department or explore career possibilities, visit our “Careers” page.