On Wednesday, June 8th
, 2016, Denny Nincehelser will retire from State Government and the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications.
Denny began working for the State of South Dakota 40+ years ago initially as a Management Analyst for the Telecommunications Division within the Bureau of Administration. Denny lightheartedly recalled, “When I was hired in Telecommunications in 1975, I doubled the staff from 1 person to 2.”
A decade of perseverance and hard work, including a series of promotions earned Denny the role of Director of the Division of Telecommunications in 1985. Through all of the political, administration, and technology changes, and a few organizational name changes, Denny has held the titles of Director and “Chief” for the last 31 years!
When Denny first started, all telephone products and services were monopolized by Bell Telephone, aka “Ma Bell”. In 1984, United States District Court Judge Harold Greene presided over the antitrust suit that broke up the monopoly of the telecommunications industry. The new companies, referred to colloquially as “Baby Bells,” allowed for telephone services to be provided locally. Denny went on to explain “The breakup opened up room for competition in the telecommunications industry, which was not previously there. This got the ball rolling into what we have today, which are numerous options for technology systems and services from a whole host of vendors.”
When asked about his most memorable moments while working at BIT, Denny explained that one of the first times he met William Janklow, the Governor at the time, was when the management team from BIT was being introduced at a transition meeting. Denny illustrated, “Janklow started off the meeting by saying ‘These are the IT folks. They may be bozos, but they are my bozos now.” Another memorable moment for Denny was during a meeting with the Governor’s Chief of Staff. When confronted with a delicate question regarding a participant in the meeting, Denny wittily replied “Do I get a get out of jail free card if I answer?” The Chief of Staff smiled and responded “Yes, of course.” To this day, Denny still isn’t sure that the answer he provided was the desired response, but it was the truth!
Denny will miss the people he has worked with and the great friendships he has developed over the years. Although leaving BIT will be bittersweet, Denny is grateful for the lessons he has learned along the way. He explained, “Working at BIT has taught me to have a great sense of humor and to never say ‘that can’t happen,’ because it can. Every day was an adventure and no two days were the same. You never knew what to expect when you walked in the door in the morning.”
When asked what he considered to be his biggest accomplishments at BIT, Denny cited the construction of the State Radio System and the Connecting the Schools project. Jeff Pierce explained: “Denny and Gene Knowles were very involved in the process leading up to construction of the State Radio System. Denny and I worked directly with the Governor on the decision process, and Denny and Gene helped out with the spectrum identification process through which we selected spectrum for each tower site.”
Jim Edman added, “With the Connecting the Schools (CTS) Project, BIT and the State were given a rare opportunity to build upon the success of the Wiring the Schools (WTS) Project. WTS was so unique in the fact that Governor Bill Janklow used inmates to wire schools for computer connectivity along with a much needed electrical upgrade. So when the idea for CTS was proposed – no one doubted it couldn’t be done even though nobody else in the country had yet attempted anything of its kind.
The goals of the CTS were daunting. Connecting all schools with Internet access and providing the equipment and expertise needed for it; delivering email and web hosting services to teachers, students and administrators; providing network equipment to link all of the cabling together from the WTS project; computers for students and servers to host applications on, storage facilities to host far before anybody invented the ‘cloud’, technical support for schools and many other critical technology services.
Denny was a key player in the project management, organization and communications of the project. Working with multiple vendors, new technology and a tight deadline created a stressful but motivating opportunity. The Chief kept our focus on the important items for the project.
A moment that is crystallized forever in my mind came during a Project Briefing for the Governor. The Governor liked to have updates on all of his key initiatives during breakfast meetings at the residence. We were sitting at a table with another department which was presenting before us. The Governor asked “How long will it take you to complete the project?” The individual replied with a lengthy explanation of timelines and deliverables summarized with a ‘four – five years’ estimate. The Governor explodedwith a series of expletives completed by ‘It only took us 3 years to win World War II!’ The poor official was shocked and had no response. The room was stunned & silent… After a few tense moments, the Governor next turned to Denny and asked ‘So Nincehelser how long is it gonna take you to get my technology project done for the schools?’ Denny immediately responded ‘When would you like it done Governor?’ The Governor was taken aback by Denny’s question and eventually responded ‘How about a year?’ Denny said it would be done in a year. We had our equipment and training sessions ready two months later, data center services were operational in six and network connectivity began in seven months.
Denny re-prioritized all existing projects and assigned whatever resources were needed to meet our twelve month goal. We accomplished our timelines and to this date our K12 technology services are unique across the country. Nobody provides the breadth and depth of services that South Dakota has accomplished.”
Denny’s words of wisdom for those he is leaving behind:
- Hire the best people you can find and do everything you can to keep them.
- Never take yourself too seriously.
- Stay low and keep moving.
- Pick the battles you have a chance of winning, let go of the ones you don’t, and be smart enough to know the difference.
Denny plans to continue pheasant hunting with family and friends, and playing senior softball with his group of friends from around the state that he has known for years. He also added, “I’m going to learn how to fish without the use of dynamite. Also, my wife has a list of things she thinks will keep me busy.”
What does the future hold for Denny? In his own words - “be a good grandpa.”
Denny, while all of us at BIT will miss you, there are a few people around here who will especially miss you…
“Denny’s legacy is in the people he has coached and managed for over 30 years. He has never been a micro-manager or a manager/technician. He’s an old-school manager with his pulse on people, not technology. His philosophy has been to:
- hire great people that are high-achievers;
- empower them to succeed with whatever tools, training or education is required;
- clear any roadblocks when they arise;
- provide guidance when the ship is going off-course and,
- fight for an appropriate level of compensation at all levels.
Folks across BIT and Telecommunications rarely got an opportunity to see the amount of research and analysis that Denny has performed on various critical issues. There was never a fight regarding fair treatment of ‘his people’ that he backed away from. His passion for supporting staff was limitless. He understands the limits of government but didn’t accept them as an excuse. The rewards he fought for always exceeded what was available and that was by design. He wanted all levels of government to know that it was a ‘compromise’ but that he wasn’t going to leave any stone unturned in the pursuit of fair and equitable compensation.
Denny’s other greatest asset was his ability to negotiate. SD state government has saved $millions$ over the years because of his tenacity in contract and service negotiations Telephone contracts were his specialty whether it was Centrex, digital circuits, cell phones, etc. South Dakota has always been blessed to have extremely competitive telephony costs over the years. Denny and working hard with our partners is the reason for that success.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work for him and with him for 20 years. He has been a tremendous mentor to myself and many others. The ‘Chief’s’ imprint on BIT is stamped far into the future. We will miss him every day but wish nothing but the best of health and fortune in his retirement. It is undoubtedly well deserved.”
“There's an old saying about the difference between a manager and a leader: ‘Managers do things right, Leaders do the right things.’ I believe this simple saying epitomizes my dad’s approach to life. While seeking advice from him regarding my own career and inquiring about his professional success over the years and he has always said to me ‘I just hired good people that are smarter than me, and stayed out of their way.’ Since coming to work for BIT a little over two years ago, I have had the opportunity to work in the same environment as my dad and observe him professionally. What I’ve seen is that he has been a leader by example at BIT, just as he has been at home. He has lead with integrity, honesty, and humility while inspiring us to overcome challenges and accomplish our goals. The community of BIT has truly been an extension of his family over the past 41 years. I’m certain he will miss seeing everyone from the office more than he is willing to admit. Congratulations on a job well done, Dad! I couldn’t be more proud of you and your accomplishments. This retirement is merely from the office, not from life. Your new ‘Chief’ will be Mom, and your grandchildren will become your trusted advisers. I would like to extend an invitation on his behalf for everyone to please stop out to the river to enjoy a cold beverage and share a fish story with him whenever you can…he’s going to need a lot of breaks!”
“I’ve worked with Denny for many years, from the years when he was a voice on the phone when I was supporting the old Merlin phone system at DCI (I imagine him with color in his hair at that time), when he sat down with us to develop a frequency plan for the new State Radio system, and the past 11 years as my supervisor and Director. Denny had a knack for cutting to the chase, especially when dealing with vendors. This quality made him a great negotiator, and for those special vendor reps even assigning names such as “tick-tock” to those he felt would have a short shelf-life. Over the years his knowledge and negotiation skills have saved the State of South Dakota millions of dollars through great contracted rates. Denny had a philosophy of “hire the best and let them do their job”, which allowed me to grow as a manager and as an individual. He was always there with encouragement and advice when needed and I will miss him as a friend and mentor. As Denny enters this next phase of life, he can look back at a “job well done”, and take comfort in knowing he has laid a great foundation here at BIT.”
“There are many things about Denny I’ll miss. Most of all his no-nonsense and down-home advice on how to interpret issues, find humor in most situations while getting the job done. His years of experience in the school of life and his practical insights make him a source of counsel and lively conversation around a well-laid eats table. In all the years I’ve known Denny, I’ve never seen him turn someone away who needed advice or steered someone wrong on a matter of import. He’s been a mentor, advisor, and humorist—always ready to help others do their best while not taking the minor issues of the day (or our egos) too seriously. And through it all, his organizational skills and insights into the strengths and foibles of those around him (and himself J) have for years helped me and many others, learn, grow, and enjoy life. For all of that, and much more, thank you Denny and wishing you all the best in your well-earned retirement!”
“After spending part of his Air Force telecommunications career in Delaware and Germany, Denny’s last duty station was Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City. Toward the end of his military obligation, Denny applied for a job in Pierre with the State’s Division of Telecommunications and was hired by Jim Stein in 1975. We’d grown up on the river near Ft. Randall Dam; so we were really excited to put down roots and be near the river again and closer to our families. Pierre was a great place to raise our three kids, Trent, Blake and Kelsey, who all grew up spending lots of time at the river. We recently bought an older mobile home at the river and a pontoon in the hopes that our kids will come to visit and bring our grandchildren, Chase, Morgan, Rylee, Ella and Evan. If you drive by the mobile home, you’ll probably find Denny sitting on the deck doing nothing. Stop in for some popcorn, or maybe some salsa and chips, and something cold to drink.”
“I have had the opportunity to see Denny play softball many times over the years. Denny throws lots of junk when he pitches – meaning he doesn’t throw many strikes. I remember Denny saying, “I only throw strikes when I need too.” This epitomizes Denny – he hangs around the edges, lets us do our thing, but if we need help - he is there to hit the glove. Thanks Denny for being the pitcher on our team and throwing strikes when we needed them!”
“Although I’ve known of Denny for many years, over the past four years I have come to appreciate and value his vision, his tenacity, his humor, his instructions… carefully crafted and overlain with humor, and his commitment. Interactions with Denny are never WYSIWUG, there’s always hidden content, and Denny will have provided the precise amount of information to pique curiosity and inspire additional digging, research, and questions. While we’ll miss Denny, his ability to mentor has prepared all of us for his retirement. Go with our best wishes Denny, and enjoy a rich and well deserved retirement.”