Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part Q&A with Darleen Johns, president, chief executive officer and owner of Alphanumeric. Executive Q&A is a regular feature on Tuesdays.Long before computers were common and few if any women had any role in information technology, Darleen Johns saw an opportunity and need for technology in state government.

A systems analyst in two different departments, Johns moved to the private sector to work for a couple of firms and over time developed the vision that led to the launch of a new company, Alphanuermic, in 1979.

She says she built that company around one priority- customer service.

Today, Johns is still going strong as president, chief executive officer and owner of Alphanumeric. She is widely recognized as one of the most powerful forces in the IT sector these days. And her company continues to grow.

While many other information technology firms are cutting back or treading water, Alphanumeric recently announced its expansion into network operations management while expanding its footprint of operations into South Carolina.

So what has driven Johns to succeed over the years? Local Tech Wire recently talked with Johns to get the inside story — from the beginning.

How did you begin your career before Alphanumeric?

My first job after graduation was working for the state, both in the Department of Transportation and the Department of Administration. I was a systems analyst responsible for the “new technology” called the word processor, which I both evaluated for agencies and helped them purchase. I think working in the public sector gave me a real opportunity not only to understand the way state government operates, but also to see where real tangible efficiencies could be realized. In 1973 I left state government and took a job as a trainer and salesperson of word processing equipment with Electronic Office Systems, and later Lanier Business Products.

Going into the private sector, I think a lot of my success was probably related to the fact that I was very familiar with both the products I was selling, and the environment I was selling into. I knew a lot of the constraints and requirements of the clients I talked to every day. I managed to provide them with a mix of technology they could really use and a customer service relationship that they couldn’t get anywhere else…that provided them with a place to turn if they needed help.

This “operating principle,” if you want to call it that, was successful enough that in 1979 I believed I could best serve clients with my own business…that’s when I founded Alphanumeric Systems.

What caused you to grow interested in IT to begin with?

My time in state government provided me with a particularly powerful illustration of what happens when there is enormous volume in work that needs to be done, much of which is administrative. Obviously these types of situations are often the ones that can realize the greatest benefits of automation.

Of course, when I began Alphanumeric, we sold high-end word processors, and that was really cutting edge at the time. We did meet with some resistance to automation, but I guess I felt like I knew what my clients needed to accomplish and I genuinely believed what we were providing would really ease a lot of their burdens and allow them to provide even greater quality to their customers.

I guess more than being fascinated by technology for its own sake, I’ve always been focused on how it can help people achieve what they need to achieve at work … better and faster. Even today, I leave the technical details … the “speeds and feeds” as they call it … to the technicians who specialize in those areas. I make sure my clients are well taken care of.

What led to the creation of Alphanumeric?

Well, there were certainly a lot of factors at work, but when I started the company, it was what I would call “gut instinct” about the direction the industry was moving coupled with a remarkable opportunity.

As I mentioned before, I really worked to introduce the benefits of automation into state government. Unlike some others at the time, I didn’t think this was a passing fad. As it happened, CPT, a company that manufactured quality word processors, was looking for a company to represent them in the region, with exclusivity.

I was already working with people in the state who could benefit from the technology, so I took a leap of faith that my instinct was right about the industry and that I could make a go of something not a lot of other women had tried.

Where did the name “Alphanumeric” come from?

Before the word processor came to be accepted as the wave of the future and certainly before the ubiquitous personal computer, so many functions were performed using a combination of typewriters for text and adding machines for accounting functions. The word processors that established Alphanumeric in the technology industry combined both of these functions in a central place – they combined the ability to use letters, or “alphabet” with the “numerals” of adding machines and calculators. We thought that’s exactly what we had to offer people–that’s how we got the name.

How did you build the company from the ground up?

I started the company with a total of three people, two “service staff” and me. I was sales, training, marketing — and probably a number of other things all rolled into one. But we were all very committed to what we were doing, the industry moved in the direction we had believed it would, and we started to grow…conservatively…from there.

Today we’re at about 300 people, and have quite substantial coverage throughout the Southeast…and actually a portion of Pennsylvania as well. We’ve been small enough to have a focus not only on doing our jobs really well, but on maintaining a close personal atmosphere where we’re like a family. I have people who’ve been with me at Alphanumeric for 20 years, and I think that probably speaks for itself.

Coming Wednesday: Johns reflects on the challenges she has faced over the years, especially the role of women in IT.

Alphanumeric: www.alphanumeric.com