Museum of Discovery Spark! Star Yessica Jones is the chief information officer and director of the Arkansas Department of Information Systems, a role which has kept her immersed in technology. Growing up in Mexico City, she moved to Arkansas in 1998, when she enrolled at Harding University on a tennis scholarship to study computer science, earning her MBA.
Jones will be honored with the other Spark! Stars — the state’s innovators in science, technology, engineering and math — at the Spark! Luncheon on Oct. 28. We caught up with Jones to learn more about her story and her strengths in the world of STEM.
Spark! is all about science, technology, engineering and math. What roles have those subjects played in your life?
Physics and math influenced my curiosity on how things work and how to solve problems. Technology is very similar to those two subjects. When I was trying to decide about a major, I was between industrial engineering and computer science, and I ultimately decided on computer science. These subjects are a core foundation for my career.
In our ever-changing modern world, with all the challenges it faces, how important are those subjects to us, or how important should they be?
Technology is everywhere; it is a big part of every industry. Keeping up with technology not only allows you to become more creative but it also helps you be more innovative. We know that technology is forever changing, and it is disrupting every industry, so individuals with STEM skills are critical to work in the jobs of the future.
What led you into your profession?
My first year of computer science I did in Mexico. My first year was a struggle for me because I couldn’t get the logic in one of my programming classes. In fact, one day the teacher of that class talked to me and told me that I needed to consider a different major because computer science was not for me. I’m not sure why I stuck with it and luckily I did not let his advice determine my future.
That is when I was blessed with a tennis scholarship to come to Harding University. I believe the help of a professor who made a difference in my life along with my willingness to not give up because someone once told me I was not good enough for computer science is what led me to my profession.
What are your duties and responsibilities as chief information officer for the state of Arkansas?
I have the privilege to lead an incredible workforce of information technology professionals who are responsible for providing technology services and solutions to public entities such as executive branch agencies, boards and commissions, cities and counties and K-12 schools. As the CIO, my focus is on the enterprise and developing strategies to fulfill the enterprise vision, always keeping in mind security and customer service.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
My job is very exciting and challenging at the same time. I get to work on incredible projects that ultimately empower our citizens. I really enjoy the challenges, and even though sometimes these can be stressful, having accomplished something for the better good for the state gives me a sense of service and pride.
We may not have a direct interaction with citizens, however what we do is an integral part of the services that are provided to our citizens. Understanding how critical our services are is what makes me proud of the job we do.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
One of the toughest parts of being a CIO is helping key stakeholders to understand the benefits of investing in technology. For example, investing in modernizing infrastructure or application software is all necessary and will pay off in coming years.
Finding qualified people to handle technology challenges like data science or machine learning is also definitely a challenge.
How has technology changed, influenced or affected what you do?
Personally, I think it has changed my life as much as everyone else’s, from the way we interact with other people to the way services or products are delivered. Technologies like blockchain, machine learning, artificial intelligence, automation and others have changed the way we live, we learn and we work.
Speaking of tech, do you have a favorite gizmo or gadget (other than the ubiquitous smartphone)?
I’m not into gizmos or gadgets, but I do love my smartwatch and my Google Assistant. I like to keep track of my fitness; my reminders and other notifications are great to have on the wrist. I also love my smart vacuum.
Why do you feel you were selected as one of this year's Spark! Stars?
I want to believe that it is because, like others, I have been able to create a great career thanks to some of the STEM skills I gained throughout my education and career.
What does the honor mean to you?
I’m honored and humbled at the same time. It means that hard work pays off.
In your view, how important is an institution like the Museum of Discovery to the education of the state's school kids?
It is a way to get the kids excited about science and technology. The museums make every experience for the kids fun and it allows for the development of curiosity, creativity and problem solving.
Do you take your kids to the museum? What do they seem to enjoy most about it?
They all enjoy Discovery Hall, Earth Journeys and, of course, the extreme weather station. The hands-on activities and interactive displays are a must for them.
I also enjoy Discovery Hall; it gives me a chance to play along with my kids. The air tubes that shoot out the handkerchiefs are pretty cool.