IT is difficult

FYI:  I struggled with the title of this post for days.  No matter what I did, I felt like I was writing something a 14-year-old would do and laugh about.  Very sad.

I often start my work-related posts with a qualification that I fully realize the difficulties that face university Central IT.  I make my comments about technology in higher ed and my opinions about the best ways to implement such technology and policies purely as my own opinion, but also with respect to the hard work of my university colleagues.  My opinions might be contrary to not only the university’s actions but even to their policy (or maybe even to their way of thinking), but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect their efforts or the challenges that they face.

I’m taking this one step further – the university has been under tremendous fire for communication, governance, and policy issues with its “IS” department.  IS is made up of Central IT, Media Services (classrooms, media support, etc), and the library.  In reality, the problems and complaints have been mostly about Central IT, with a bit of bleed-over to Media Services.  Most importantly, this has come from all sides – the faculty, the staff, departments as a whole, an external committee, and even the national accreditation group used by the university.  This is a big deal, and my perception is that IT is under a lot of pressure right now.

Interestingly, a university faculty member wrote the entire staff mailing list (why just anyone is allowed to write to the list is a whole different discussion, though perhaps related to the fundamental message of this post) praising a presentation by three managers in IT at a symposium.  These three – one of them the director of IT – spoke of the difficulty of providing an enterprise level service at a university, the challenges that any large IT infrastructure presents, and the type of staff power (both quantity and quality) needed to provide services that many people take for granted.

The real issue, however, isn’t whether IT at a university (or anywhere, really) is hard.  It is.  Nor is it just that our IT department has provided sub-optimal services at times.  It has.  These are very black and white perspectives that ignore some fundamental, cultural issues.  And difficulty in provision is never, ever, an excuse for low quality of product.

For instance – the difficulty of setting up and maintaining a university infrastructure is unimpeachable.  But the methods through which one builds such a system, and the policies that govern the development and growth of such an environment, must be examined closely.  To simply say that “it’s hard – acknowledge that and we can all move on”  is a gross oversimplification, and an insult to those that try to provide high quality service in such a “difficult” environment.  The complaints expressed by many during the external committee’s “Open Forum” session were often far too vitriolic and ignored the effort needed to provide the services we had.  The e-mail sent to the staff, in turn, ignores that just because something is difficult doesn’t excuse those responsible from mistakes along the way or for not remedying those issues since their emergence.

For instance – from my outside perspective, I have no idea whether the topic of outsourcing of services – cloud, third party, whatever you want to call it – has been discussed properly.  I do not have any clue as to whether the General Counsel has put forth our official stance on having sensitive data on someone else’s servers.  I am fairly certain that a stringent review of our business processes, our personnel, and an evaluation of what we actually need so that we can find the best solution has not been conducted.  I am pretty sure that we’ll go to Google Apps for Education just because that’s what everyone else is doing.  But that’s still probably 20% guessing and another 20% educated conjecture.

Not even all the right people are included in the conversation.  Why am I not better informed of what is happening?  No, I’m not a vice president or provost at the university – I’m not even part of the central university.  But I am the head of technology (CIO, whatever) for the law school.  We are the only other 100% full tech shop on campus (everything but e-mail, ERP, and networking).  Why am I not at the table?  Why have my requests (yes, I have been proactive) to be included on whatever committees come up been met with silence?  I am at the point of leaving vague messages about “however I can help” and “just say the word” in an effort to be informed.  Whatever process they do have in place does not include looking for outside opinions, as far as I can tell, empirically.

This is just one example, but the fundamental issue is that there is a procedural gap, flaw, fault, undersea trench that no one seems to see whilst they are viewing only the extremes.  Doing IT at a university is hard.  But that means that it’s all the more important to be as smart, as considerate and thoughtful as possible.  That all options must be weighed and that things are done the right way.